The End of the Old Israel
How Netanyahu Has Transformed the Nation
By Aluf Benn
Israel—at least the largely secular and progressive version of Israel that once captured the world’s imagination—is over.
Although that Israel was always in some ways a fantasy, the myth was at least grounded in reality. Today that reality has changed, and the country that has replaced it is profoundly different from the one its founders imagined almost 70 years ago.
Since the last elections, in March 2015, a number of slow-moving trends have accelerated dramatically. Should they continue, they could soon render the country unrecognizable.
Already, the transformation has been dramatic.
Israel’s current leaders—headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who metamorphosed after the election from a risk-averse conservative into a right-wing radical—see democracy as synonymous with unchecked majority rule and have no patience for restraints such as judicial review or the protection of minorities.
In their view, Israel is a Jewish state and a democratic state—in that order.
Only Jews should enjoy full rights, while gentiles should be treated with suspicion.
Extreme as it sounds, this belief is now widely held: a Pew public opinion survey published in March found that 79 percent of Jewish Israelis supported “preferential treatment” for Jews—a thinly veiled euphemism for discrimination against non-Jews.
Meanwhile, the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians has been taken off the table, and Israel is steadily making its occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank permanent.
Human rights groups and dissidents who dare criticize the occupation and expose its abuses are denounced by officials, and the government has sought to pass new laws restricting their activities.
Arab-Jewish relations within the country have hit a low point, and Israel’s society is breaking down into its constituent tribes.
Netanyahu thrives on such tribalism, which serves his lifelong goal of replacing Israel’s traditional elite with one more in tune with his philosophy.
The origins of all these changes predate the current prime minister, however. To truly understand them, one must look much further back in Israel’s history: to the country’s founding, in 1948.
THE OLD MAN AND THE NEW JEW
Modern Israel was created by a group of secular socialists led by David Ben-Gurion, who would become the state’s first prime minister. “The Old Man,” as he was known, sought to create a homeland for a new type of Jew: a warrior-pioneer who would plow the land with a gun on his back and then read poetry around a bonfire when the battle was won.
(This “new Jew” was mythologized, most memorably, by Paul Newman in the film Exodus.)
Although a civilian, Ben-Gurion was a martial leader. He oversaw the fledgling state’s victory in its War of Independence against Israel’s Arab neighbors and the Palestinians, most of whom were then exiled. And when the war was over, the Old Man oversaw the creation of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which he designed to serve as (among other things) the new country’s main tool for turning its polyglot Jewish immigrants into Hebrew-speaking citizens.
Ben-Gurion was a leftist but not a liberal. Following independence, he put Israel’s remaining Arab residents under martial law (a condition that lasted until 1966) and expropriated much of their land, which he gave to Jewish communities. His party, Mapai (the forerunner of Labor), controlled the economy and the distribution of jobs. Ben-Gurion and his cohort were almost all Ashkenazi (of eastern European origin), and they discriminated against the Sephardic Jews (known in Israel as the Mizrahim), who came from Arab states such as Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen.
Ben-Gurion also failed to appreciate the power of religion, which he believed would wither away when confronted with secular modernity. He therefore allowed the Orthodox to preserve their educational autonomy under the new state—thereby ensuring and underwriting the creation of future generations of religious voters.
In recent years, as the Israeli public has shifted rightward, so has Netanyahu—which has allowed him to more openly indulge his true passions.
For all Ben-Gurion’s flaws, his achievements were enormous and should not be underestimated: he created one of the most developed states in the postcolonial world, with a world-class military, including a nuclear deterrent, and top scientific and technological institutions. His reliance on the IDF as a melting pot also worked well, effectively assimilating great numbers of new Israelis. This reliance on the military—along with its battlefield victories in 1948, 1956, and 1967—helped cement the centrality of the IDF in Israeli society. To this day, serving in the military’s more prestigious units is the surest way to get ahead in the country. The army has supplied many of the nation’s top leaders, from Yitzhak Rabin and Ezer Weizman to Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, and every chief of staff or intelligence head instantly becomes an unofficial candidate for high office on retirement.
The first major challenge to Ben-Gurion’s idea of Israel arrived on Yom Kippur in 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack that managed to catch the IDF unawares. Although Israel ultimately won the war, it suffered heavy losses, and the massive intelligence failure traumatized the nation. Like the United Kingdom after World War I, Israel emerged technically victorious but shorn of its sense of invincibility.
Less than four years later, Menachem Begin—the founder of Israel’s right wing—capitalized on this unhappiness and on Sephardic grievances to hand Labor its first-ever defeat at the polls. Taking power at the head of a new coalition called Likud (Unity), Begin forged an alliance with Israel’s religious parties, which felt more at home with a Sabbath-observing conservative. To sweeten the deal, his government accelerated the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank (which appealed to religious Zionists) and offered numerous concessions to the ultra-Orthodox, such as generous educational subsidies.
Begin was a conservative and nationalist. But the decades he’d spent in the opposition had taught him to respect dissent and debate. As prime minister, therefore, he always defended judicial independence, and he refrained from purging Labor loyalists from the top echelons of the civil service and the IDF. As a consequence, his revolution, important though it was, was only a partial one. Under Begin’s leadership, Israel’s old left-wing elite lost its cabinet seats. But it preserved much of its influence, holding on to top positions in powerful institutions such as the media and academia. And the Supreme Court remained stocked with justices who, while officially nonpartisan, nevertheless represented a liberal worldview of human and civil rights.
Although Likud has governed Israel for most of the years since then, the left’s ongoing control over many other facets of life has given rise to a deep sense of resentment on the right. No one has felt that grievance more keenly than Netanyahu, who long dreamed of finishing Begin’s incomplete revolution. “Bibi,” as Netanyahu is known, first won the premiership in 1996, but it would take him decades to accomplish his goal.
Netanyahu’s initial election came shortly after the assassination of Rabin. The years prior to Rabin’s death had been dominated by the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and that same peace process would become the focus of his successor’s first term as well.
Netanyahu opposed Oslo from the very beginning. Then as now, he saw Israel as a Jewish community besieged by hostile Arabs and Muslims who wanted to destroy it. He considered the Arab-Israeli conflict a perpetual fact of life that could be managed but would never be resolved. The West—which, in his view, was anti-Semitic, indifferent, or both—couldn’t be counted on to help, and so Israel’s leaders were duty bound to prevent a second Holocaust through a combination of smart diplomacy and military prowess. And they couldn’t afford to worry about what the rest of the world thought of them. Indeed, one of Netanyahu’s main domestic selling points has always been his willingness to stand up to established powers, whether they take the form of the U.S. president or the UN General Assembly (where Netanyahu served as Israel’s representative from 1984 to 1988 and first caught his nation’s attention). Netanyahu loves lecturing gentiles in his perfect English, and much of the Israeli public loves these performances. He may go overboard at times—as when, last October, he suggested that Adolf Hitler had gotten the idea to kill Europe’s Jews from Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem during World War II. Historians of all stripes scoffed at the claim, but many ordinary Israelis were indifferent to its inaccuracy.
During his first term, Netanyahu connected his domestic and international agendas by blaming the leftism of Israel’s old elite for the country’s foreign policy mistakes. To prevent more missteps in the future, he borrowed a page from the U.S. conservative playbook and vowed to fight the groupthink at Israel’s universities and on its editorial boards—a way of thinking that, he argued, had led the country to Oslo. In a 1996 interview with the Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, Netanyahu complained about his delegitimization “by the nomenklatura of the old regime,” adding that “the problem is that the intellectual structure of Israeli society is unbalanced.” He pledged to create new, more conservative institutions to rewrite the national narrative.
But Netanyahu’s political inexperience worked against him. His tenure was rocked by controversy, from his reckless provocations of the Palestinians and of Jordan to a scandal caused by his wife’s mistreatment of household employees. Israel’s old elites closed ranks, and, with the support of the Clinton administration, they forced Netanyahu into another deal with the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. The 1998 Wye River memorandum—the last formal agreement that Israel and the Palestinians have signed to this day—triggered early elections in May 1999, after several small, hard-right parties abandoned Netanyahu’s coalition in protest. Barak and the Labor Party emerged victorious.
Both Barak, a decorated former head of the IDF, and Sharon, who replaced Netanyahu at the helm of Likud and became prime minister himself in 2001, represented a return to the Ben-Gurion model of farmer turned soldier turned statesman. Their ascent thus restored the old order—at least temporarily—and made Netanyahu seem like a historical fluke.
SEBASTIAN SCHEINER / POOL / REUTERS Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting in the Golan Heights, April 2016.
A MODERATE MASK
But Netanyahu saw things differently, and he spent the next decade plotting his return to power. Following Sharon’s reelection in 2003, Netanyahu become finance minister, although he resigned on the eve of the August 2005 unilateral pullout from Gaza. When Sharon created a new centrist party, Kadima (Forward), shortly after the withdrawal, Netanyahu took over the remnants of Likud. But he lost the next election, in March 2006, to Ehud Olmert, who had replaced the ailing Sharon as head of Kadima.
Olmert had pledged to follow through on his mentor’s vision by withdrawing Israel from most of the West Bank. But in July, his plans were disrupted when he let Hezbollah draw him into a pointless and badly managed war in Lebanon. His subsequent effort to negotiate a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians, launched in Annapolis, Maryland, in late 2007, led nowhere. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s credibility and popularity were boosted that same year when Hamas, well armed with rockets, seized control of Gaza—just as he’d predicted. So when Olmert announced his resignation over corruption charges in the summer of 2008 (he ultimately went to jail earlier this year on different charges), Netanyahu was ready to pounce.
His revival was further aided by the sudden appearance in 2007 of what would become the most important of what Netanyahu called independent sources of thought. Israel Hayom (Israel Today) is a free daily newspaper owned by the American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and ever since its launch, it has provided Netanyahu with a loud and supportive media megaphone. By 2010, Israel Hayom had become the country’s most-read weekday newspaper, printing 275,000 copies a day. And its front page has consistently read like Bibi’s daily message: lauding his favorites, denouncing his rivals, boasting about Israel’s achievements, and downplaying negative news.
With Olmert out of the picture, Netanyahu returned to office on March 31, 2009. Eager to prove that he was no longer the scandal-plagued firebrand who’d been voted out of office a decade before, however, and fearing pressure from the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, he once again was forced to shelve his long-term plans for elite replacement. Instead of undermining his enemies, he shifted to the center, recruiting several retired Likud liberals to vouch for the “new Bibi” and join his cabinet, and forging a coalition with Labor under Barak, who stayed on as defense minister (a job he’d held under Olmert). Together, Netanyahu and Barak spent much of the next four years working on an ultimately unrealized plan to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In June 2009, ten days after Obama’s Cairo address, Netanyahu sought to reinforce his new centrist credentials by endorsing the idea of Palestinian statehood in a speech. True to form, however, the prime minister imposed a condition: the Palestinians would first have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, instantly rejected the idea. But the move enhanced Netanyahu’s moderate credentials anyway.
And it helped get Obama off his back—but not before the U.S. president convinced Netanyahu to accept a ten-month freeze on new residential construction in the West Bank settlements. The freeze was meaningless, however, since it didn’t change the facts on the ground or facilitate serious peace talks. And soon after it expired, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the U.S. midterm election, creating a firewall against any further pressure from Washington. Obama soon lost interest in the thankless peace process. Although his rocky relationship with Netanyahu led to many juicy newspaper and magazine stories, it had little effect on Israel’s internal politics, since most Israelis also distrusted the U.S. president, and still do; a global poll released in December 2015 found that Obama had a lower favorability rating in Israel than almost anywhere else, with only Russians, Palestinians, and Pakistanis expressing greater disapproval.
Any remaining pressure on Netanyahu to pursue peace with the Palestinians evaporated soon after the Arab Spring erupted. Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt collapsed, threatening a cornerstone of Israel’s security strategy; Syria sank into a bloody civil war; and a terrifying new nemesis, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), appeared on the scene. These events unexpectedly bolstered Israel’s position in several ways: Russia and the United States ultimately joined forces to eliminate most of Syria’s chemical weapons, and the conservative governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and (after the 2013 counterrevolution) Egypt strengthened their ties with Jerusalem (albeit unofficially in most cases). But the regional carnage and turmoil horrified Israeli voters, who told themselves: if this is what the Arabs are capable of doing to one another, imagine what they would do to us if we gave them the chance.
Nonetheless, peace and security played an uncharacteristically minor role in the next election, in January 2013. Instead, the race was dominated by social issues, including the rapidly rising costs of housing and food staples in Israel. Such concerns helped usher in a new class of freshman politicians, who replaced old-timers such as Barak. But none of them was able to overcome the incumbent’s experience and savvy, and after reengaging with his right-wing base and merging with another conservative party led by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu won the election.
In the summer of 2014, following one last push for peace with Abbas (this time led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry), war broke out between Israel and Hamas. The discovery of dozens of tunnels dug by Hamas into Egyptian and Israeli territory put another big scare into the Israeli public and prompted a prolonged ground operation—the bloodiest conflict of the Netanyahu era. During 50 days of fighting, more than 2,000 Palestinians and 72 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed. Israel’s Jewish population overwhelmingly supported the war, but the fighting caused communal tensions in the country to explode. Thousands of Arab Israelis—who identified with the suffering in Gaza and were tired of their own abuse by the police and their increasing marginalization under Netanyahu—protested against the war. Hundreds were arrested, and other Arabs employed in the public sector were reportedly threatened with firing after criticizing the conflict on Facebook.
Israel has already become far less tolerant and open to debate than it used to be.
THE NEW RIGHT
Around the same time, personal animosities within Netanyahu’s coalition started to pull it apart. Netanyahu was unable to prevent Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, from electing Reuven Rivlin, a longtime Likud rival, to the largely symbolic presidency. And several of the prime minister’s erstwhile allies, including Lieberman, endorsed a bill that would have forced Israel Hayom to start charging its readers. (The bill never made it past a preliminary hearing.) In December, the government finally collapsed, and the Knesset called an early election.
Likud went into the 2015 race trailing in the polls. The public was angry with Netanyahu over a small-time financial scandal involving his wife and over the stalemated result of the war with Hamas. The Zionist Union, a new centrist coalition led by Labor’s Isaac Herzog, seemed poised to form the next government. But the uncharismatic Labor leader proved no match for his wilier, more experienced adversary. Netanyahu tacked right—scoring an unprecedented invitation to address the U.S. Congress (which he used to denounce the nuclear deal the Obama administration was negotiating with Iran) and stealing votes from smaller conservative parties by promising not to allow a Palestinian state to be established on his watch. Then, on election day, he released a video in which he claimed that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.” The statement wasn’t true, but it effectively tapped into Jewish voters’ anxiety and racism and won Likud the election: Likud emerged with 30 seats; the Zionist Union earned 24.
In Israel’s fractious parliamentary system, votes alone don’t determine who takes power, however; that gets decided during the coalition-building process that inevitably follows each election. In this case, the electoral math left Netanyahu, who was 31 seats short of a majority, with two choices: he could form a national unity coalition with Herzog and the ultra-Orthodox, or he could forge a narrow but ideologically cohesive alliance with several smaller center- and far-right parties.
Choosing Herzog would have created a wider coalition and allowed Netanyahu to show a more moderate face to the world. But the prime minister, who was sick of acting like a centrist, picked the latter course instead. That left him with a very narrow, one-seat majority in the Knesset. But it also gave him his first undiluted hard-right government since his 2009 comeback—one that would finally allow him to realize his long-deferred dream of remaking Israel’s establishment.
Although Netanyahu is both secular and Ashkenazi, his new allies are mostly Mizrahim—long ostracized from Israel’s centers of power, even though they represent a large segment of the Jewish population—and religious Zionists, who are known for their knitted yarmulkes, are fiercely committed to (and often live in) West Bank settlements, and have, in recent years, come to hold many prominent positions in the army, the security services, and the civil service.
These groups are most vocally represented by three members of the current government: Likud’s Miri Regev, the minister of culture; Naftali Bennett, the minister of education and head of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), a religious Zionist party that he built out of the ashes of the old National Religious Party; and Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s longtime sidekick and now the minister of justice. Regev is Sephardic—her family came to Israel from Morocco—and a former brigadier general in the IDF, where she served as chief spokesperson during the Gaza pullout. Bennett, the son of American immigrants, served in the Israeli special forces and then made a fortune as a high-tech entrepreneur. He is both a model product of the “start-up nation” and the epitome of the religious, fiercely nationalist, pro-settlement leader (although he himself lives comfortably within the Green Line). Shaked, meanwhile, was a computer engineer before joining politics; despite her membership in the Jewish Home, she is neither religious nor a settler. Both she and Bennett worked directly for Netanyahu in Likud a decade ago, when he was the opposition leader, but they broke with him over personal quarrels in 2008.
Changing of the guard: Netanyahu at a memorial service for Ben-Gurion, November 2014.
Changing of the guard: Netanyahu at a memorial service for Ben-Gurion, November 2014.
Like the prime minister, Regev, Bennett, and Shaked are skilled, media-savvy communicators. In keeping with Israeli tradition, all three have complicated, “frenemy” relationships with Netanyahu. Regev climbed the ranks of Likud without the prime minister’s sponsorship, and Netanyahu has never forgiven Bennett and Shaked for their betrayals; the two are never invited to join him at his residence or on his plane. Yet so far, they have not let their personal grievances block the pursuit of their shared interests. Netanyahu needs Bennett and Shaked to keep his coalition afloat, and he needs Regev to maintain his support among Sephardic Israelis, an important Likud constituency. And there are no real ideological differences among the four politicians. Netanyahu is thus happy to let the others lead the charge against the old guard—and to take the heat for it as well.
Since taking office last year, the three ministers have readily obliged him. Regev—who likes to rail against what she calls “the haughty left-wing Ashkenazi elite” and once proudly told an interviewer that she’d never read Chekhov and didn’t like classical music—has sought to give greater prominence to Sephardic culture and to deprive “less than patriotic” artists of government subsidies. Bennett’s ministry has rewritten public school curricula to emphasize the country’s Jewish character; it recently introduced a new high school civics textbook that depicts Israel’s military history through a religious Zionist lens and sidelines the role of its Arab minority. In December 2015, Bennett even banned Borderlife, a novel describing a romance between a young Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, from high school reading lists.
Shaked, for her part, has vowed to reduce judicial interference in the work of the executive and the Knesset by appointing more conservative justices to the Supreme Court next year, when four to five seats (out of 15) will open up. She has also made good use of her position as head of the cabinet committee on legislation, which decides which bills the executive will support in the Knesset. The committee has recently promoted several draft laws designed to curb political expression. One, aimed at non-Zionist Arab legislators, would allow the Knesset to suspend a member indefinitely for supporting terrorism, rejecting Israel’s status as a Jewish state, or inciting racism. Another, which Shaked has personally championed, would shame human rights groups by publicly identifying those that get more than half their funding from foreign governments. (So far, none of these bills, or even more restrictive measures put forward by Likud backbenchers—such as one that would label left-wing nongovernmental organizations “foreign agents” and another that would triple the jail sentence for flag burning—has been passed.)
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is doing his part as well. After last year’s election, he insisted on holding on to the communications portfolio himself, giving him the last word on any media-related legislation. This move has given him unprecedented leverage over Israel’s television and telecommunications networks, which have grown leery of doing anything to alienate the prime minister.
Many of the government’s recent actions, such as Regev’s promotion of Sephardic culture, seem designed to address the traditional disenfranchisement of Israel’s Mizrahim and citizens living in the country’s “periphery” (that is, far from the central Tel Aviv–Jerusalem corridor). Other measures are aimed at promoting social mobility. Yet virtually all of them have had a clear political goal as well: to reduce, if not eliminate, the domestic opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which Netanyahu and his allies want to make permanent. By portraying the shrinking peace camp and its supporters as unpatriotic stooges of foreign anti-Semites, the government hopes to delegitimize them and build a consensus around its hard-right policies.
The strategy seems to be working. One example: in a poll conducted last December of Israeli Jews, 53 percent of those surveyed supported outlawing Breaking the Silence, a veterans’ group that aims to expose the harsh realities of the occupation by publishing wrenching testimonials of soldiers who have served in the West Bank.
Late last summer, after years of relative quiet, violence erupted in the West Bank and inside Israel. The first intifada (1987–93) was characterized by mass protests and stone throwing; during the second intifada (2000–2005), organized Palestinian suicide bombings and large-scale military reprisals by Israel caused thousands of casualties. This time, the so-called loners’ intifada has taken a more privatized form. Acting on their own, young Palestinian men and women have used knives and homemade guns to attack Israeli military and police checkpoints or civilians at flash points such as the settlements and Jerusalem’s Old City. So far, 34 Israelis have died in these assaults. Almost all the perpetrators have been arrested or shot on the spot—to date, about 200 Palestinians have been killed—but more have kept coming.
The loners’ intifada has presented the current government with its toughest test so far. Netanyahu has always claimed to be tough on terror and has portrayed his opponents as softies. Yet he and his top aides have seemed clueless in the face of the rising violence. Instead of stanching the bloodshed, they have redoubled their attacks on those they deem enemies within: human rights groups and Arab Israeli politicians. And the center-left parties, worried about looking unpatriotic, have gone along with him. In April, Herzog urged Labor to “stop giving the impression that we are always Arab-lovers.” And Yair Lapid, the head of the opposition Yesh Atid (There’s a Future) party—another centrist faction—has called on the army and the police to ease their rules of engagement and “shoot to kill whoever takes out a knife or a screwdriver or whatever.” Highlighting the danger of such rhetoric, in late March, B’Tselem, a respected human rights group, released a video taken in Hebron showing an Israeli soldier executing a Palestinian suspect who had already been shot and was lying, bleeding, on the street.
Instead of remorse, the Hebron shooting unleashed a wave of ugly nationalism among many Israeli Jews. The military high command quickly detained the soldier and declared his action immoral, unlawful, and undisciplined. Yet in a public opinion poll conducted several days after the incident, 68 percent of respondents supported the shooting, and 57 percent said that the soldier should not face criminal prosecution. Far-right politicians, including Bennett, defended the killer, and Netanyahu, who had initially supported the military brass, quickly closed ranks with his right-wing rivals and called the shooter’s parents to express his support. When Moshe Yaalon, the defense minister, nonetheless insisted on a criminal investigation, he was roundly attacked on social media for his stand. After Netanyahu seemed to side with Yaalon’s critics, their quarrel escalated, and in May, Yaalon resigned. Announcing his decision, Yaalon remarked, “I fought with all my might against manifestations of extremism, violence, and racism in Israeli society, which are threatening its sturdiness and also trickling into the IDF, hurting it.”
Netanyahu’s government will keep trying to cement as many changes as possible to Israeli society and the Israeli establishment.
That Yaalon of all people could be subjected to such treatment shows just how much Israel has changed in recent years. A Likud leader and former IDF chief of staff, Yaalon is no leftist: he supported Oslo but later changed his mind when, as the head of military intelligence, he witnessed Arafat’s duplicity firsthand. Yet Yaalon believes in the importance of a secular state and the rule of law. That marked him as one of the last of the Ben-Gurion-style old guard still in office. And those credentials were enough to incite the online mob. It didn’t matter that he had an impressive military record, opposed the peace process, or supported settlement expansion. In Netanyahu’s Israel, merely insisting on due process for a well-documented crime is now enough to win you the enmity of the new elite and its backers.
THE PERMANENT PRIME MINISTER
One of the ways Netanyahu has retained power for so long—he’s now Israel’s second-longest-serving leader, after Ben-Gurion—has been by tailoring his politics to match public opinion. In 2009, he leaned toward the center because he feared Obama and wanted to dispel his own reputation for recklessness. In recent years, as the Israeli public has shifted rightward, so has he—which has allowed him to more openly indulge his true passions.
Throughout this period, Netanyahu has benefited from one other key asset: the lack of any serious challenger, either inside or outside Likud. Since returning to power in 2009, he has consistently beaten all other plausible candidates for prime minister in public opinion polls—by large margins. Within Likud, Netanyahu has managed to sideline a series of aspirants, such as Moshe Kahlon, Gideon Saar, and Silvan Shalom. And the opposition has failed to produce a credible alternative of its own. After leaving office in 2001, Barak undermined his standing by adopting a lavish lifestyle deemed unseemly for a Labor leader. Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni, Olmert’s foreign minister and his successor as the head of Kadima, actually beat Netanyahu’s Likud in the 2009 election, winning 28 seats to Likud’s 27. But she was unable to build a large enough coalition to form the next government, and her subsequent weakness as opposition leader damaged her popular appeal.
Bennett is now trying to position himself as a younger and more populist version of his one-time mentor. There’s no doubt that Bennett is charismatic and has grown quite popular. But he leads a small party with a limited base that cannot win an election unless it unites with Likud. Nir Barkat, the right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, is another former high-tech entrepreneur who harbors national aspirations. But he lacks charisma and remains unknown to the public outside Israel’s capital city.
Netanyahu’s strongest current challenger is probably Lapid, the former columnist and TV anchor who established Yesh Atid as a centrist party in 2012 and won a spectacular victory in 2013, earning Yesh Atid the second-highest number of seats in the Knesset. Lapid joined Netanyahu’s cabinet after he and Bennett forced the prime minister to drop the ultra-Orthodox parties. But Netanyahu soon outmaneuvered him, pushing Lapid to the Treasury—a well-established graveyard for ambitious politicians, since it often involves making unpopular moves such as raising taxes and cutting benefits. Lapid accomplished little while in office, and in 2015, after a tough fight with Herzog and his Zionist Union over the same voters, Yesh Atid lost almost half its seats. Since then, Lapid has improved his public standing—popularity polls now put Yesh Atid second, after Likud—by appearing to be more religiously observant and by talking tough on terror. Lapid is a moderate (he supports a Palestinian state and opposes the expansion of remote West Bank settlements), is an excellent communicator, and is an astute reader of public sentiment. But he is hypersensitive—he tends to overreact when criticized—and he lacks security experience, a huge impediment in Israel.
None of this means that Netanyahu is invulnerable, however. In March, Haaretz published a poll showing that a new, imaginary centrist party led by Gabi Ashkenazi (a popular former IDF chief of staff), Kahlon, and Saar would beat Likud in an election held tomorrow. But unless its coalition crumbles, the government doesn’t need to call a new election until November 2019, and the nonexistent party remains a fantasy. In the meantime, Netanyahu continues to maneuver. He has tried to entice the smaller right-wing parties into forming a new, broader party with Likud (so far, none of them has shown much interest). And this past spring, he held negotiations with Herzog over the formation of a unity coalition, only to back off at the last moment and offer his former ally Lieberman the post of defense minister. With Lieberman inside the government, the ruling coalition—more right-wing than ever—would get an expanded parliamentary base and more room to breathe.
Until the next election does come around, Netanyahu’s government will keep trying to cement as many changes as possible to Israeli society and the Israeli establishment. The prime minister and his allies will push to appoint more conservatives to the Supreme Court and more religious Zionists to key government and academic positions. They will maintain their support for Mizrahi culture and West Bank settlements, will impose more restrictions on left-wing organizations, and will work to increase tensions with Israel’s Arabs.
Regardless of who wins the next election, at least some of these changes seem likely to become permanent. The country has already become far less tolerant and open to debate than it used to be. The peace camp has withered, and very few really challenge the status of the occupation anymore. Arab-Jewish relations are so bad that they would take outstanding leadership and enormous effort to fix. And the United States’ retrenchment has strengthened the sense among many Israelis that they can go it alone and no longer need to worry about pleasing Washington. It’s hard to see how a new Israeli prime minister—or a new U.S. president—will be able to reverse many of these shifts.
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