After five election cycles and almost four years of government paralysis, the paramount question dividing Israeli politics, which has split the Israeli public in two, has finally been put to rest: Benjamin Netanyahu’s landslide victory in the November 1 election rendered a clear-cut verdict on the “yes or no Bibi” dispute, and broke the perpetual tie in which he country was stuck in recent years.
With 64 seats for his far-right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc, the fundamental question about Netanyahu has been answered with an emphatic and resounding yes. But as he proceeds to form his new government, a new question has emerged: What kind of Bibi will appear on the stage?
Will it be the old Netanyahu, the one we have grown accustomed to over the years, who was widely considered to be a responsible and cautious statesman, and who, despite his harsh rhetoric, was usually moderate in his practical leadership decisions?
Or is the prime minister-elect the new Netanyahu, the one who emerged during his own criminal and legal proceedings of recent years, a brash and reckless politician on a personal crusade with no moral borders or limits?
That is the million-dollar question that will define Netanyahu’s next term.
The old Netanyahu, for a start, always preferred to have a soft and moderate ally by his side, to balance the populists and extremists to his Right with a dovish partner from the Center-Left. In 2009 it was Ehud Barak; in 2013, Tzipi Livni; in 2015, Moshe Kahlon played the balancing role, blocking right-wing judicial reforms and initiatives; and in 2020, it was Benny Gantz, who thwarted and foiled the plans for annexation.
The successive fig leaves in Netanyahu’s governments had a double role: to sugercoat his right-wing policies for the benefit of international audiences, and to serve as the fall guy for his right-wing audience at home. With Barak, Livni, Kahlon or Gantz looking over his shoulder, Netanyahu always had someone to blame for not living up to his promises to the right-wing voter.
The new Netanyahu, however, has taken a sharp turn to the Right, consolidating a unified bloc of loyal extremists, which was the cornerstone of his survival strategy throughout the political chaos.
Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox and far-right allies pledged full allegiance on demand and followed him to the opposition last year, and also played a crucial role in drumming up voter participation, the key to his comeback victory. And they have one more thing in common: unconditional toleration of Netanyahu despite the criminal cases against him, which coincides with a burning desire for judicial reforms.
The old Netanyahu used to respect and honor the Supreme Court, and took pride in protecting the system from revolutionary reactionaries from his political camp. The new Netanyahu has turned the police, the attorney-general, the courts and the judges into his enemies, accusing them of cooperating with the media and the Left to oust him and send him to jail.
The old Netanyahu would probably be spooked by the notion of radical extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich as his senior partners, let alone their partner Avi Maoz, from the anti-LGBT party Noam.
The new Netanyahu personally fostered and sponsored their alliance, and is widely responsible for their claim to fame, emerging as the third largest party after the elections.
The old Netanyahu would probably be agitated by the growing international concern over his radical Jewish supremacist partners, and would be seeking to add a liberal middle-of-the-roader to his coalition and gloss over the bad appearance. He would probably prefer Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, two former IDF chiefs of staff, over Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, as defense and public security ministers, on any other day. The old Netanyahu might have considered ditching his radical partners in the opposition, just as he left Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked out of the 2020 government with Gantz.
But the new Netanyahu is constrained by his own creation: after demanding complete loyalty, his allies are expecting and demanding him to pay. And he cannot afford to leave them undelivered: Ben-Gvir’s rising popularity in the Right will endanger Netanyahu much more as a disappointed and angry member of the opposition.
SLIGHT REMNANTS of the old Netanyahu could be detected in the two speeches he gave since the elections, in which he expressed conciliatory messages.
“I will be the prime minister of everyone,” he told hundreds of Likud supporters in his election night victory speech, vowing to “lower the flames of the public discourse and heal the rifts.”
On Sunday, addressing the Knesset’s special plenum gathering commemorating prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, he said: “After the election campaign is over and the dust from the bickering settles, we need to get out of the trenches and know how to work together.”
“After the election campaign is over and the dust from the bickering settles, we need to get out of the trenches and know how to work together.”Benjamin Netanyahu
His soft words, however, were not a hidden political appeal to parties on the other side. Netanyahu has made clear he has no intention of breaking up the bloc or abandoning his right-wing partners. President Isaac Herzog, who tried to explore the possibility of a unity government after the elections, was answered with a scathing consensus of no.
“I am going for a narrow right-wing government,” Netanyahu told him in a phone call last week. The outgoing premier, Yair Lapid, made a public rebuttal: “Mr. President, there is no scenario in which we will join the government,” he said on Sunday at the Rabin memorial. Gantz, as well, insists he will not repeat his previous mistake and will not be the one to save Netanyahu from himself.
With no alternate fig leave on his Left, and with a strong and heavy plummet pulling to his Right, the new Netanyahu has no choice but to play the responsible adult by himself. In a coalition comprised of religious fundamentalists, radical right-wing extremists and hard-core conservative ideologists, he is the sole mild and responsible factor that can balance their reactionary dreams and reforms.
In Netanyahu’s own spirit, one of the expected new government’s main goals is to revolutionize the judicial system, with far-reaching plans that would alter the checks and balances of Israeli democracy forever. The old conservative and democratic Netanyahu would have probably thwarted such intentions with one of his leftist partners, but the new Netanyahu has no choice but to be the left-wing arrow himself.