How Netanyahu’s Dominance of Israeli Politics Has Shaped the Field

After a decade with Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm and with Israel now heading toward another election, the prime minister’s impact permeates every facet of the Israeli political scene. Whatever the actual ballot count is on April 9th and whether Netanyahu is the top vote getter or not, Netanyahuism has already conquered Israeli politics and it is hard to see how the political landscape in Israel could take a different course any time soon.

The Netanyahu-Likud Tree

One way to understand the impact and influence Netanyahu and his Likud Party have had on today’s Israeli politics is to consider the vibrant growth of the Netanyahu-Likud tree. Many of the principal current political competitors spent growth years in their political careers under the wing of the Likud Party or working with Netanyahu himself.

Perhaps the oldest tie-in to Netanyahu is former Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman has vied for seats in the Knesset as the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party and has done this independently or as part of a joint list with Netanyahu’s Likud. Today, he is one of the prime minister’s competitors, attacking him from the right for being soft on Palestinians. His party did best when it was able to reliably count on Israelis from the former Soviet Union to vote for him. But long before Lieberman formed this party and launched his own political career, he worked for Netanyahu as far back as the 1980s. He would eventually assume a leadership position in the Likud Party when Netanyahu took it over; and when the latter became prime minister, Lieberman was the director-general of his office.

Many of the principal current political competitors spent growth years in their political careers under the wing of the Likud Party or working with Netanyahu himself.

Naftali Bennett, who led the hard-right Jewish Home Party in recent elections, followed a similar political career trajectory. Before starting the party that would rely heavily on the religious nationalist and settler constituency, he served for years as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, his political partner who has since joined in the creation of yet another party, was also working as a director in Netanyahu’s office.

Then there is Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu Party managed to win 10 seats in the last election cycle by advancing an economic policy platform. But before Kahlon set out on his own, he rose in the Likud Party as well. After the election in 2009, he became a government minister for the first time and was given the communications portfolio by a newly elected Israeli prime minister named Benjamin Netanyahu.

Moshe Ya’alon, an Israeli general and former chief of staff, also started his political career in 2009 on the Likud list led by Netanyahu. It was through successive Netanyahu governments that Ya’alon rose to defense minister before resigning after the controversy around Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who murdered an unarmed, wounded Palestinian. Now Ya’alon has reentered politics and joined forces with Benjamin Gantz, another former military general and chief of staff who was elevated into that prominent position by a Netanyahu government.

Even some of the contenders who are not thought of as part of a right-wing bloc today have political career ties to Netanyahu. Yair Lapid, who was previously known to Israelis as a television personality, started the Yesh Atid Party in 2013. Lapid’s father, Yosef, had led the Shinui Party, a secular party that last found a home in Ariel Sharon’s Likud-led government. Yair’s party was looking to continue the secular political tradition and after the 2013 elections it joined Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led government. The man long known to Israelis as a TV personality would now be their finance minister.

Or, take Avi Gabbay, the head of today’s Labor Party. Historically, Labor has been the Likud Party’s main rival in Israeli politics. That is not the case anymore because of the utter Likud dominance of Israeli politics. So today, even the Labor Party is led by a politician, Avi Gabbay, whose political career began not through Labor but by an appointment to a ministerial position in a Netanyahu government.

Gabbay’s iteration of the Labor Party recently parted ways in stunning fashion with Tzipi Livni. The daughter of Irgunists (members of the pre-1948 Zionist paramilitary organization, the Irgun) and a protégé of Ariel Sharon, Livni followed Sharon’s 2004 split from Likud to join the Kadima Party. Despite a high point of once winning 29 seats in the 2009 elections, she never led a government and the party has all but fizzled from existence since that time. Today, she barely polls above the electoral threshold and may not even earn a seat in the Knesset. Gabbay parted ways with Livni in part because he believed her reputation as a “dove” could make his alliance with her politically costly.

Upstart candidate Orly Levy might garner 4 to 5 seats in the upcoming election. The daughter of the longtime Likud politician David Levy, she entered Israeli politics as part of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party and has since split to restart a party led by her father that broke from the Likud, only later to rejoin it.

Together, all of these parties and party heads are likely to represent the vast majority of the Israeli electorate after the coming elections. This is not to say that there are no differences between the parties. Some are centering economic policies, while others cater to the interests of specific ethnic or religious subgroups. But when it comes to policies regarding the Palestinian issue, the differences are much harder to spot—if at all. This is a testament to the conquest of Israeli politics by the Likud Party, as led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

When it comes to policies regarding the Palestinian issue, the differences are much harder to spot—if at all. This is a testament to the conquest of Israeli politics by the Likud Party, as led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

A One-Party State

There are many parties in the Israeli political system and increasingly there seems to be one for every political personality rather than for policy platforms. Parties are defined by the characters who lead the top of the list more than the issues on which they campaign. The notoriety that many of these politicians have is due to their relationship with Netanyahu, which means that in the process of selling themselves to the Israeli electorate, they can only break so much from him while still seeming genuine. The politician who came from the Likud and has tried the most to break from the party and its leader is Tzipi Livni, and this has proved disastrous for her.

Of course, there is room to disagree with Netanyahu, but disagreements tend to be most pronounced on matters other than the question of peace and the relationship with the Palestinian people. Netanyahu’s policies, which amount to perpetual occupation, are not seriously challenged.

For example, Naftali Bennett’s party supports annexation of at least part of the West Bank. Lieberman supports the notion of separation, but not sovereignty for Palestinians, and also backs population transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Kulanu Party, led by Moshe Kahlon focuses on economic policy; however, on relations with the Palestinians it shows no real opposition to Likud policy. The new party led by General Benjamin Gantz, which is increasingly becoming the central repository for the votes of those who do not like Netanyahu the politician, supports strengthening the settlement blocs, never dividing Jerusalem, and retaining control over the Jordan River Valley. This is a long way of saying that it supports perpetual occupation. Even Gabbay, the head of the Labor Party, upholds the idea of separation but not sovereignty; he has made racist comments about Arabs and is committed never to serve alongside Arab parties in a coalition.

Perpetual occupation is a policy position that would probably unite more Israeli voters than any other issue. This is due in good part to the effectiveness of the Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, which defined the boundaries of its own conception of reasonable discourse in this debate for the last decade. While Netanyahu has set the rules and portrayed himself as the politician of security and strength, this has meant that his political opponents and competitors are trying to attack him from the right, claiming he is not tough enough. Those criticizing him by claiming he is not savvy or honest enough to continue to lead, like Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, still need to tout their security credentials lest they be characterized as doves. The best indicator of this is that the main challenge to Netanyahu, Gantz’s party, has to drape itself in military fatigues for credibility. This “General’s party” is leaning on the reputation of the military in society to challenge Netanyahu. As the Israeli military is the single most unifying institution in Israeli society, it tells us something about the extent of Netanyahu’s impact that the opposition to him feels it must piggyback on military identity to mount a credible challenge.

Perpetual occupation is a policy position that would probably unite more Israeli voters than any other issue. This is due in good part to the effectiveness of the Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, which defined the boundaries of its own conception of reasonable discourse in this debate for the last decade.

Campaigning on Barbarity and Racism

Since the right-wing Netanyahu is presenting himself as Mr. Security, other candidates are largely responding by brandishing their own willingness to use force, to be destructive, and basically, to kill Palestinians. Gantz is perhaps the most prominent example. He is using campaign ads with actual drone footage of airstrikes, literally listing the number of Palestinians killed as part of his political resume. Avi Dichter, a Likud candidate, has an ad in which he talks about the need to make Palestinian mothers cry and to make sure his mother does not. Others have boasted about their attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel while one candidate has even put out a video with Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who murdered a Palestinian in cold blood on video. Candidates in Israel are appealing to Israeli voters based on how much they hate Arabs and Palestinians and are willing to hurt them.

Netanyahuism Has Won, Even If Netanyahu Manages to Lose

In previous years, there was a sense that Netanyahu was the central figure in the Israeli right, holding together a right-wing coalition, and that if he managed to lose an election, a different coalition could form and offer an alternative path forward. While, over the years, there has always been a sizeable number of voters backing Netanyahu and a similar size group opposing him, the parties to which the opposition votes have gone have shifted rightward over time. From Labor to Kadima to Yesh Atid to Gantz, at present all of them espouse positions to the right of the parties that opposed Netanyahu and the Likud in the 1990s and 2000s.

Today, Gantz does not try to differentiate himself significantly from Netanyahu. And how could he? If he thought Netanyahu’s policies were really dangerous for Israel, why did he work with Netanyahu to implement them while under his wing, rather than resign? Instead, Gantz calls Netanyahu a patriot and his biggest attack line against him involved Netanyahu’s long tenure and corruption scandals.

There is a chance that Netanyahu may be indicted in these scandals ahead of the election, as Israel’s attorney general has committed to making an announcement about one month ahead of the April 9th election date. It is not clear whether a possible indictment would force Netanyahu out of the race. But even if it does, and even if Likud no longer is the largest party and cannot lead a government, Netanyahu’s conquest of Israeli politics over the past decade has spawned many right-wing personalities and will constrain any oppositional thinking for many years to come.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here