Netanyahu’s Departure Would Be a Very Big Deal

By Aaron David Miller


March 14, 2019


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in trouble. Israel's attorney general has plans to issue an indictment charging fraud, breach of trust and most seriously bribery. (Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.)

Yet nobody familiar with Netanyahu's formidable political skills should count him out just yet. He may still emerge after Israel's April 9 election as the best positioned candidate to form a new government. However, it's hard to see how he can survive a formal indictment and defend himself at a trial against charges of bribery, all the while keeping his coalition together and governing the country.

Make no mistake. Should Netanyahu's career end through resignation or conviction, it will be a very big deal. Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for more than a decade. Indeed, should he survive past July, he will become the longest governing prime minister in Israel's history -- surpassing even David Ben Gurion, Israel's first and arguably greatest prime minister.

Still, transformations are rare in politics. And we should be careful not to see Netanyahu's potential political demise as a panacea for all that ails Israel. Hopefully, his departure will take some of the incivility and polarization out of Israel's politics; alleviate tensions with American Jews; and perhaps lead to a more pragmatic approach toward Palestinians.

But anyone expecting miracles (this is the Holy Land after all!) ought to lay down, take a deep breath and wait quietly until the feeling passes.

And here are several good reasons why:

Israel's leadership crisis will remain

Israel is still in the middle of a leadership transition from powerful founders who carried legitimacy and authority in Israeli politics -- and who could make big decisions on peace and war -- to a set of new leaders, who have fumbled and stumbled repeatedly.

Three prime ministers have sought to fill their greater predecessors' shoes. Consider their fates: Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu in June 1999, only to go on to become one of the shortest-tenured prime ministers in Israeli history and to suffer a landslide defeat at the hands of Ariel Sharon in 2001.

Then there was Ehud Olmert, who resigned in 2008and went on to serve 16 months in prison on corruption charges.

Netanyahu has been far more successful, presiding over economic growth, an expansion of diplomatic contacts in the Arab world and a relatively stable security situation. And yet he's a deeply polarizing figure, who has undermined the country's democratic norms, dragged down its political discourse and will likely soon have the distinction of becoming the first sitting Israeli Prime Minister to be indicted.

His longevity notwithstanding, his legacy may well turn out to be a deeply stained one. And his departure won't easily change the divided nature of Israeli politics and society; the transactional character of coalition governance; and the combustibility of Israeli politics, where since 1999, the average length of an Israeli government is about two and a half years.

Centrist parties have a rocky history

Benny Gantz, a former Israeli chief of general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and leader of the newly formed Israel Resilience party -- with no prior political experience -- may yet surprise us all.

So far, he's been measured -- well-spoken and silent on the big issues -- but with a platform tacking rightward, taking a tough stance on Hamas, asserting Israeli control over the Jordan Valley and not endorsing a Palestinian state, in an effort to capture disaffected Netanyahu voters. He and his main coalition partner, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, are the most serious challengers Netanyahu has faced yet.

Still, as the inestimable Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer points out, the Gantz-Lapid coalition (known as the Blue and White political alliance) really isn't a party but a temporary alignment of diverse interest and personalities designed for a single purpose: getting rid of Netanyahu.

And it has a built-in self-destruct mechanism. If Netanyahu wins, the bloc will almost certainly fall apart in the wake of recriminations over the reasons for the defeat. But even if it wins, Blue and White may fall victim to personality disputes, the rivalry between Gantz and Lapid over their rotating prime minister deal (Gantz is set to lead first) and the inevitable fate of centrist parties, which sooner rather than later disappear.

The peace process will still be a headache

Gantz is no leftist, despite Netanyahu's efforts to paint him as one. And even if his platform tacks right for political reasons, there's nothing to suggest that his views on the Palestinian issue reflect any real intention or commitment to take big leaps and risks for peace.

Though it's painful to admit, Israeli and Palestinian positions on the core issues reflect the huge gaps that right now simply can't be closed. Not to mention the deep divisions between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which make the Palestinian national movement a veritable Noah's Ark problem with two of everything -- statelets, security services and patrons and visions of what and where Palestine is.

Gantz may well be inclined to adopt the Israeli security services' more pragmatic view of how to deal with Palestinians -- tough but practical and avoiding steps that might accelerate a blowup. And even though Gantz has held up Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin as examples of Israeli patriots -- two prime ministers who took real risks for peace -- Gantz may well come to see trying to maintain ties with Arab states as priorities, rather than a politically loaded and fraught peace process that would need to resolve explosive issues like Jerusalem.

Gantz will certainly try to be responsive to the Jared Kushner peace plan if and when it appears. But like Netanyahu -- depending, of course, on what's in it -- will most likely say, "yes, but..."

Trump and Gantz: No Vulcan mind meld

Trump is President of the United States -- and every Israeli prime minister must develop as close a relationship with him as possible. As the 2020 US election approaches, Trump will want to continue to demonstrate he's the most pro-Israel president in history. But there will be changes.

Should Gantz become prime minister, unlike Netanyahu, he will likely stay out of US politics. There will be no end runs to Congress; no twinning with Trump's inflammatory politics about "witch hunts"; no circulating Trump endorsements from Fox News; and no effort to help Trump make the Republican Party the most pro-Israel party in US politics.

At the same time, Gantz has already indicated he will address American Jews' concerns about egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem -- a move that will help defuse tensions from the Netanyahu years.

Gantz, unlike Netanyahu or Trump, won't be a divider. He will likely strive to heal political rifts, end corruption, reinstate respect for rule of law and restore civility and amity in Israeli political discourse. These are galactic challenges. And whether Gantz can succeed in any of this remains to be seen.

Still, Gantz doubtless believes that the Netanyahu years have put Israel in a big hole. And that in such circumstances the first order of business is to stop digging. Hopefully, Gantz will do that -- and who knows, perhaps much more.