Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bibi as some call him, will make history as the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister, with 11 years in office, spread over four terms. It is open to discussion how much or how little he did in more than a decade, but a trademark of his political style has been the ability to draw power from controversy and chaotic circumstances. However, will the ongoing investigation implicating him for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust be his kryptonite? And what would his downfall mean for ruling Likud party and Israeli politics?
Netanyahu’s political career took off in the tumultuous times of the withering First Intifada and hopeful days after inking the Oslo Accords, which deeply divided Israeli society. He had no qualms about riding the wave of the discontented half of Israel, vocally resisting the Oslo Accords and cooperation with the Palestinians. He might have had to soften his stance once he won the elections and in the post-Ariel Sharon era, but looking back from this distance, it seems that Bibi’s governments successfully wriggled out of any substantial progress with the Palestinians, often aided by the Palestinians’ own internal strife and mutually politically beneficial status quo, silently agreed between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu.
However, treading the line between making it look like something was being done regarding the Palestinians and essentially doing nothing proved to be increasingly costly for Netanyahu’s political standing among his conservative voter base, prompting him to turn to a different bait appealing to nationalist sentiments: his prized project of expanding the settlements in the West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria. Yet, his hawkish coalition partners from Bayit Yehudi proved to give Bibi a run for the money by having the luxury to double down on every Netanyahu position, without having to answer to the international community, thus essentially watering down his intended appeal to conservative voters.
Then again, for those who are not feeling the vibe of Biblical rhetoric fueling the settlers’ narrative out there far away in the desert, or just feel disenfranchised over the status quo and the “stabbing-intifada,” Bibi just doesn’t deliver, which is what his main opponent, centrist Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, sees as the perfect material to capitalize on. Yair Lapid has developed the strategy of plucking voters both from Likud and the deteriorating Labor Party, which is often perceived as weak, naïve, and unable to cope with security challenges, still seen as a primary concern for Israelis. While newly elected Labor leader Avi Gabbay managed to stack up some increased support in the latest polls, the Temple Mount crisis kicked in, having enough capacity to dramatically reshuffle the cards of Israeli public opinion.
The hot mess on Temple Mount revealed how Netanyahu’s perpetual quest for political survival left him deeply confused. Bibi has always considered himself to be the one who knows how Palestinians and Muslims think, often taking it upon himself to offer this expertise to “naive” Western leaders. Yet his initial move after the terrorist attack — placing metal detectors on Temple Mount without consulting the Waqf or the Palestinian Authority — seemed to be a rookie mistake. Surely anyone familiar with the situation would have known that Palestinians and Muslim leaders will see this minor, even reasonable move, as an attack on their sovereignty in their holy place, which can be easily countered by rallying angry masses by evoking a conspiracy narrative of the Israelis taking over Al-Aqsa mosque.
However, it is perfectly in line with his modus operandi of doing a thing that, in the grand scheme of things, looks like something, but amounts to nothing. The metal detectors are now gone, and Netanyahu tried to claim this as a victorious concession to Jordanians, not Palestinians, thanks to a diplomatic stand-off with Amman that fell into his lap. But the truth is that he made a bold move, backtracked, and enabled Palestinian leaders to milk the Temple Mount crisis for the rest of the summer, trying to win back all the minds and hearts they have been losing to Mohammad Dahlan and Marwan Barghoutti for the past few months.
While Netanyahu is losing touch, that still doesn’t mean he’s completely out of it. Even through the latest investigation scandals piling up, he stood his ground. The charisma that kept him in power for so long is undeniable, but it comes as a double-edged sword for Likud if he is charged or convicted. His potential successors, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and former Minister Gideon Sa’ar, lacking charm and leadership qualities, would hardly be able to rally people in all the ways that Bibi could. The decline of the Labor Party, home of the greats such as Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres, showed how dangerous it is for a party to become too reliant on its leaders’ personal cult and how a lack of clear answers in times of crisis gets promptly punished by Israeli voters. With the investigation dragging on and media outlets, provoked by Netanyahu’s growing authoritarian tendencies, closing down on him in retaliatory fashion, all of the political players want a piece of the Likud pie and might slowly push the party to the margins of Israeli politics.
Ultimately, Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to face a criminal investigation: his fellow Likud chairman Ariel Sharon had his fair share of questioning in cases involving allegations of bribery and campaign financing illegalities. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was convicted of breach of trust and bribery in 2014, sending a rather grim message to undecided or abstaining voters.
Things are not looking good for Netanyahu at the moment, but this has been said before, when he suffered a defeat to Ehud Olmert in 1999, fleeing politics with his tail between his legs. Yet at the first sign of trouble and rallying cries for the Second Intifada, he successfully reinvented himself against all odds, slowly conflating his personal political struggle with a state and vision of the entire society. So it would be almost poetic if he fell prey to his vanity thanks to the failed attempt at what he’s been doing so well for quite a while: shaping reality to reflect himself. Bribing a journalist in exchange for a few nice words might be a forgivable transgression for a rookie, but for a veteran, it spells the final page of one’s political career. Even if Netanyahu weathers this storm, once political survival becomes both the means and the end, the next mistake is just waiting to happen. And this time, everyone is watching and ready to rip Likud into pieces.