Watching Israel’s Political Drama Through a Jewish American Lens

Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett
Jewish politics and power
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1. Comparisons are inevitable but don’t always work

Americans watching the unfolding political drama in Israel may see unavoidable parallels. From their perspective, Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s Donald Trump, the coalition aiming to unseat him is a version of Joe Biden and moderate Democrats, and the Israeli electorate is similar to that of America: roughly split in half, in an ideological equilibrium that shifts slightly to one side or the other each election based on a handful of votes.

But as tempting as it may be, it’s probably best to exercise caution with these comparisons.

First, it’s way too early.

As this newsletter goes out, the Lapid-Bennett alliance in Israel appears to be on the verge of locking in an anti-Bibi coalition agreement; and even though Netanyahu seems to be left with hardly any viable political options to come up with his own coalition—or to force a fifth round of elections. But it’s not over. 

Just keep in mind everything you know about Netanyahu and his political skills, and think of all the times Israel’s political twists and turns threw you off-kilter in the past 73 years. And now, take a deep breath. 

It won’t be over until you see Naftali Bennett stand up at the Knesset podium and take the oath of office as Israel’s next prime minister. If that happens, you’ll know the Netanyahu era in Israeli politics has come to an end.

If this week does indeed end up as the final chapter in one of Israel’s most consequential political careers, then, and only then, comparisons to the American political situation may be warranted. So let’s look at some of them.

2. Is Bibi going to go down like Trump (and is Bennett Israel’s Joe Biden)?

When Netanyahu entered politics in the early 1990s, Donald Trump was still a real estate and casino owner known primarily through his constant presence in New York’s tabloid gossip columns. When Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996, no one had even dreamt up The Apprentice, Trump’s prime-time reality TV hit.

Bibi’s rise in Israeli politics was calculated, well-planned and gradual. Trump’s foray into national politics—via the Trump Tower escalator—was abrupt and dramatic.

But while their rise to power was very different, Trump and Netanyahu’s falls from grace seem very similar.

Like Trump, Netanyahu’s vocabulary does not include the word “concede.” Like Trump, he is determined to fight until the bitter end, and just like his American pal, Netanyahu, too, has no qualms about playing dirty and then taking it one step lower, the closer he gets to the final line.

On Sunday, after Bennett threw Israel into a political whirlwind by announcing publicly for the first time that he is going with Yair Lapid, Netanyahu pulled out all the stops. He claimed the move to unseat him was undemocratic and that his rivals were stealing the people’s vote. (Sound familiar? Could it be that Netanyahu took note of Trump’s post-election rhetoric?) He then accused Bennet and Gideon Saar, the two right-wing pillars of the new coalition, of betraying their voters, of betraying the will of the people. Netanyahu went on to ask: “What will it do for Israel’s deterrence? How will we look in the eyes of our enemies? What will they do in Iran and in Gaza? What will they say in the halls of government in Washington?”

The words sound familiar, and the angry tone echoes that coming out of the White House last year. But there is a fundamental difference between Trump’s final battle and Netanyahu’s.

Trump was fighting against democracy itself, sowing unfounded doubts and fears about the election system and refusing to accept a decisive electoral defeat and clear decision of the American voter. Netanyahu, on the other hand, does have a path forward. It’s slim, complicated and one that would plunge Israel into political chaos. Still, Bibi could somehow peel off a couple of wavering right-wing members from the new coalition and force another round of elections. It’s doubtful, but, as opposed to storming Capitol Hill, it is a legal option.

And just to state the obvious: While there are apparent similarities between Netanyahu and Trump’s conduct in their final political episode, this does not suggest that Naftali Bennett is Israel’s Joe Biden.

True, both Biden and Bennett came to power as a result of a compromise. Biden was the Democrat’s safe choice, a concession progressives and mainstream Dems were willing to make to ensure that Trump didn’t spend the four more years in the White House. Bennett as prime minister is also a compromise, resulting from an unnatural political deal between ideological rivals, united in their will to unseat Netanyahu.

Bennett, a former settler leader, is a center-right politician who, even on his best day, can’t garner the support of even 10 percent of the Israeli public. His views rest to the right of most Israelis and he is not particularly well-liked. On the other hand, Biden is known for being likable and for representing a consensus approach that many Americans can get behind (or at least say they can).

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3.  No celebration for the Jewish American peace camp

Liberal American Jews, and others who view themselves as pro-peace, pro-two-state solution Americans, would be wise to wait before popping the cork on their champagne bottles.

According to the latest Pew study, aren’t in love with Netanyahu, and only a third believe that his government has made a sincere effort toward a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is safe to say that a clear majority of Jewish Americans would like to see an Israeli government which, A) does not include Netanyahu and B) advances a two-state solution.

But even their best-case scenario—a Lapid-Bennett bloc—will satisfy only one of these wishes. Sure, Netanyahu—who for many American Jews became a symbol of everything wrong in the political relationship between the two countries—will be out. But advancing a peaceful solution to the conflict? That’s not in the cards.

If indeed formed and confirmed, the new government will reflect the Israeli public’s fatigue over Netanyahu. It has nothing to do with Israelis’ views on the future of a two-state solution. The new government, with Bennett (former head of the Yesha Council, the political arm of the West Bank settlement movement), Saar (who when serving as minister of education sought to mandate school field trips to Hebron) and Avigdor Lieberman (who lives in a West Bank settlement) is not about to fulfill Jewish American dreams of a post-Netanyahu era of Israeli-Arab peace and reconciliation.

4. On liberalism and purism

The “change bloc” that is in the works reflects the oddest of coalitions: Bennett’s right-wing Yemina party, Saar’s faction, made up of Likud members who were fed up with Netanyahu, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu with its sizeable Russian-speaking constituency and its right-of-center ideology, alongside Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, a centrist party which is the largest in the coalition, Benny Gantz and what remains from his faction, as well as the Labor, led by Merav Michaeli, and Meretz, on the left, led by Nitzan Horowitz.

This type of alliance is an entirely alien concept to Americans following Israeli politics and makes no sense for those raised in a two-party presidential political system. (It is, to be sure, extremely unusual even for Israelis, who are accustomed to unthinkable coalitions.)

But there may be a lesson worth taking from this unholy political alliance, especially for liberals.

Sometimes, you just have to take what you can get.

A Bennet-Lapid government will not bring peace, it is unlikely to advance social equality, and it won’t overhaul the fraught racial, ethnic, religious, and social relations in the country. It’s miles away from most issues the Labor Party cares about and lightyears from the Meretz platform. Still, Michaeli and Horowitz, and their voters, chose to seize the opportunity and join a less-than-perfect government.

Like their American liberal counterparts, they are acutely aware of their coalition partners’ shortcomings. They have a clear understanding that in joining this bloc, they will not advance all their causes. But it’s the better of two evils.

The other option, the purist all-or-nothing approach, would lead to another right-wing government led by Netanyahu.

5. Bennett and Lapid will meet an interesting American administration

While awaiting his turn to rotate with Bennett and become prime minister, Lapid will serve as foreign minister.

His views differ from Bennett’s on the Palestinian issue, but that is unlikely to pose a problem since there doesn’t seem to be any upcoming American initiative.

The bigger issue defining their government’s relationship with the Biden administration will be Iran. Both Lapid and Bennett opposed the Iran nuclear deal when former president Barack Obama signed it. But that doesn’t mean they will put up a fight this time around. If anything, there is more reason to believe that Bennet and Lapid will put greater importance on maintaining a good relationship with Biden than on getting into a fight with the U.S. administration for the sake of slight changes in any Iran deal.

If everything goes right, they should have a smooth relationship with Biden and his team. But then again, when has anything gone right in the Middle East?

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