In 2002, three years after losing the Israeli premiership, Benjamin Netanyahu went on a popular television show and spoke of a political comeback. His interviewer was a telegenic broadcaster with gelled black hair named Yair Lapid. “When you left,” Lapid began, “there were people who cried and said they would kill themselves, and there were others who said they would leave the country if you were ever elected again. Do you know why you elicit such strong reactions in people?”
“In some, yes,” Netanyahu replied. He first took office in 1996, a year after a Jewish extremist assassinated the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, for spearheading the Oslo Accords. A month before the assassination, Netanyahu took part in a demonstration, in Jerusalem, in which protesters chanted “Death to Rabin.” In his interview with Lapid, he allowed that he might have had a hand in the rising tensions, calling Rabin’s murder a “terrible trauma.” There was, in his answer then, a rare modicum of self-reflection that he would have done well to revisit in recent days, as similar forces of incitement and violence reëmerged.
At one point in their interview, Lapid asked Netanyahu, “Do you intend to be the next Prime Minister of Israel, yes or no?” “The answer is yes,” Netanyahu said. It took him years to position himself as the undisputed leader of an increasingly hawkish and nationalist Likud. A key moment came in 2005 when, while serving as finance minister in a government headed by Ariel Sharon, also of Likud, Netanyahu publicly quit his position over Sharon’s decision to pull Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip. By 2009, Sharon had suffered a major stroke, and his replacement, Ehud Olmert, mired in corruption investigations, had announced that he was stepping down from the Prime Minister’s seat. After elections that year, Netanyahu returned to the premiership and felt immediate pressure from the Obama Administration to renew peace negotiations with the Palestinians. He did so reluctantly, at one point making a landmark speech in which he expressed support for a two-state solution. But his heart never seemed to be in it. With time, he turned his back on the issue and instead focussed inward, on perceived “enemies from within”: human-rights groups, N.G.O.s.
By whipping up populist rage against so-called Israeli élites—of which he was decidedly one—Netanyahu presided over an increasingly sectarian and divided country. He managed to cling to power for twelve years, becoming Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. But four inconclusive election cycles in the past two years have led to political gridlock and increasing public fury. Last week, Lapid—by now a seasoned centrist politician with hair as white as Netanyahu’s—announced that he had managed to form a working coalition with Naftali Bennett, the pro-settler leader of a small ultranationalist party, and six other parties. On Sunday, this new government was set to be sworn in after a vote in parliament. Bennett, who was once Netanyahu’s chief of staff, will serve as Prime Minister, with Lapid set to replace him in 2023.
Their coalition is one of extremely unlikely allies. In many cases, they are united only by their disdain for Netanyahu. The group includes a nationalist party led by a Russian émigré; a hawkish new right-wing party; two decidedly left-wing parties, respectively headed by a woman and an openly gay man; and, for the first time ever in an Israeli coalition, an Arab party. To form what is known in Israel as the “change government” required a leap of faith on the part of all the party leaders. It also meant that Bennett broke his campaign promise that he would not strike a deal to form a unity government with Lapid, or participate in the establishment of a government headed by him. And so, Bennett, who will serve as Israel’s first religious, kippa-wearing Prime Minister, has become something of a pariah among the ultra-Orthodox, who have had representation in most coalitions since the late nineteen-seventies. In response, a flyer began to circulate in right-wing circles depicting a Photoshopped Bennett in an Arab kaffiyeh, with the words “The Liar” written above—an image eerily reminiscent of doctored posters of Rabin in the days leading up to his murder.
Despite his earlier reflections on Rabin, Netanyahu has fuelled many of the threats against the incoming coalition members. Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu,” told me, “He can’t accept the fact that the Israeli public has turned him down, and he personally believes that without him Israel is destined for disaster.” In a Facebook post on June 4th, Netanyahu railed against homespun “spies”—a thinly veiled attack against Bennett and another lawmaker, Ayelet Shaked, who, like Bennett, had served as his close aide. A day later, Israel’s head of internal security services issued a stern and extraordinary warning against inciting political violence. He did not mention Netanyahu by name, but the implication was clear. A day after the warning, Netanyahu went on the airwaves and called Arab politicians serving in the new government “supporters of terrorism.” Several right-wing lawmakers have now received a security detail as protesters made death threats against them and their families for joining the new government. Olmert, who served as Prime Minister from 2006 to 2009, told me, “The division of Israeli society, the fact that rabbis, acting on Bibi’s orders, are calling Knesset members traitors, the incitement against Arabs—that’s a situation I don’t recall ever happening in the history of Israel.”
For all of Netanyahu’s dismissal of the new coalition, it was formed as a direct result of his governance. Under a government that delegitimized any form of dissent, traditional concepts of left and right have become somewhat meaningless. Lapid himself hinted at these changing political terms when I interviewed him back in 2018. When I pointed out the apparent paradox between his growing popularity in Israel and the country’s right-leaning turn, he did not see a contradiction. “When people ask about my party, I say that we’re a national-liberal party,” he said. “That defines us much more than left, right, or center.” He went on, adding, “The real political fight is between populists and responsible leaders.”
That Netanyahu and his supporters have taken to branding hard-right politicians in treasonous terms once reserved for peacenik leaders shows the rightward drift of Israeli politics under his governance. It also exposes the extent to which fealty to him has become synonymous with fealty to the country. During his years in power, Netanyahu oversaw a flourishing economy, led by a booming high-tech sector, and made Israel a world leader in coronavirus vaccinations—two unequivocal accomplishments. (It is worth pointing out the rising levels of inequality as a consequence of the former, and the country’s robust socialized health system as a key factor in terms of the latter.) But by consolidating a right-wing majority—and using it to incite a backlash against entire segments of the public and to attack the legitimacy and independence of democratic institutions, chief among them the judiciary and the press—he has done damage to Israeli democracy that may be long-lasting. Netanyahu “created three Jewish peoples in a single country—one in the territories and two, traitors and rightists, inside Israel,” Zvi Bar’el, a columnist for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote last week. The country’s political culture has become one that virtually excludes its Arab citizens, who comprise an estimated twenty per cent of the population. This became evident with the passing, in 2018, of a law enshrining Israel’s status as the “nation-state of the Jewish people”—not one of all its citizens.
Yet perhaps nothing has been more momentous than Netanyahu’s abandonment of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For years, Israeli leaders spoke of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as a temporary reality, an uncomfortable step on the path toward a two-state solution. Netanyahu has not only stopped talking that way but, under his rule, Jewish settlements in the West Bank have flourished: there are now nearly half a million settlers living there, not including East Jerusalem, according to some estimates—roughly three times the number when Netanyahu first took office. This reality makes drawing a contiguous Palestinian state extremely difficult. With Israel’s recent signing of normalization agreements with countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, Arab countries no longer demand an independent Palestinian state as a precondition for diplomatic ties with Israel. Because of Netanyahu, “The vision of a two-state solution is clinically dead,” Aida Touma-Sliman, a lawmaker from the Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab parties, told me this week. “If you measure a politician by their ability to implement a vision, he succeeded—and that’s what makes him so dangerous.”
With Netanyahu’s refusal to halt settlement construction in the West Bank and his open defiance of U.S. calls to revive peace talks—warning against “a peace based on illusions”—his relationship with Obama quickly soured. It reached a nadir in 2015, with Netanyahu’s increasingly desperate maneuvering against a nuclear agreement with Iran. That year, as Netanyahu warned the United States Congress that the deal being negotiated under Obama to curb Iran’s nuclear program was a “very bad” one, Netanyahu became the first foreign leader in recent memory to speak in front of a U.S. legislative body against the wishes and in opposition to the policies of a sitting President. In this, and in his subsequent embrace of Donald Trump, Netanyahu discarded Israel’s tradition of bipartisanship in its dealings with the United States. Netanyahu speaks English “with a Republican accent,” as the saying goes in Israel. Such realignment with the Republican Party could be a lasting damage of the Netanyahu years for Israel, as elements within the Democratic Party have, in the intervening years, begun to question their party’s long-standing support for the country and its military. Yet most Israelis believed Netanyahu’s rhetoric that the Iran nuclear deal endangered Israel—even as Iran has, since Trump pulled out of the accord, stockpiled twelve times more enriched uranium than the terms of the agreement permitted. Dan Meridor, a former minister of intelligence and atomic energy in Likud, told me, “In the public consciousness, Bibi has stopped Iran’s nuclear enrichment, whereas in reality it’s the opposite.”
On both the occupied territories and Iran, the new government is unlikely to sway much from Netanyahu’s positions. Bennett has talked openly about annexing much of the West Bank—a step even Netanyahu was hesitant to take. He has also been a vocal critic of the Iran nuclear agreement. (Lapid’s views are more nuanced: he initially opposed the agreement but later said that it was a mistake for the U.S. to exit it unilaterally.) Instead, the new government is most likely to diverge from Netanyahu’s by attempting to re-instill trust in Israel’s leading institutions. Since 2019, Netanyahu has served as Prime Minister while also being under indictment for breach of trust, accepting bribes, and committing fraud. One of the cases against him concerns allegations, which he denies, that he sought favorable coverage from the married main shareholders of a company that owns a leading news site in Israel, in exchange for giving the couple regulatory benefits. His trial, which began last year, has tainted key government appointments with the suggestion of conflict of interest, as some worry Netanyahu could try influencing them to affect the proceedings. Last year, just as his trial opened, Netanyahu named one of his most loyal lieutenants to the ministry of public security, which oversees the police. The incoming coalition will be free of such conflicts. It can move quickly by appointing nonpartisan professionals to agencies that had until now been filled with Netanyahu cronies. As Amnon Abramovich, a commentator for Channel 12, told me, “This government will be measured not so much by what it does as by what it prevents.”
Where does this leave Bibi? By all indications, Netanyahu will start out as an aggressive leader of the opposition, in the hopes that the new government will falter quickly. According to reports, the coalition agreement states that the government will collapse unless it can pass a budget in its first hundred days. Already, Netanyahu’s Cabinet has postponed to next week a contentious nationalist parade through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City—a move seen by the incoming government as intended to stir tensions with the Muslim population. If the coalition manages to hold and to pass a budget, Netanyahu may well feel the urge to take advantage of the perks of private life. “He’ll go on a long lecture tour and the temptation to get into that style where his rich friends are paying for him the whole time and he gets six figures for speaking gigs will be massive,” Pfeffer, Netanyahu’s unofficial biographer, said. In order to enjoy that, however, Netanyahu may first have to resign from parliament, a move that could hinder his chances of another political comeback. And that—as almost everyone I spoke to believes—is already on his mind.