Twenty-seven years after he first came to power, Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced a radical populism, writes Ofer Kenig. (Both images via Getty)

How a once-cautious Benjamin Netanyahu came to lead the most radical coalition in Israel’s history

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How a once-cautious Benjamin Netanyahu came to lead the most radical coalition in Israel’s history

Twenty-seven years after he first came to power, Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced a radical populism, writes Ofer Kenig. (Both images via Getty)

(JTA) — Twenty-seven years have passed since Benjamin Netanyahu was first elected as Israel’s prime minister. Since 1996, he has headed six governments over a period of more than 15 years, more than any other prime minister. Unfortunately, his current coalition is one of the most radical-populist governments in Israel’s history. This government seeks to rapidly undermine Israel’s democracy by granting unlimited political power to the executive branch of government at the expense of the judiciary. 

How can Netanyahu — a U.S.-educated and respected world leader who was cautious in his approach to building previous coalitions, and was once respectful of Israeli democratic institutions — support such a dangerous plan? Was the “writing on the wall” earlier on in his lengthy tenure?

A glimpse into Netanyahu’s years in office reveals that, indeed, signs of his being a populist leader — specializing in attacks against the so-called elite — could be detected long ago. As Likud leader in 1993, Netanyahu was blamed for ignoring the incitement by extremists that preceded the assignation of Yitzhak Rabin (a charge he vociferously denies). As early as 1997, during his first term as prime minister, he said that “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” Two years later, during an election campaign, he mocked the “leftist” press by saying “they are scared” (by the possibility of a right-wing victory). On Election Day in 2015, he posted a video urging Likud supporters to go out and vote by warning, “the Arabs are heading in droves to the polls.” That message led to accusations that the candidate was using racial dog whistles to motivate his followers.   

However, Netanyahu’s populist discourse and his natural divide-and-conquer leadership style were balanced out, at least until 2015, by several factors. First, Netanyahu always sought to include centrist and even left-of-center parties in his coalition governments. Even when he could build a “pure” right-wing coalition (following the 2009 elections, for example), he preferred to invite partners from the opposing political side. His intention, he once said, was to provide a “wide and stable government that unites the people.”

Second, despite his hawkish image and his hardline discourse on security issues, Netanyahu wa considered to be an exceedingly cautious leader in that arena. Risk-averse, he tended to avoid involving Israel in major wars and was wary of acting in ways that would spark violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Third, over his many years in office, he had demonstrated respect for the rules of the game — and towards Israel’s Supreme Court. He even blocked earlier initiatives that sought to undermine the power of the judicial branch. “I believe that in a democracy, a strong and independent Court is what enables the existence of all other democratic institutions,” he said in 2012. “Every time a law comes across my desk that threatens to impair the independence of the courts, we will take it down.”

The 2015 elections should probably be regarded as the turning point, after which these balancing factors quickly gave way to unabashed populism. The unexpected resounding victory in that year’s elections brought out the hubris in Netanyahu. He formed a right-wing coalition government (only slightly moderated by Moshe Kahlon’s centrist Kulanu party), personally held four ministerial positions in addition to the prime ministership, and gave his blessing to the hugely controversial Nation-State Bill. This legislation, which anchored in law Israel’s status as the “national home of the Jewish people,” strengthened the Jewish component of Israel’s dual “Jewish and democratic” identity without in turn strengthening its democratic component — explicitly and implicitly downgrading minority rights.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s longtime obsession with controlling press coverage reached a new level. His insistence on personally heading the Ministry of Communications and his excessive involvement in media — for example, installing a close ally as director-general of the ministry, and targeting and strong-arming ostensibly “unfriendly” newspapers and broadcasters — served as the background for two of the three indictments for which he is currently on trial.

The investigations on corruption charges, and his subsequent trial, further pushed Netanyahu toward populist extremes. Following three rounds of elections between 2019 and 2020, which threw Israel into an unprecedented political crisis, Netanyahu was forced to form a unity government with former Gen. Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue & White party. Coincidentally, just a few hours after the government’s first meeting, Netanyahu’s trial began in the Jerusalem District Court. The prime minister arrived at the court on May 24, 2020, accompanied by several Likud Knesset members, and launched a fierce attack:

What is on trial today is an effort to frustrate the will of the people — the attempt to bring down me and the right-wing camp. For more than a decade, the left has failed to do this at the ballot box. So over the last few years, they have discovered a new method: some segments in the police and the prosecution have joined forces with the leftist media… to manufacture baseless and absurd charges against me.

These statements made it clear that Netanyahu had crossed the Rubicon, setting the tone for his behavior ever since. He dispensed with the partnership with Gantz, sacrificing Israel’s economic and political interests along with it. In the build-up to the next elections, he legitimized extremist, racist politicians such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who are today members of his governing coalition​​. After failing to form a government in 2021 (having been ousted from power after more than 12 consecutive years), he violated fundamental parliamentary conventions and norms. For instance, he instructed his right-wing allies to boycott Knesset committees and refused to attend the customary “update meeting” the parliamentary opposition leader holds with the prime minister. His previous respect for the rules of the game and democratic institutions was a thing of the past.

In that sense, it is no wonder that the current government he has formed, following his victory in the 2022 elections, is relentlessly pushing the overhaul of the judicial system, with little regard to the dangers the legislation poses to Israel’s democracy. This is due to a combination of Netanyahu’s own self-interest regarding his trial and the interests and worldviews of his political partners — politicians who hold extreme views (Ben-Gvir, Smotrich) as well as those who have previous corruption charges hanging over their heads (Aryeh Deri, leader of the haredi Orthodox Shas party). 

The “old Bibi” would have never coalesced with such radical forces and would have never so bluntly disregarded democratic norms. But hubris, an instinct for self-preservation and his high self-regard as the “indispensable man” of Israeli politics created a new Bibi – and a crisis unlike anything Israel has ever seen. 

Ironically, Netanyahu finds himself in an unexpected position — as the moderating force in the most radical coalition in Israel’s history. He could tap the instincts that he once had and be the voice of reason, the one who plugs the dike with his finger. He has the chance to lead Israel to a major constitutional moment. Will he rise to this historical challenge?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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