It seemed almost preordained that Benjamin Netanyahu would be undone not by a landslide at the polls, but by an army of friends turned foes and by the fire of the rightwing vitriol he fanned for decades.
The dethronement of Netanyahu — Israel’s longest serving leader — has been slow and grinding. Four stalemate elections in two years of political turmoil and, finally, a coalition of eight parties, half of them run by men Netanyahu groomed and then betrayed in one way or another.
“It is truly bizarre,” says Roni Rimon, Netanyahu’s campaign manager in his 2009 election victory. “People who Netanyahu used to work with, they hate him so much — they hate him. I know it’s a strong word, but that’s what is happening here.”
On Sunday, Netanyahu’s 12-year reign as premier was ended when Naftali Bennett, an ultranationalist whose Yamina party controls just six seats in the 120-member Knesset, was voted in at the head of an eight-party coalition. It was an epochal event in Israeli, and Middle East, history. Added to a three-year premiership in 1996, Netanyahu has run Israel for 15 of the past 25 years, towering over the region as its mighty military struck further and deeper into enemy territory and its feared Mossad targeted Iran, over and over again.
He has fended off efforts by the west to give up land to the Palestinians, and reshaped Israel in his own mould — pugnacious and rightwing. A generation of young Israelis have gone from their first election as teenagers to their seventh, as 30-year-olds, with the man they call by his childhood nickname, Bibi, on the ballot.
Israelis have been richer and safer during his tenure than ever before; quelling the coronavirus pandemic thanks to his efforts to vaccinate more people, faster than any other nation; they can fly to Dubai for the weekend and buy sprawling second homes deep in the occupied West Bank; shop in Paris and London with the shekel stronger than ever in history.
Yet, he must now sit on the opposition benches. And while his one-time protégé, Bennett, runs the affairs of the state, Netanyahu will instead have to trek to Jerusalem District Court to defend himself against corruption charges. To friends, Netanyahu has compared his situation to that of Winston Churchill, the leader he most admires, and who in 1945 was cast aside at the ballot box.
“The parallel in my mind is this — he did a lot of great things for the country, and still, the people said, ‘Enough, we’ve had enough’, which is what they said in this election,” says George Birnbaum, the American pollster and campaign strategist who helped launch Netanyahu’s first premiership, in 1996. “Now, like Churchill, can he go into his wilderness years, spend some time away and then come back?”
The irony that the strongman of Israeli politics was brought down by an awkward alliance between men he once described as friends, is lost on nobody.
Friend turned foe: Naftali Bennett
Worked as Netanyahu’s chief of staff till 2008. He even named his son Yoni after Netanyahu’s elder brother, a soldier who died during a rescue of kidnapped Israelis at Entebbe. Their break was gradual, but people close to Bennett say he struck out on his own after realising that Netanyahu was unlikely to anoint him, or anyone else, as a chosen successor.
Bennett, a tech millionaire, started his career in politics as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, then as an anchor to his rightwing governments at the head of small ultranationalist parties. Gideon Sa’ar, once a rising star in Netanyahu’s Likud party, was kept at bay by the leader for more than a decade before starting his own party, New Hope. Avigdor Lieberman, who represents the secular Russian immigrant vote, broke from Netanyahu in 2019 because of Likud’s embrace of the religious ultraorthodox parties while Benny Gantz was once Netanyahu’s army chief, before entering politics to dethrone him.
Together, the four men have split Israel’s rightwing vote away from its rightwing star — close to 70 per cent of Israelis voted for a rightwing party in the March election. But with Sa’ar and Lieberman, who together control 13 seats, refusing to work with Netanyahu, the five-time premier found his path to a governing coalition blocked repeatedly.
Israelis have another nickname for the 71-year-old Netanyahu, the “comeback kid.” Bennett’s coalition is weak, and united only in its desire to unseat Netanyahu. The faultlines are apparent — any dispute over gay rights, Palestinian rights and even the rights of non-Orthodox Jews could split them apart. And Netanyahu, say people who have spoken to him recently, is impatiently awaiting its collapse.
“Who knows?” asks Birnbaum, who most recently ran the election campaign for Bennett. “Maybe he will have a comeback.”
So far, Netanyahu has given no sign that he will go quietly into retirement, as he first did in 1999 when he lost the premiership in a landslide to Ehud Barak, the then Labour leader. “Let’s go, Sarah,” he was heard saying dolefully to his wife, as he took her hand and walked offstage after his concession speech.
“This is not 1999, because this is not an election Bibi has lost,” says a Likud member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, who met Netanyahu two weeks ago. “The country is angry because Bennett stole votes from the right and gave them to the left — don’t expect Bibi to accept this fraud.”
But a return from political exile requires something Netanyahu appears to have exhausted — the loyalty of allies. One member of the Likud central committee — the party’s top decision making body — which is looking at life in opposition, is blunt. “Netanyahu has no friends left. Zero. Not one,” he says, asking for anonymity to discuss the inner workings of Israel’s most powerful political machine.
“When you’re prime minister, everybody wants to be seen with you. Now, you have lost all the power, and you look around and see how alone you are,” he adds.
Friend turned foe: Avigdor Lieberman
A Moldovan-born one-time nightclub bouncer who was once foreign minister and a top aide to Netanyahu, Lieberman represents the Russian immigrant vote in Israel, which is almost entirely secular. He broke with Netanyahu in 2019 by refusing to join a coalition unless the new government forced ultraorthodox Jews to serve in the military, alongside other Israeli Jews.
‘Israel needs Bibi’
As his grip on power started to slip, so did Netanyahu’s hold over Likud, which until last month appeared absolute. Now challengers are emerging.
Netanyahu transformed what had been a moribund political group when he took over in the 1990s into a data-driven, membership-dues supported, political machine. He took the grievances of Israel’s Mizrahi and immigrant Jews and turned them into votes for an Ashkenazi elite leadership, men like Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, who hailed from the European Jewry that founded the state. With the help of Arthur Finkelstein, the American pollster and Birnbaum, he brought US-style election campaigns to Israel.
“The people who vote for Likud are the victims. The people who vote against the Likud are the elite,” says the Likud central committee member. “That’s the message Netanyahu gave us. It was true in 1996. It is true today.”
Netanyahu’s legacy may well outlast him — a winning political narrative that only a rightwing government can keep Israel safe against a constellation of threats, both existential and imagined. On his watch, no Palestinian state was allowed to take shape, while the number of Jews living in settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem has nearly doubled, to almost 650,000.
The left, once led by Labour, has collapsed to a handful of seats, painted as traitors to Zionism for having signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. For Likudniks, Netanyahu’s achievements are absolute.
“You’ve got to remember, people in the Likud, even in the central committee, they’ve felt at times like they were treated as second class citizens in Israel,” says Birnbaum. “For them to have a guy like Netanyahu, who can go the UN, and speak that language, who can pick up the phone and call any world leader — there’s a sense of pride in that.”
Likud must now decide whether to search for a new leader or stick with Netanyahu while they wait for Bennett’s unstable coalition to implode. In interviews, four members of the party machinery say that internal polls show that Likud voters agree with Netanyahu and believe that his corruption trial is an attempt by the media and police to dislodge a leader they could not defeat at the polls.
It is a view shared by some senior members of the party that has dominated Israeli politics for most of the past 25 years.
In a WhatsApp group of about two dozen powerful members of the party — screenshots of which were shared with the Financial Times — one person begged Netanyahu to retire. “Netanyahu needs to sacrifice himself for the party, for the rightwing camp and for the people,” the person wrote, before being asked to leave the group by others. The message was first reported by the liberal Maariv newspaper.
“Likud was patriotic in power, and will be patriotic in opposition,” says the party member who shared the messages. “Israel needs Bibi. It needs Likud.”
This is part of Netanyahu’s “genius,” says Aviv Bushinsky, who worked as the then premier’s media adviser in the 1990s, before falling out with him, like many of his peers.
“He can not only adjust himself to a new situation, like being in opposition, but also convince the people that what he’s doing at any given moment is exactly the right thing to do,” he says. “So, suddenly, even if he is politically irrelevant, he has convinced people that whatever he does will be the right thing.”
Friend turned foe: Gideon Sa’ar
Sa’ar was cabinet secretary in Netanyahu’s first government, then education and interior minister in subsequent administrations. He was sidelined in 2019, when he challenged — and lost — a party primary against Netanyahu, starting his own party, New Hope.
Yet any plans for a comeback are hobbled by the daily proceedings in a courtroom in Jerusalem, where lawyers for Netanyahu oppose prosecutors intent on convincing three judges that the five-time premier is corrupt and belongs in jail.
The charges span the past few years of Netanyahu’s premiership and follow a series of overlapping investigations into his relationships with wealthy businessmen and media magnates.
Prosecutors have painted a picture of a lavish lifestyle, paid for by friends who then received favours — investigators documented Netanyahu, and his wife Sarah, receiving gifts, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in Partagas cigars and pink Dom Pérignon champagne.
In return, the couple delivered favours, prosecutors allege, including Netanyahu lobbying for Arnon Milchan, the producer of Hollywood blockbusters such as Pretty Woman, to gain a multiyear US visa. In another case, prosecutors allege that Netanyahu sought positive news coverage from a media baron in exchange for denting the circulation of a rival, and promised regulatory benefits to a telecoms provider in return for more positive press.
In 1999, when Netanyahu — who is famous for no longer carrying a wallet — lost office, a similar investigation into gifts from wealthy friends ended with no charges being filed. This time, he blames the attorney-general, also a one-time ally, for orchestrating a witch-hunt to remove him from power. He pled not guilty to all charges, but the trial could take at least another year to reach a conclusion, and another two years to go through appeals that will probably end up in the Supreme Court.
“The trial is a problem, but a small problem,” says a second member of the Likud central committee. “The problem is how Netanyahu deals with it. Does he want to settle it? Does he think he can win it? All our decisions are dependent on his legal strategy.”
While the trial has done little to dent Netanyahu’s popularity with his fans, it has narrowed his political options. For instance, Sa’ar, the ex-Likud heavyweight who started New Hope after losing a party primary to Netanyahu, justified its rejection of a coalition with Likud on Netanyahu’s trial.
If convicted, jail time is a serious possibility. His predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert, spent 16 months in prison after being convicted of corruption in 2014. Olmert, who now refers to his time entangled with the criminal justice system as his “retirement,” works in the private sector, advising investors in the region.
Unlike Olmert, however, Netanyahu didn’t resign when he was indicted. Israeli law is vague on whether or not a prime minister needs to give up office when in court, and Netanyahu has seized on the ambiguity to paint the criminal proceedings as a coup against Israel’s rightwing government.
Friend turned foe: Benny Gantz
Served as chief of staff for the Israeli military under Netanyahu, then entered politics in 2019 to dislodge the prime minister. As head of the Blue and White Alliance, he and Netanyahu fought three back-to-back elections that all ended in stalemate, before Gantz entered a unity government with his rival. Netanyahu toppled the government to stop Gantz from assuming his rotating premiership, prompting the last elections in March.
Without the office of the prime minister to lambast the prosecutors from, Netanyahu runs the risk of being “just another criminal defendant,” says a person who has spoken to him about the trial recently. “And it is expensive defending yourself.”
Netanyahu’s trial is expected to cost him millions of dollars. His personal wealth is estimated by the local media to be around $15m, mostly in real estate, including a luxury villa in Ceasarea — a wealthy coastal town 50km from Tel Aviv — and an apartment in Jerusalem but, in opposition, he would be able to take on lucrative speaking engagements and even board seats, the person says.
For now, it is still unclear what sort of role he will inhabit in opposition — the kind of thorn in Shimon Peres and Yitzak Rabin’s side that he was before his first premiership, or calmly waiting for this coalition to unravel under the weight of its own disharmonious ideology, setting up a fifth election.
“The minute he takes a back seat, and lets this coalition shoot it out with each other, that’s when there is trouble for this coalition,” says Birnbaum, who has now advised both Netanyahu and the man replacing him.
“His best bet for coming back is just to let the fate and history of this coalition be written and, if the opportunity comes, to run a campaign based on [its] serious failure,” he says, adding: “Then that’s his opportunity.”