Serious challenges in Israel after Netanyahu
That Benjamin Netanyahu is leaving the prime ministerial office merits a reflection on Israeli politics.
The man is often depicted in stark terms – as the saviour of the Israeli right after the disappearance of its major pillars Menachem Begin, Isaac Shamir, and Ariel Sharon - or as a Trump-like figure whose opponents consider a threat to the country’s political life.
However the defining characteristic of Netanyahu’s success of remaining at the helm of Israeli politics in the last 12-years was his ability to become the meeting point of four different but sizeable and influential constituents of Israeli society. These are: large groups of the religious right, the most important aggregations of settlers, remnants of the Likud party, and economic power centres that have significantly augmented their wealth in the past two decades.
Each of these groups have major disagreements with Netanyahu’s political views. Yet, they disagree more with each other and with other camps in Israeli society.
Netanyahu’s success was in being able to bring these groups close enough in a political orbit of which he was the necessary nucleus.
Now that Netanyahu is leaving the prime ministerial office these four groups will not find a political gravitational force that brings them together.
Major differences between them will come to the fore and will result in gradual fragmentations within the Israeli right.
This fragmentation reflects societal trends in Israel that have been gathering momentum for several decades.
Israel has been seeing rising religiosity amidst a traditionally liberal society and rising economic inequality amidst a traditionally socialist state.
This has generated acute differences concerning the nature – and future – of Israel.
Some want a religious state, others a secular one based on the principles of the Zionist project that had founded the country and guided its rulers in the first half century of its life. Some want a sustainable compromise with the Palestinians, others see an inevitability of struggle and therefore insist on militaristic policies.
Some see a country that must isolate itself from the problems surrounding it in the Middle East and envisage Israel always economically and culturally linked to the West.
Others believe that such continued detachment from the environment surrounding Israel condemns it to a mindset of perpetual fear of the milieu it is within.
Israeli politics have failed in the past two decades to put forward answers to these polarisations that convince wide sections of the society.
Netanyahu played a role in that because the orbit and meeting point that he maintained enabled many social constituents who came into this orbit to coexist in a coalition despite lacking a common or even close views of the nature and future of Israeli society.
Demographics exacerbate the complexity of Israel’s socio-politics. Circa 20 per cent of Israelis are Orthodox Jews, and almost another 20 are Arabs. This means that close to 40 per cent of the population is effectively opposed to the ideology (secular Zionism) upon which the state was founded. And so the society increasingly lacks a common frame of reference.
There’s also increasing internal securitisation. As the Gaza war in May 2021 has shown, Israel had to resort to heavy security measures to contain the demonstrations of its Arab citizens. This is a sign of the strength of the Israeli right as opposed to the left which has always found ways of engaging Arab citizens. It is also a sign that a serious social problem is brewing - one that will ultimately lead to even more reliance on security measures. And the more a society relies on heavy security measures internally, the more radicalisation that society will engender.
The external environment is also problematic. Benjamin Netanyahu has argued that there are significant yields to Israel from the close links he has developed with the American Christian right, with right political movements in different parts of the world (such as India’s political Hinduism), and with wealthy Arab Gulf states.
The key point here is “he has cultivated”.
Netanyahu forged these links, often on top of his allies in government, and almost always without the endorsement of many of the political groups that kept him in power – because these groups have markedly different views of Israel’s global positioning and the nature of alliances it ought to be in.
With Netanyahu out, Israel will have to recalibrate a lot of its foreign policy work in the past decade.
Finally, Netanyahu leaves office at a moment Israel is, quietly, absorbing a shock. The Gaza war in May 2021 was doubtless a success for Hamas against Israel.
Hamas is a member of an alliance comprising Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria. This means that if Hamas, the smallest member of the alliance, has managed to score a success against Israel, it is conceivable that the alliance as a whole can secure a victory over Israel in a future confrontation.
This prospect compels Israel to rethink its strategic calculus – a difficult task at any time, and daunting when a society is contending with acute divisions within.
Israeli politics have always been interesting, especially given the country’s major sway on the Middle East’s strategic scene.
Its politics will become even more interesting and important to observe in the coming months, as the end of Netanyahu’s leadership will herald consequential changes.