Israel is currently observing the one-year anniversary of its transition government, hoping that the third round of elections in March 2020 will be the last for a while. Israeli law contains clear rules regarding how the cabinet is created. The president imposes the mission on the Knesset member with the highest chances for gathering enough supporters to create a majority coalition and swear in a new government. The premier is tasked with serving his or her constituency as well as those who did not vote for him or her. But under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure, these goals were forgotten. He does not hesitate to disperse the Knesset when it suits him personally, for example to promote a legal change to serve his own interests. He acts like a lone ruler.
The media focus on the new elections, the third in less than a year, has distracted the public from the fact that the elections held in April were also moved up: Netanyahu wanted to outsmart the attorney general and force him to delay publicizing his indictment decision. Since then, the attorney general has submitted his indictment to the Knesset chairman. That means that Netanyahu will stand trial unless he reaches a plea bargain or receives immunity from the Knesset. Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to make his own rules.
Netanyahu won the office for the first time in 1996, after his Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. In the direct elections, Netanyahu succeeded in defeating Shimon Peres by only 29,457 votes. At the time, I was a political correspondent on Israeli television’s Channel One. I saw Netanyahu, shocked by his unexpected achievement, close himself up with his advisers and associates and send them out on diplomatic missions. Attorney Yitzhak Molcho (a partner of Netanyahu’s cousin, attorney David Shimron) became the prime minister’s chief diplomatic emissary. Netanyahu asked Molcho to go to Gaza to meet PLO leader Yasser Arafat about the Oslo Accords that Netanyahu had promised to destroy.
I saw him climb the stairs of the prime minister’s office. I saw him enter the office where Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol and David Ben Gurion had served before him.
I also saw Netanyahu when he was roundly defeated by Ehud Barak three years later, at the end of a short and stormy term of office in which he made many enemies. When Barak climbed those same steps, the journalists abandoned Netanyahu for the new prime minister. I remained with Netanyahu and his wife Sara. Both of them looked at the new king with longing, sorrow and anger in their eyes. They knew that their power and fame had evaporated. It was, in my eyes, one of Netanyahu’s lowest moments. While watching Barak promise everyone that a new era had dawned, Netanyahu talked to me about the media, which he felt had persecuted him and his family, and about the soul-searching he intended to do. I understood that he had not said his final word, and that he would be back. And indeed, he returned.
On Feb. 10, 2009 — 10 years after Netanyahu’s defeat — the Likud headed by Netanyahu garnered only one less mandate than did Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni. But Netanyahu signed an agreement with the ultra-Orthodox parties and succeeded in forming a government. Since then he has been very active in shoring up his position and status, with the goal of never returning to that humiliating loss of power. Netanyahu relied on a mix of a supportive media, the marking of internal enemies and daily intimidation of external enemies.
In his first term of office, Netanyahu whispered to Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri that the left had "forgotten what it means to be Jewish." In his following terms, “leftist” became a derogatory word. Arab Israelis were added to this circle of internal enemies in 2015. Netanyahu had no problem finding an external enemy in Iran. Netanyahu's obsessed with the media embroiled him in criminal acts.
In recent years, Israel has become identified with him. The war cry of his backers is, “Bibi, king of Israel!” And that’s how the world also viewed him. Already back in 2012, Time Magazine devoted its front page to him, reading “King Bibi’ and’ stating that when other elected leaders around the world are pushed aside, Netanyahu stands victorious.
Truly, Netanyahu has not stopped winning since then. He has superseded Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion as the longest longest-running prime minister in Israel. From the prime minister's office, he has watched his political opponents disappear one after another. Anyone who remotely posed a threat was politically neutralized or distanced. When Science Minister Danny Danon criticized Netanyahu and threatened to run against him in the primaries, Netanyahu appointed Danon Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Now the prime minister refuses to leave the prime minister’s office. When Netanyahu was unsuccessful in creating a government the first time, it didn’t bother him much. He dispersed the Knesset and led Israel to a second set of elections. When he failed again to cobble together a government, it still didn’t bother him, so we’re on our way to a third set of elections despite the bill of indictment.
The elections will take place in about two and a half months. According to the latest polls, Netanyahu needs a miracle to keep him in office, even though many of his fans really and truly believe that Israel will cease to exist should Netanyahu not serve as its prime minister.
After the elections, when the 23rd Knesset is sworn in and a new government (hopefully) rises, it is up to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, if he becomes prime minister with center-left support, to close all the legal loopholes that led Israel to one election after another. For example, perhaps when the person tasked with assembling a government fails to do so, he or she should not have the power to disperse the Knesset but be forced to simply return the mandate to the president. He won’t have the luxury of acting from the premier's seat.
Israel also needs to limit the tenure of the prime minister to eight years or to two terms of office. Beyond that, we have seen how an elected leader can convince himself and his voters that he is irreplaceable, that he is the state and his office is more important than the country’s institutions and values. Blue and White senior Yair Lapid and Labor Knesset member Merav Michaeli submitted a bill on the subject in 2018, but it was dropped. Gantz committed to enacting term limits before the April elections, and the Blue and White party did submit a bill on term limits. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett also supports the idea. Even Netanyahu himself once supported it. But over the years, his voice on the subject has fallen silent.
Since the dispersal of the Knesset on Wednesday, demands for term limits have been growing louder, but the voices are mainly those of journalists and commentators, as evidently the politicians are not yet ready. The election campaign that began this week needs more than the worn-out slogan, “Just not Bibi.” It is time to adopt a new one: “No more kings.”
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