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The Year Israel Freed Itself of Netanyahu – and Discovered It Can Survive Without Him

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Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset from a section reserved for members in quarantine, last week.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset from a section reserved for members in quarantine, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Benjamin Netanyahu visited the United States shortly before the previous Rosh Hashanah, and also before the celebration on Monday evening of the new Jewish year. In both cases, he was hosted by an American friend, and brought along his family for the trip. But what a difference between those two visits – a difference that tells a larger story of everything that has changed in Israel in 5781, the year in which Israel ended Netanyahu’s historically long hold on power.

When Israelis sat down a year ago to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Netanyahu had just returned from a dramatic visit to Washington, where he signed new normalization agreements with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The pictures of him standing next to his friend Donald Trump on the White House lawn, smiling at the cameras and proclaiming a new era of peace in the Middle East, were one of the peaks of his long career in politics.

His opponents in the political arena and critics in the press tried to minimize the diplomatic achievement and focus the public attention on the question marks related to the sale of F-35 planes to the UAE. But most of the media coverage was glowing, and Netanyahu used it to present himself to Israelis as a statesmen surrounded by mere politicians.

Fast-forward to the end of this year, and the beginning of the next one, and things are looking very different. Netanyahu has once again returned to Israel after spending more than a week in America, but this time instead of the White House, he was in Lanai, a Hawaiian island owned almost entirely by his billionaire friend Larry Ellison, who also just happens to appear on the list of potential witnesses in the former prime minister’s ongoing corruption trial.

He is now the leader of the opposition, and unlike the governments he led over the past three years, the one he is now railing against is making serious progress on the normal, responsible task of passing a state budget. Upon returning from his Pacific vacation, speaking from the Knesset chamber reserved for members under quarantine, he blasted the proposed budget as cruel towards Israel’s poor population. Even some politicians from his own party couldn’t fight off a laugh – if this budget is so terrible, why didn’t he even try to pass a better one during his last three years in office?

The agreements with the UAE and Bahrain from last year are still standing, and are in fact growing and expanding under the watch of the new government. His successor Naftali Bennett spoke on the phone with the leader of the UAE shortly after entering office, and the man who orchestrated Netanyahu’s fall, Yair Lapid, chose that country as the destination for his first official visit as foreign minister.

Netanyahu wanted Israelis to think of him as indispensable – the only one who can manage complicated affairs like Israel’s relationships with the Arab world. With a series of high-level visits to the UAE, Morocco and Jordan, the Bennett-Lapid government has proven that on this point, he was simply wrong.

The previous holiday season was also the starting point of Israel’s second COVID-19 lockdown, initiated by Netanyahu just months after he giddily told Israelis to go out and have fun because the pandemic was over. Netanyahu put Israel under three lockdowns in one year, a move that was perhaps justified, but still caused considerable economic damage.

Ahead of the upcoming holiday season, COVID is once again on the rise in Israel thanks to the fast-spreading delta strain, but no one is seriously discussing another lockdown. Bennett took a major gamble by becoming the first leader in the world to begin offering the population booster shots against the virus. So far, experts believe this gamble is paying off, leading to a decline in serious cases among Israel’s vaccinated population.

Netanyahu deserves credit for his own massive vaccination campaign last winter. But Bennett’s booster move was more daring and courageous than Netanyahu’s initial vaccination drive, and if it succeeds in bringing COVID under control without another lockdown, it will serve as another proof that Israel can do more than just survive without Netanyahu – on some fronts, it can actually do much better.

Netanyahu wants Israelis to believe this is only a temporary situation. And indeed, the government that replaced him is fragile and full of contradictions. But there is reason to believe that Netanyahu himself is helping it remain in power. As long as the threat of him returning to the Prime Minister’s Office remains alive, his opponents will find ways to compromise and stick together. They want to keep him as far away as possible. This year it was Hawaii. They pray that for the next Rosh Hashanah, we’ll get leaked pictures of his vacation in New Zealand.

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