Middle Israel: Is Netanyahu over the hill?

The prime minister’s performance during the presidential race leaves him wounded, disgraced and vulnerable; three decades after launch his political career, Netanyahu may be watching the beginning of its end.

PM Binyamin Netanyahu meeting with President-Elect Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on June 11, 2014. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
PM Binyamin Netanyahu meeting with President-Elect Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on June 11, 2014.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Three decades after launching his political career, Binyamin Netanyahu may be watching the beginning of its end.
Challenged on several fronts – ideological, generational, sociological and judgmental – the threats to Netanyahu’s hard-earned status as Israel’s unrivaled leader are multiplying, as he reels from a presidential race that has left him wounded, disgraced, and vulnerable.
It’s not only that, as Netanyahu sees it, the wrong man has reached the presidency. In all previous presidential elections, the Likud voted in unison. This time, the ruling party behaved like a leaderless herd. President-elect Reuven Rivlin, though backed by most Likud members, was opposed by the party leader, as well as by his No. 2 Avigdor Liberman and the 11 lawmakers he commands within the Likud’s 31.
At the same time, the rest of the faction stood up to Netanyahu and forced him to back their candidate.
This is both a result and a cause of Netanyahu’s loss of clout. And a result it is, because Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who spearheaded this mutiny, would have avoided it had they thought Netanyahu was strong.
And a cause it is, because other potential mutineers now see that confronting Netanyahu is feasible and affordable.
A fresh sign of this loss of fear emerged the morning after Rivlin’s victory, when the successor to the Knesset seat he vacated, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, attacked Likud’s social record under Netanyahu and said that he, the new lawmaker, might run in the next election with a different party.
Part of what Netanyahu faces is generational. At 65, the prime minister might be pushing 70 when he next runs. For a leadership contender like the 48-year-old Sa’ar – whose popularity among Likud’s membership rivals Netanyahu’s among American Jews – the temptation to storm the top will be increasingly irresistible, as party members increasingly question Netanyahu’s electoral assets, and weigh his political liabilities.
At the same time, Netanyahu faces an ideological pincer movement.
On the Right, Economics Minister Naftali Bennett’s party picked its presidential candidate calmly and openly, displaying the kind of conviction and cohesion that the Likud under Netanyahu has come to contrast. To them, Rivlin’s Greater Israel credentials were the only thing that mattered.
In Netanyahu’s Likud, however, there are those who support and those who oppose his endorsement of the two-state formula. The latter think Netanyahu has spoken heresy. Led by Likud Central Committee chairman Danny Danon, 43, some in this circle also think they are beginning to sniff the post-Netanyahu era.
On the Left, too, what Netanyahu saw this week should alarm him.
The collaboration between Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in promoting the candidacy of her faction member Meir Sheetrit seemed smooth and natural.
The very fact that Livni fielded her own candidate is a sign of Netanyahu’s gradual loss of political control.
But more crucially, considering Herzog’s and Livni’s personalities, views and social backgrounds, chances are high they have just launched a beautiful relationship.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Yair Lapid attacked what he sees as Netanyahu’s diplomatic non-delivery.
This too is unprecedented in the pair’s partnership, and would also not have happened but for Netanyahu’s creeping loss of authority throughout the political system.
Then, apart from the problematic state of his clout, comes the impact of Netanyahu’s main political stratagem in recent years, his alliance with Liberman.
THERE WAS plenty of partisan patchwork in Israel along the decades, with varying degrees of crudeness and durability – from the Labor Alignment that welded three parties and then added a fourth, to the original Likud that integrated four conservative parties, through Meretz, where capitalists and former Marxists tried to collaborate on peace.
Netanyahu and Liberman think alike on most issues; the difference is in the sociology. Liberman’s appeal to Russian speakers was understood by Netanyahu as a power multiplier.
Since the two had 42 seats between them in the previous Knesset, Netanyahu’s assumption was that in running jointly, the sum would be larger than its parts. In reality, the sum was – and remains – 25 percent smaller than its parts.
Worse, from the Likud’s viewpoint, Liberman insisted on retaining his sub-faction’s independence. Consequently, Netanyahu finds himself in command of a mere 20 lawmakers.
Though Liberman also emerged poorly from the presidential race, his broader goal, the premiership, only grows closer the more Netanyahu appears weak.
Understandably, Likud members ask why they needed the alliance with Liberman, and what it says about Netanyahu’s judgment.
NETANYAHU’S opposition to the popular Rivlin would have been better accepted, had the prime minister explained it.
Even so, Netanyahu could still have emerged unharmed from the affair had he prepared a viable candidate in advance. Moreover, he could have come out with flying colors had he nurtured such a candidacy jointly with other party leaders. Israel is rich with talented people who, if approached this way, would have done the job happily and splendidly.
Alas, Netanyahu first procrastinated and then improvised – convincing many he had forgotten everything and learned nothing from last year’s similar saga at the Bank of Israel.
In that case, though previous governor Stanley Fischer had announced his departure more than half a year in advance, Netanyahu failed to produce a successor. Then, with Fischer already gone, he rejected acting governor Karnit Flug’s candidacy, saw two other choices fail amid scandals, then ended up appointing Flug, the one candidate he had formally rejected.
The analogies to the presidential saga are striking.
Here, too, two candidates resigned amid scandals. Netanyahu did not endorse either of them, but the very emergence of unsuitable candidates was enabled by the vacuum Netanyahu had created.
And here, too, Netanyahu thought he would throw in a joker, this time Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, only to learn that unlike the recruitment of Fischer, which was a stroke of brilliance, Wiesel was a woeful nonstarter.
And as with Flug, Netanyahu will now face a president he did not want.
He will do so while one-third of his already shrunken Knesset faction answers to a potential rival, and while within his truncated party, he faces growing ideological and generational opposition.
the most disappointing moment for Netanyahu’s supporters in the presidential race was his attempt, when he finally saw Rivlin’s approaching victory, to postpone the election and start a debate over the need for the presidency.
There was no way to interpret this move other than as strategic opportunism.
Netanyahu entered the Knesset in 1988, four years after becoming famous as ambassador to the UN.
Over those decades he displayed clear views on foreign affairs and economics, views for which he later fought with a conviction that even his opponents appreciated. In terms of Israel’s political structure, however, all Netanyahu cared for was the direct election of prime ministers.
Indeed, analysts were at a loss this week to recall Netanyahu saying much about the presidency over his long decades in politics. Questioning the institution’s right to life just when it is about to be occupied by a rival seemed unconvincing – and alarming.
The substance of politics and the waning of political power are not exclusive to Israel; they are part of the zeitgeist. US President Barack Obama’s clout is but a fraction of that of predecessors John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, and Europe’s politicians are at a loss to affect historic trends their voters fear.
In Israel, the decline of political authority transcends the ruling party; Herzog’s surrender to Binyamin Ben-Eliezer’s presidential aspiration was the flipside of Netanyahu’s rejection of Rivlin’s. The former Labor leader’s candidacy fell due to a police investigation concerning suspected financial irregularities, but he was a woefully inadequate candidate regardless of that, one who – as his former party colleague Yossi Beilin said of him – could not utter one coherent sentence.
Herzog surely realized this, especially in recalling well his own, very coherent, father’s respectable presidency.
Yet Herzog-the-son endorsed a poor candidacy because rather than lead, as an opposition leader must, he followed – as many of this era’s leaders do.
Herzog, incidentally, is on-record for supporting a transition to personal elections of lawmakers, as is Netanyahu’s potential rival from within, Sa’ar. Liberman loathes the idea, as he prefers to handpick his lawmakers and see them answer to him rather than to constituencies. That is why he prefers a presidential system. Netanyahu may have had this in mind when he clumsily tried to launch a debate about the presidency.
The presidential race has demonstrated that a debate is indeed necessary, though not about the presidency but about the rest of the political system. Questions like what kinds of people should reach power and how, what should be the role of the party centers, what a minister’s expertise and clout should be, and of course, what the authority of a prime minister should be – must be debated from scratch, publicly and thoroughly.
As finance minister, Netanyahu stirred an exciting, and long overdue, economic debate. As one of the only thinking people in the political system, it is not too late for him to launch a similar debate concerning the political system, and thus grip the agenda and possibly also restore his clout.
Conversely, if he lets things drift aimlessly the way he did during the presidential race, Netanyahu’s own colleagues will increasingly conclude he is over the hill – and prepare to unseat him.
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