For Israelis, myself included, imagining the end of Netanyahu’s era as prime minister has long seemed like a useless theoretical exercise. That all changed after this week’s election.
The end is nigh. “King Bibi” as his supporters like to call him, may be able to hold onto his position as prime minister for a few more months, but a combination of legal troubles and political miscalculations will soon lead to the dethroning of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
This is excellent news for Israeli democracy and social cohesion inside Israel, though this development offers only distant hope to the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in the West Bank and a blockade in Gaza.
Still, the end of Netanyahu’s era as prime minister is a welcome development as far as Israeli democracy is concerned. While the shape of the next Israeli government remains nebulous, the election results are a clear blow to Netanyahu. He will not be able to form a narrow right wing and ultra Orthodox government, which would have been the only kind willing to pass the immunity law Netanyahu had hoped to put on the books to shield himself to prosecution for the multiple corruption charges he faces. Netanyahu’s best-case scenario, a unity government led by him, comprised of the centrist Blue and White and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, will not pass such a law. In fact, Blue and White, even if it accepts a unity government led by Netanyahu, will likely pull out of such a government once Netanyahu is indicted.
But this is only the first of many ways the end of Bibi’s interminable reign is a win for Israeli democracy. Since returning to office in 2009, Netanyahu has developed increasingly authoritarian tendencies and ways of thinking, equating himself to the State of Israel. Driven by the belief that his personal survival in power is the only thing that can keep Israel safe, Netanyahu subverted Israeli democratic institutions. Passing laws allowing for discrimination against non-Jews and weakening the independence of Israeli media, the courts and NGOs. Netanyahu also appointed loyalists to sensitive gatekeeper positions such as the attorney general, police commissioner and state comptroller.
Netanyahu now equates the state w/ himself. In a recent interview he said “I am stopping literally w/ my own body the aggressiveness of radical Islam & Iran.” He is increasingly authoritarian & has worked assiduously to dismantle law & order institutions, weaken media, NGOs. pic.twitter.com/6jsRpJOXI2— Elizabeth Tsurkov 🏳️🌈 (@Elizrael) September 17, 2019
Israeli society now also has a chance to recover from years of Netanyahu’s efforts to sow internal divisions. Netanyahu caused immense harm to social cohesion between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel and between Israelis of different ideological persuasions.
In the 2015 elections, Netanyahu caused outrage at home and abroad when he encouraged Jews to vote for Likud by scaring them that “Arabs are moving in droves” to polling stations. In the two recent rounds of elections, incitement against Palestinians kicked up a notch, with Netanyahu claiming that Arab citizens of Israel “want to exterminate us all [Jews] — women, children and men.” Even in his palliative post-election speech, he accused the Joint List made up of Palestinian Israeli parties of supporting “bloodthirsty terrorists.”
Netanyahu also worked to delegitimize Israeli leftists, progressive NGOs and journalists. Back in 1997, Netanyahu, who openly eats in non-kosher restaurants, was caught on tape whispering that “the leftists have forgotten what it means to be Jewish.”
After returning to power, Netanyahu made those attacks openly. As Israeli media exposed Netanyahu’s apparently corrupt practices, he claimed that “the left and the media are trying to carry out a coup” and that “the media and the left have joined forces to hunt me down.” He went even further when he echoed and reified a common anti-Semitic trope when he accused George Soros of funding protests organized by Israeli human rights NGOs and refugee communities against the deportations of refugees to death and torture in Africa.
For all of these reasons, Netanyahu’s likely ouster is a good thing. But it’s not a great, only because of who will likely replace him.
For the Palestinian people who have lived under the yoke of Israeli military rule for 52 years now, Netanyahu’s departure from the political scene offers only distant, limited hope. Netanyahu’s main centrist opponent, Benny Gantz, boasted in a campaign ad about his role as IDF Chief of Staff in the deadly 2014 war, where he proudly told Israelis he was “sending back parts of Gaza to the Stone Age.” It is unlikely that Gantz will move toward resolving the conflict. And Netanyahu’s yet-unknown successor at the helm of the Likud party will pursue policies similar to Netanyau’s.
But there is some slim hope. Netanyahu’s fall from grace could reduce the extent of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian incitement to which the Israeli public is exposed, possibly increasing Israelis’ willingness to reach peace with our neighbors.
More importantly, Netanyahu’s long-term dominance at the helm of the state led Israeli voters to dismiss more centrist leaders as potential suitable prime ministers.
Unfortunately for the Palestinians, the main alternative to Netanyahu are not progressive leaders, but Israel’s wary and conservative security establishment, and its civilian outgrowth in the form of the four-general party, Blue and White. This security establishment and the now-civilian leaders it helped forge have not offered a political vision for Israel. But at the very least, they have pushed back against some of Netanyahu’s worst impulses, such as annexing the Jordan Valley or bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.
This is small consolation for the Palestinians. But there is no better hope on the horizon. Europe and the United States are barely bothered to issue statement of condemnation about Israeli human rights violations. The BDS movement is failing to take off and cause any serious damage to Israel’s economy or already-poor international reputation. Arab regimes that once paid lip-service to Palestinian rights are now allying with Israel or cooperating with it. Grassroots initiatives such as the Friday protests in the West Bank against the separation barrier and Marches of Return in Gaza have either fizzled out or been coopted by larger political forces. The Palestinian’s leadership can not offer deliverance either; the Palestinian Authority serves as a subcontractor of the occupation, while Hamas is focused on preserving its rule over its emirate in Gaza.
Now that Israel’s inciter-in-chief is on his way out, Israeli society can begin to recover from ten years of hate speech from the highest echelon of government and destruction of democratic institutions. Hopefully, Israel’s next leaders will be able to offer Israelis something Netanyahu never even attempted to deliver: a political vision based on hope for lasting peace with our neighbors.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking focusing on the Levant. Follow her on Twitter @Elizrael.