At the end of the previous decade, Israelis had a choice between two leaders: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Few remember it now, but Kadima – the now-defunct centrist party led by Livni – received 29,000 more votes than Netanyahu’s Likud in the February 2009 election. But since Israeli governments are established not by which party receives the most votes but by who can build a coalition, Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office thanks to the support of the larger bloc of right-wing and religious parties.
It’s worth lingering on that moment for a while. If anything, Livni had an even stronger Likud pedigree than Netanyahu, with two parents who fought in the Irgun – including her father, Eitan, who served as its operations chief – and had been born into Herut’s “fighting family,” as Irgun veterans continued to call themselves after the pre-state underground militia was disbanded in 1948. (Founded by Menachem Begin, Herut was the right-wing predecessor of Likud.)
But by 2005, Livni had undergone an ideological transformation. She supported then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza and his departure from Likud to form Kadima. She accepted the same formula that the “security hawks” in the Labor Party had agreed to in 1993 when they signed the Oslo Accords: That Israel had reached the point where it was powerful enough to ensure that its Arab neighbors could not contemplate destroying it; and that to become even more secure and “normal,” it needed to find a historical compromise with the Palestinians.
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Livni, in the Likud tradition established decades earlier by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, also believed in the primacy of the rule of law. On a sociological level, despite having spent part of her childhood in the period in which right-wingers like her parents were regarded as outcasts by Israel’s establishment, she was also prepared to set those left-right divisions aside and embrace a new form of centrist politics.
Netanyahu, who had appointed Livni to her first senior public post back in 1996, rejected everything she had now come to stand for. Israel faced a multitude of existential threats, he warned, and a compromise with the Palestinians would only exacerbate them. And despite Likud having been in power for most of the past three decades, he believed the establishment – the courts, the media and academia – was still in the hands of “the left.” He has remained in power ever since because he managed to win majorities of like-minded voters (though at times he preferred to include in his coalitions centrists like Ehud Barak, and even Livni herself in 2013, to allow himself greater flexibility).
In 2009, the Netanyahu coalition of angry and disgruntled Israelis still felt they were disenfranchised by left-wing “elites.” In the subsequent decade, he succeeded in solidifying his “us” and “them” mold of Israeli politics – until May 2019, when Avigdor Lieberman decided not to join his right-wing/religious coalition and denied him a majority.
In this decade, even though that majority was never greater than 55 percent of the total vote, and Likud under him received the least number of seats it ever had while in power, he remained in office due to both his tenacity and the fecklessness of an opposition split between weak left-wing ideologues and centrist opportunists. Netanyahu won because in the past decade, we have all become Netanyahu. Even Israelis who abhor him, his personality and policies have allowed him to define them.
Between 1992 and 2009, the Israeli center-left had a set of policies that could be roughly described as reaching a compromise through strength with the Palestinians, trying to spread some of Israel’s newfound high-tech wealth to more parts of society, and to gradually redress the stagnant status quo on matters of religion and state. Some on the left regarded these policies as wishy-washy and insufficiently radical “neoliberal” policies, but it was a plan for Israel’s future.
In his decade, Netanyahu not only succeeded in opposing this plan and implementing his alternative vision, but he made the center-left all but forget its own vision by forcing it to focus instead on an increasingly personal battle against him.
The ultimate politician
Netanyahu is the ultimate politician. He is an ideologue with a vision and clear intellectual grasp of the issues at stake, happy to fight his opponents on the battlefield of ideas. He can spend hours wonkishly explaining his view of geopolitics and macroeconomics – in fact, he enjoys doing so. But at the same time, he is also a wily operator and master of presentation who revels in boiling down his complex positions into slogans and sound bites. And when political expediency demands it of him, he can temporarily concede on a point of principle.
Back in the 1990s, the center-left thought it could beat Netanyahu based on the strength of its plan; it thought Israelis would realize that in the “new Middle East,” compromise was preferable to eternal conflict. It mistook him for a huckster and failed to realize there was a hard ideological core to him that would appeal to many Israelis – especially when the rosy Oslo vision would flounder on the reality of persisting Palestinian violence.
It made the same mistake in the 2009 election. In his last cabinet meeting before that election, Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert – like Livni, a born Likudnik who had migrated to the center – said that “the dream of the Greater Land of Israel is over and doesn’t exist anymore, and anyone who talks about it is deluding himself.” Netanyahu would prove it was his political opponents who were delusional.
After Netanyahu’s return, the center-left pinned its hopes on U.S. President Barack Obama forcing the prime minister to continue on the path of compromise. But Obama – who at first pressured Netanyahu, forcing him to agree to a temporary freeze on settlement-building and to deliver the “Bar-Ilan speech” in which he seemed to accept the two-state solution – lacked the tenacity to maintain the pressure. Once again, Netanyahu’s concessions were to prove self-serving and transitory.
By the January 2013 election, the center-left was losing its vision as “wannaBibi” Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party came to the fore with vague feelgood policies. Likud didn’t even bother publishing a manifesto then (and hasn’t since), simply saying that “Our record in government is our manifesto.” In other words, Netanyahu is our manifesto.
In a forlorn attempt to recapture the center ground ceded to Lapid, Labor elected more centrist leaders in Isaac Herzog and Avi Gabbay. But they had already ceded the battle of ideas: Neither was prepared to articulate clear policies, certainly not regarding the Palestinians, and as political showmen they were not in Netanyahu’s league.
Israeli politics has long ceased to be about ideas or real principles. It is only about being the alternative to Netanyahu. His two main rivals in 2019 have been Benny Gantz, on the national level, and Gideon Sa’ar, who challenged him for the Likud leadership.
Gantz, the man the entire center-left is pinning all its hopes on, launched his campaign a year ago with four videos – three of which extolled his bloodthirstiness as commander of the army in the Gaza Strip and only one spoke of striving for peace. In its manifestos, his Kahol Lavan party makes only the vaguest of commitments to “separate from the Palestinians.”
In his failed challenge to Netanyahu, Sa’ar constantly praised him as a leader, would not say a word about the corruption indictment against him, and based his entire campaign on the premise that Netanyahu can no longer form a government while he can.
Gantz is unwilling to confront Netanyahu on a matter of ideology or policy. Sa’ar would not challenge him on the basic Jabotinskean principle of respect for the rule of law. Both of them campaigned only on being the non-Netanyahu. That is their sole selling point. Along with them, the rest of Israel’s politicians and most of the voters have been swept up by only one question: Will Netanyahu continue as Israel’s leader and who, if anyone, can replace him?
In her farewell speech from politics last February, Livni said that obvious moral values “have become controversial. Peace has become a dirty word. Democracy is under attack and a political position differing from the government has become a curse. The attempts to separate from the Palestinians to retain a Jewish majority have been replaced by ideas of annexation that will lead to an Arab majority.”
It was a fitting epitaph to a political decade that began with Livni briefly facing Netanyahu as an equal opponent, but ended with his complete domination and her departure. In her speech, Livni was criticizing her own colleagues on the center-left as much as their shared rival. They had given up the battle of ideas, forsaken any attempt to present an alternative vision for Israel, and bought into Netanyahu’s obsession with his own inevitable eternal leadership. In the process, they – and all of us with them – have become mirror images of Netanyahu.