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Israel hasn’t seen the back of Bibi yet

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Just a few months ago, it was unfathomable that Israel would ever have a prime minister that wasn’t Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the wily politician who always landed back in the hot seat over the past 12 years.

But then, an unlikely coalition was cobbled together, and Naftali Bennett became Israel’s new head of state. Does that mean that Israel is in a post-Netanyahu era?

This is the question that Israeli political journalist Anshel Pfeffer attempted to answer in a talk at Limmud@Home, hosted by Limmud South Africa on Sunday 22 August.

Speaking to a large online audience, he revealed that this was the first time he was addressing this subject. “It’s been two and a half months since Netanyahu left power. The fact that the new government is still here is an achievement. Many people didn’t think it would last this long. Yet are we in a new era? When we talk about someone who was prime minister for so long, to what degree does he leave his stamp, personality, and agenda on the nation?”

He proposed that “in Netanyahu’s case, there is no doubt that we are still feeling the effects because of the length of time he served [as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister] and his style of governance. He tried to make it a ‘presidential style’ of governance, meaning that he ruled almost on his own.”

Pfeffer argued that in considering the new government, one must look at who is heading it up. “Bennett joined politics as a close aide to Netanyahu. He hero worshipped Bibi, even though Netanyahu pushed him away so many times. Even now, although the break between Bennett and Bibi is irrevocable, Bennett is in many ways still influenced by him. In that sense, I don’t think we are in a post-Netanyahu era.”

On the other hand, “Bennett’s nature is much more collegial. He includes all of cabinet in governing, he listens to them, and he has good relationships with them. So, it’s an actual cabinet government, not a ‘presidential-style’ one.” In addition, Bennett is the leader of a small party and became prime minister as part of an agreement to break the deadlock of Israeli politics. This is very different to Bibi’s leadership as head of a large party.

Pfeffer noted that a “coalition builder” is someone who brings people together and smooths over differences. However, “Netanyahu was a coalition builder of a different kind. He built his coalitions on groups of angry, resentful, and fearful people. This government is different. It has eight political parties from across the spectrum. They came together with one purpose: to replace Netanyahu. They still need to find a shared purpose, but they are doing better than expected.”

All this could have an effect on Israeli society and change the discourse from one of division. “When I talk to people, they seem less motivated or angered by daily politics. They are thinking about where we are going next.”

Pfeffer said the biggest impact of the Netanyahu era was how he “gradually downgraded the Palestinian issue on the national and global agenda. Netanyahu managed to exhaust all international interlocutors so that they felt they couldn’t do anything [to resolve the conflict]. It became an afterthought.”

Though this new government will engage on the issue to some extent, essentially there isn’t much it can do due to the radically different views of the coalition parties. “These range from annexation of the West Bank to a two-state solution. So there is no way they can reach an agreement. Therefore, the issue will remain on the backburner. They will manage, but not try to solve, the conflict. In that way, it’s a continuation of the Netanyahu era,” Pfeffer said.

He believes it’s the same with the pandemic – Bennett will follow Bibi’s path of “putting all efforts and hopes in vaccines”. When it comes to the economy, “there also won’t be any major difference”. And regarding Iran, Bennett will continue Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iran deal. “There will be the same kind of shadow warfare against Iran. The difference will be that he won’t try to bring these differences with the Biden government out into the open. He’ll keep it quiet. Bibi was much more confrontational.”

Pfeffer has noticed one major shift, namely in foreign policy, especially towards Europe. “Future Prime Minister Yair Lapid [if the rotation deal goes ahead] is already making his mark as foreign minister. For example, he has confronted Poland on its possible restitution law making it impossible for Holocaust survivors to reclaim property.” Pfeffer thinks Lapid is doing this because it’s close to his heart, but also to show that Israel is now trying to align itself with more liberal European countries as opposed to its former close relationship with the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary.

“Hungary and Poland aren’t major players, but they’re seen as standard bearers of illiberal nationalist populist politics. Lapid is saying that Israel isn’t doing that anymore.”

Pfeffer said it was unlikely that Bennett would be prime minister beyond the next two years. “I’d say Bennett is a transition figure, but Lapid has more of a chance of being prime minister in future. With a large party, and a reservoir of centrist and left support, he has the potential to grow. He is already seen by many Israelis as a saviour for cobbling together this new government.”

He said many Israeli journalist and pundits – himself included – have always underestimated Lapid. But he now believes Lapid could “usher in a new era of Israeli politics and emerge as the unlikely potential leader of the next era”.

Finally, he considered if Netanyahu could one day return as prime minister. “He would definitely want to be prime minister again. He’s nearly 72, but is fit and healthy, and his ambition, drive, and stamina are still there. But it doesn’t look like he has a path back to power for the next two or three years. In addition, his court cases could affect his political fortune.”

At the same time, “In Israeli politics, anything can happen. Even this new government seemed outlandish three months ago. In spite of his loss of power, Netanyahu has firm control of Likud. It remains the largest party in the Knesset. He also has a strong alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties. So even though at this moment, I can’t see him returning to the premiership, he does have springboard,” Pfeffer said.

“Are we in a post-Bibi era? Not yet in the sense that he’s still here, challenging the government. He may not be prime minister, but he sees no reason to retire and go write his memoirs.”

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