It could be over before it starts. As you read this, it may already be unravelling. But a new government has been formed in Israel, thereby removing the man who has ruled that country longer than anyone else. Benjamin Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for most of the past quarter-century: first elected as prime minister in 1996, he has ruled Israel uninterrupted for the past 12 years. But now, if the new coalition holds together – a big if – the reign of Bibi, King of Israel, will come to an end. Even if we should have no illusions about what comes next, that itself is a cause for celebration.
It is also the new government’s sole, animating purpose. The motley collection of parties, which runs from the settler hard right through the centre to the liberal left – and which includes a Palestinian Islamist party – has next to nothing else in common. It cannot be described as hawkish or dove-ish, left or right: it is simply the anti-Netanyahu bloc, forged to prise his fingers off the prime ministerial desk once and for all.
That will only happen if the alliance holds together long enough to pass a confidence vote in the Knesset, which could be a week or more away. That’s hardly a done deal – not when Netanyahu’s supporters continue to harass and threaten members of the pro-settler Yamina party, whose leader, Naftali Bennett, is slated to become the new PM. One or two of them may yet succumb to the pressure and death threats, and then it will be all but over.
Even if that happens, this moment will not have been without value. Its most significant element is the inclusion of Ra’am, the Islamist party. That breaks a taboo: the first time a genuine party of Israel’s Arab minority will participate in the governing of the country. Of course that taboo should never have existed, shutting out 20% of Israel’s citizens. But the image of a smiling Mansour Abbas alongside Bennett and the coalition’s architect, the centrist former TV host and newspaper columnist Yair Lapid, will have an enduring power. On Wednesday, Israelis waited as the question of who would form their government rested on the blessing of a group of Islamic clerics and lay leaders, Ra’am’s consultative council. Such a scenario would once have been unimaginable. That it happened in a country where Jews and Arabs were fighting each other on the streets just a few weeks ago is mind-boggling and heartening.
Still, those who long for a change in the dreadful status quo, an end to the occupation or even a small move towards Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, let alone equality, should not hold their breath. Ideologically, Bennett is even more hardline than Netanyahu. A former leader of the West Bank settlers and a longtime believer in annexing occupied territory, he once told the Guardian that a Palestinian state was never going to happen and “would be a disaster for the next 200 years” if it did.
What’s more, most analysts agree that Netanyahu was, relative to his predecessors, fairly risk-averse when it came to military activity. He felt no great need to prove his security credentials. It would fit a pattern if Bennett and Lapid turned out to be more, rather than less, bellicose, if only to defy Netanyahu’s taunts that he alone is the true “defender of Israel”.
For all those reasons, it’s wise to lower expectations. And yet Netanyahu’s departure will still be grounds for qualified jubilation – because of all that he’s done and all that he represents.
For Benjamin Netanyahu did not only entrench the occupation. He also embodied a dishonest, divisive, demagogic ethno-nationalism that echoed around the world, from Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to Donald Trump’s US. It showed a contempt for democratic norms, for any restraint on executive power and for the truth. It denigrated critics, promoted hacks, thugs and cronies, and was corrupt in its bones.
Witness how the Netanyahu era is ending – apparently – just as it began: in blood-curdling incitement. In late 1995, then opposition leader Netanyahu stood before rallies that denounced the would-be peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin as a traitor, with doctored images depicting him as a Palestinian terrorist or Nazi SS officer. The head of Israel’s internal security agency went to see Netanyahu, urging him to calm things down. Netanyahu refused and, before long, Rabin was dead, slain by a Jewish extremist. Now some of the same images are being deployed against Bennett.
Divide and rule has been Netanyahu’s guiding principle, recklessly pitting one group against the other. In the 2015 election, he mobilised his supporters on election day by warning that their Arab fellow citizens were going to the polls “in droves”. It worked. This year, he manoeuvred to get Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of a racist, medievally bigoted party, into the Knesset, simply because he thought it would help him retain power. It’s no wonder that Netanyahu has felt comfortable with the likes of Orbán, despite the Hungarian leader’s trafficking in anti-Jewish tropes.
Netanyahu has attacked any institution that threatened to hold him to account or even to act as a check on his power, branding them part of a hated leftist elite. His assaults on the independence of the judiciary have been ceaseless. He appointed loyalists as attorney general and chief of police (and couldn’t conceal his frustration when they acted impartially), and to the previously independent watchdog role of state comptroller.
He has tried to hobble the media, shutting down a state broadcaster deemed insufficiently loyal and having a backer launch a Pravda-esque daily newspaper to hymn his praises. When a rival looked set to take the largely ceremonial role of president in 2014, Netanyahu sought to abolish the post altogether. He has trampled on valuable democratic conventions, including the one that says an indicted PM should step down. Instead, he has clung to office even as he stands trial on three major corruption charges.
In power for far, far too long, Netanyahu has corroded Israel from the inside. Replacing him with a government too divided to do much will not solve every problem, but it will solve one – and that’s a start.