It seems the long reign of Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to its end. Nothing is certain yet, and there will doubtless be more scenes in this tragedy before the curtain falls. But the prospects of Netanyahu continuing as Israel’s prime minister are growing dim.
More than a few are understandably celebrating the light at the end of the tunnel of Netanyahu’s tenure. And, unlike some, I would contend that Israelis have reason for optimism. But for those of us outside of Israel who support the rights of Palestinians as well as Israelis and wish for all of those in the troubled region to enjoy equal rights, the fall of Netanyahu comes too late to make much difference.
In fact, it might set us back in some ways.
Who Comes Next?
Netanyahu is not required to step down from his office if he is indicted on any of the charges for which he is currently being investigated. But refusing to do so would put him in the middle of a political firestorm that would make it very difficult for him to do anything in office and also hurt his chances to avoid or at least sharply reduce any legal penalties he might face. Once his former chief of staff turned state’s evidence, an indictment became much more likely. Few Israelis believe Netanyahu’s pleas of innocence, according to recent polls. Netanyahu is very likely to be forced to resign and call for new elections, as his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, did nearly a decade ago.
There are several possible scenarios for replacing Netanyahu. The most likely one is that the Likud Party retains control of the government with a new leader. Right now, Gideon Sa’ar, the former minister of education and minister of internal affairs under Netanyahu, is the most likely candidate to lead Likud. Sa’ar openly opposes a two-state solution and is vague on other options, voicing support for impossible solutions like a Palestinian confederation with Jordan.
Sa’ar is less passionate in his support for settlements than Netanyahu, although that could change if he comes to depend, as Netanyahu has, on more right-wing parties for his governing coalition. Sa’ar is seen as less hostile to democratic processes and institutions than Netanyahu, and he does not have the connections to the Republican Party in the US that Netanyahu does.
This amounts to an Israeli prime minister who would be less outrageous and very likely better for the country, even for Palestinian citizens of Israel, than Netanyahu. But prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough would remain bleak.
On that score, there is little space between Sa’ar and Netanyahu. The biggest difference would be that Sa’ar would, given his public persona, be less inclined to try to score political points by angering Europe and liberals in the United States. He would be much more likely to try to mend fences between Israel and the mainstream of the US Jewish community as well as with the Democratic Party.
That description also suits the new leader of Labor, Avi Gabbay. Gabbay has stated that he supports a two-state solution. But he also says that in such a solution, Israel must maintain control of the major settlement blocs as well as the Jordan Valley. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s also the position of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Despite the fact that Gabbay’s election energized the Labor Party—which had been projected as losing more than half its seats in polls conducted in the spring—polls continue to suggest that the Zionist Union, the coalition of which Labor is the vast majority, would lose seats in a new election.
But Gabbay is a wild card, and it’s certainly possible that he can present a good enough alternative to Likud to woo voters. Still, even if he does, a lot would have to go right for Labor to win an election, much less form a government. Since it will not bring the Joint List (which is itself experiencing upheaval these days) or its component Arab and non-Zionist parties into a coalition, Labor would have to convince not only rival centrists in Yesh Atid and Kulahnu to join it and Meretz. It would need to find something like 20 to 25 Knesset seats from among the religious and center-right parties, and that would either be impossible or require major concessions to the right. Should Yesh Atid win, a similar framework would be the outcome.
Back to Sheep’s Clothing
Gabbay, Sa’ar, or chairman of the Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid would present a more moderate face internationally and domestically than Netanyahu does. That may be a double-edged sword, but it’s not without some potential benefits.
Even Sa’ar is pretty far from the kind of demagogue Netanyahu is. As prime minister he would, despite likely heading a coalition leaning just as far to the right as the current one does, project a calmer and more rational image. That might, over a long enough period of time, have a calming effect on the Israeli public.
Lapid is a much more bombastic man, but he would necessarily lead a coalition much closer to the center than Sa’ar would. Gabbay, as much of an unknown as he is, probably embodies the best of both: a sober individual who would lead a centrist coalition.
That matters. Israel’s slide away from democracy and into stronger nationalism has been unhealthy for everyone. It has not provided incentive for Israel to change its policies, but it has created an atmosphere where such change is riskier politically than ever. The true left in Israel has become more marginalized, the center has moved distinctly to the right, and moderates in the center-left are unable to articulate a political vision.
A less demagogic prime minister can change that, especially one leading a government that is not beholden to the far-right settler parties. But that holds its own kinds of dangers as well.
For over two decades, Israelis and Palestinians engaged in a peace process that was all process and no peace. One can discuss the failings of both sides in this, and there’s plenty to talk about. But there are two basic notions upon which those talks were based that were fatally flawed.
One was the idea that “only bilateral talks between the two parties can resolve the conflict.” Of course, this is true, but such “bilateral talks” cannot possibly work if there are no outside actors working to create conditions to correct the massive imbalance in power between Israel and the Palestinians. The other, related idea is that “Israel wants peace.” Again, that is true, but by itself, it’s an empty statement. Everyone wants peace: the question is what sacrifices and compromises they’re willing to make for it. The answer to that question is based not only on valuing peace but also on the political pressures promoting peace and the cost of not having it.
In Israel, domestic politics militate against peace. That’s not because Israelis are uniquely warlike, but because they have lived in perpetual fear for the country’s entire existence. A lot of that fear is the experience of war and terrorism, as well as the realities many Israelis confront when they meet, during their army service or any other time, the people living under their military occupation without civil, and often human, rights. A lot of it also comes from bombastic and threatening rhetoric from regional leaders and from the promotion of fear by their own leaders.
But whatever the sources, that fear creates a political aversion toward risk-taking for peace. That could be overcome, however, if there were reason to overcome it. The problem is that the occupation has become ridiculously cheap for Israel. Europe, the United States, and even other Arab states foot the bill to support the Palestinians, and the US shields Israel from most of the diplomatic consequences it might otherwise face.
Despite the growth of the global movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel (BDS), Israel’s economy remains comparatively strong. Despite the horrifying siege of Gaza, and five decades of depriving Palestinians of basic rights, Israel remains a member of the community of nations. Indeed, a number of Arab countries, particularly the Gulf States, are trying hard to find ways to warm their relationships with Israel without triggering upheavals in their streets.
Reducing Pressure on Israel?
All of this becomes much more complicated with an Israeli leadership that is not so infuriating as Netanyahu has been. Under his leadership much of the mask of the occupation has come off, and not only in Gaza. His anti-democratic moves against Israeli civil society, his hubris directed toward Europe (Israel’s largest trading partner), and his deliberate alienation of the US Jewish community have all diminished Israel, even among those who, sadly, have been unmoved by Israel’s appalling treatment of the Palestinians.
Even Sa’ar, and certainly Gabbay, might be able to restore much of Israel’s positive image. That can be a good thing, but it can also lead to even more relaxation of the meager pressures on Israel to grant Palestinians their rights. The last thing anyone needs after decades of inertia and more than eight years of Netanyahu is a resumption of a peace process façade.
The departure of Benjamin Netanyahu is a welcome event, and it should bring some positive change in Israel. But Netanyahu has already succeeded in killing any hope of a negotiated resolution any time soon. He has moved the goalposts and greatly increased the political danger for any Israeli leader who might suggest that Israel share Jerusalem, give up the Jordan Valley, or shrink, much less abandon, any large settlements that threaten the viability and contiguity of a potential Palestinian state.
Changing the course of the Israel-Palestine conflict has gone well beyond replacing Netanyahu. It may be a necessary first step, but his long tenure has robbed that step of most of its impact.