Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is viewed as an all-powerful leader who enjoys a large public of supporters and believers who will follow him anywhere. The “Netanyahu fans” who swear by him ignore police investigations and police recommendations against him, considering them as illegitimate attempts to bring down an incumbent premier elected by the public. The fans close their eyes to all the state’s witnesses, the accumulating evidence and testimonies and close the circle around their leader through thick and thin. The working assumption of Israel’s political observers was, until recently, that Netanyahu enjoys a “captive audience” that is entranced or hypnotized by its leader and will support him unconditionally.
But last week’s events, in which Netanyahu folded in record time vis-a-vis his crowd of supporters on the issue of deporting African work infiltrators from Israel, turned this assumption upside down. The question is, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Are Netanyahu’s supporters really mesmerized by him, or perhaps the opposite is true — perhaps Netanyahu is bewitched or hypnotized by his political base? Is Netanyahu a leader who commands a huge public that has followed him blindly for many long years, or is he perhaps a leader who adapts himself to that specific populace? Maybe he checks which way the wind is blowing within that public on any given day, and then modifies his policies accordingly?
As detailed in an earlier Al-Monitor article, Netanyahu announced April 2 an outline for dealing with the issue of work infiltrators/labor migrants, or asylum-seekers, the latter being the preferred term among Israeli left-wingers. According to the plan, the United Nations would help find Western countries willing to absorb 16,000 migrants while Israel would absorb a similar number within its borders. Netanyahu convened a press conference and invested his talents of persuasion to promote the outline that had been hammered out at the conclusion of the marathon negotiations with the UN. He emphasized that this was Israel’s only logical alternative, now that the agreements that had been made with various African countries to absorb the work infiltrators had unraveled. In its too-short lifespan, the outline presented by Netanyahu had earned accolades from the Israeli left-center camp and praises from the many political commentators who saw it. As Netanyahu himself had explained, this was the only logical deal under the existing circumstances.
Only a few short hours after presenting the outline, Netanyahu announced that he was “suspending the deal”; the next morning, he formally canceled it. This was an unconditional capitulation on his part, and it took place on the heels of mass verbal assaults on Netanyahu — by his supporters. In fact, something astounding happened in the media, the social networks, Likud WhatsApp groups, in southern Tel Aviv and other bastions of strength of the prime minister. The Netanyahu supporters — those who went through fire and water for Netanyahu over the last two years when the prime minister faced police inquiries and testimonies against him, those who consistently ignored the negative revelations regarding the Netanyahu family — united to raise the flag of rebellion. Netanyahu’s popular Facebook page was flooded with protestations, some of them very vulgar and vociferous, against the migrant worker deal presented by him. Even Netanyahu’s traditional media supporters came out against him. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, former Minister Gideon Saar and many others sharply attacked what they called Netanyahu’s “surrender” to left-wing dictates — his violation of his own principles and backtracking from his promises.
This scared Netanyahu; in his condition, he could not allow himself to face down the electoral base that was keeping his head above water. They were the ones allowing him to continue to serve as prime minister under circumstances in which predecessor Ehud Olmert was forced to resign in shame from the premiership only a decade ago. This time, Netanyahu did not try to craft elegant excuses or use some kind of spin to camouflage his admission of defeat. He admitted that he reconsidered the issue, heard what the public had to say, consulted with people and decided to reverse his decision. He preferred to admit his mistake and cut his losses, rather than come out against the large public that is holding him up politically, even under impossible circumstances.
This was not the first time this has happened to him. Since 2009, when he first was elected to the premiership, Netanyahu has managed to change his mind and zigzag a number of times when it emerged that his supporters were dissatisfied with him. The main recent case followed an incident in Hebron in 2016 in which an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, Elor Azaria, shot a Palestinian terrorist who lay dying on the sidewalk. In the first 24 hours, Netanyahu joined ranks with the IDF high brass and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon: The prime minister announced his support for Azaria’s commanders who hurried to bring in the military police investigators who opened a criminal investigation. But within one weekend, Netanyahu flip-flopped and took the side of the soldier, to the jubilant cries of his right-wing supporters. He did this after his son Yair, who was following the social networks, updated his dad regarding public opinion in the Likud Party. Netanyahu never even considered that an alternative path existed: to exhibit leadership, to pave the way, to constitute a personal example and lead a values-based position conforming to IDF guidelines regarding rules of military engagement and following commanders’ orders. Instead, the prime minister preferred to take the easy way out and align himself with the masses.
Now it has happened again, but in a far more scathing and vitriolic form than ever before. Netanyahu proved that he does not hold the strings in his relationship with his large group of supporters, but that the opposite is true: He is the one being controlled by them. They dictate the path to take and he does as they say, instead of assuming the leadership position himself.
This was not always the case. Netanyahu knew how to try to pave the way and lead his supporters in directions that were not natural to them. One example is the speech he delivered in Bar Ilan in 2009, in which he first expressed his agreement to the two-state solution and the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. He also went for the Wye River Memorandum during his first term of office in 1998, against the main body of Likud supporters. Both these (peace-making) attempts led to dead ends, and Netanyahu ultimately recanted.
Last week, all the masks were stripped off. Netanyahu no longer even tries to create an illusion of leadership, of a captain steering the ship. As of now, he is a leader who marches behind his supporters, putty in their hands and attentive to their every desire. He is in a vulnerable position as he waits for the decisions of the attorney general on his personal issues; thus, in the current state of affairs, he is not in any position to anger his supporters. Some view this development as a positive one — that even Netanyahu’s most zealous supporters have their own agendas and their support for him is conditional, not automatic. But there is also the negative, gloomy side of the coin as well: When a leader waives all attempts at leadership, a real danger exists of descending into chaos.