You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Israel's Rightward Lurch Won't Help Netanyahu Keep His Job

THOMAS COEX/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Israel’s increasingly popular haBayit haYehudi party released a new campaign video. The two-minute clip features the party leader, hardline Minister of Trade Naftali Bennett, dressed as an Israeli everyman in flannel, baseball hat, and a fake beard repeatedly apologizing to passers-by as they knock into him, take his bike, and spill his coffee. It ends with Bennett removing his beard to announce emphatically that “from today, Israel is done apologizing.” The message was clear: Israelis are exasperated with a world that doesn’t seem to understand that they are the victims.

The past year has been one of disillusionment in Israel. While faith in a utopian “new middle east” dissipated a decade ago with the second intifada, many Israelis held out hope that disengagement or negotiations could at least prove to the world that they had no interest in governing the Palestinians. But months of American-led negotiations and the release of dozens of convicted terrorists produced no Palestinian concessions and no lessening in international criticism. During the summer’s war with Hamas, as the death toll in Gaza mounted, the international community turned on Israel with renewed fury. Israel protested that it had taken unprecedented measures to prevent civilian deaths and begged Hamas repeatedly for ceasefires, but their defense fell on deaf ears. And with jihadist groups gaining strength on Israel’s northern border and a spate of knife attacks in Jerusalem, Israelis have little patience for Western criticism.

So with the recent collapse of Israel's barely two-year old coalition government, it’s no surprise that right-wing parties like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud stand to gain seats in the next Knesset. But another, somewhat contradictory trend has emerged: a growing consensus that Israel needs a new leader.

Preliminary polls show both Netanyahu’s Likud party and its more hawkish rival, the religious nationalist haBayit haYehudi, poised to pick up four seats apiece in the 120-seat Israeli Knesset. Some of these votes are being pulled from the similarly right-wing, but avowedly secular and predominantly Russian Yisrael Beytenu party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Even more votes are being pulled from the centrist Yesh Atid, the party that dominated the last election with a message of social and economic reform. And these gains do not even include the remarkable polling strength of a new Kulanu party created by the massively popular former Likud communications minister Moshe Kahlon. Kahlon has yet to lay out a political platform, but he is widely expected to align with his old Likud colleagues on relations with the Palestinians while emphasizing domestic concerns and cost of living. Without Kahlon, the Israeli right is expected to jump from 43 seats to 48. With Kahlon, the right is polling at an additional 10.

But Israel’s simmering exasperation with the world and rightward lurch obscures a second important dynamic: fatigue with Netanyahu’s leadership. On Netanyahu’s watch, another war with Hamas ended inconclusively, international ire at Israel has grown, Arab violence has increased, and Netanyahu’s own cabinet degenerated into infighting and mutual recrimination. What’s more, the wealth gap between rich and poor continues to grow and the cost of living continues to rise. The middle class is feeling squeezed, and few see the free market–oriented Netanyahu as the man to lead a revolution in social and economic equality. So even as a plurality of Israelis still consider Netanyahu the most credible figure on security policy, the cumulative picture of the Netanyahu years is of a country that doesn’t seem better off and a prime minister who inspires loathing.

This exhaustion with Netanyahu may be even stronger within Israel’s political class. Over the many years of his political life, the imperious Netanyahu has managed to alienate a large swath of Israeli politicians. And in Israel’s parliamentary system, these relationships matter a great deal; the prime minister is not simply the head of the biggest party, but must also cobble together a coalition that holds 61 seats in the Knesset. So there are considerations other than security—personal animosities, religious concerns, economic interest—that might well sway a majority of the Parliament to back a different candidate for prime minister.

The Israeli left and center have grown much closer, even merging two parties onto a joint elections list with the central priority of unseating Netanyahu. This center-left alliance has also explicitly opened the door to a coalition with the deeply pragmatic (some might say opportunistic) ultra-Orthodox parties, who will likely carry 15 seats of their own. Even Lieberman, Netanyahu’s most natural ally, has entertained the possibility of joining with the left in an alliance against him. And the socially-focused Kachlon is, as of yet, still a political wildcard. So it is increasingly conceivable that some combination of parties from Israel’s religious sector, political left, center, and even the right could join together for a broad-based coalition united by social and economic concerns and opposition to Netanyahu himself.

Early polling in Israel is notoriously unreliable, and the personal politicking that creates an actual coalition even more so. Nevertheless, looking at Israeli politics along a single, security-minded right-left axis is a mistake. Israeli indignation with Palestinians, the peace process, and global criticism are powerful factors, but they are not the only factors. Religion, economic inequality, and personal loathing are all crucial elements of the Israeli political tapestry—and it is those currents that could produce Netanyahu’s replacement.