Bruised Netanyahu gets cold shoulder from world leaders
For a decade, Benjamin Netanyahu has strode the world stage as an unapologetic embodiment of a strong Israel, falling out with world leaders such as Barack Obama and pursing his own rightwing agenda in the face of international criticism.
Yet at the end of a week in which the four-time Israeli prime minister appeared to finally lose the trust of the country’s voters, the veteran political survivor finds himself a diminished figure — both at home and abroad.
On Tuesday, he failed for the second time this year to win a mandate for a fifth term as Israel’s prime minister, with his Likud party trailing the centre-right Blue and White alliance by two seats in the 120-member Knesset. He later publicly acknowledged for the first time that he would be unable to form the rightwing coalition he pledged to his voter base.
Avigdor Lieberman, Mr Netanyahu’s former defence minister who could play the role of kingmaker in any coalition government, joked that Israel’s Arab leaders should send flowers to the prime minister for underestimating how his race-baiting attacks on their community would instead prompt a surge in Arab voters keen to punish him.
Ben Caspit, a veteran journalist and scathing critic of the prime minister, described Mr Netanyahu’s election performance as that of a drunk bus driver. “The problem is that we are the passengers,” Mr Caspit wrote in the liberal Maariv newspaper, warning that Mr Netanyahu would consider a third election, even war, to delay his departure.
“If it crashes, we crash. Netanyahu cannot, even for a second, concede his residence on Balfour Street [his official home].”
Mr Netanyahu also this week had to endure the ignominy of being ignored by the man he has described on an almost daily basis as his friend: US President Donald Trump. Images of Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu adorned billboards across Israel in the run-up to the vote, yet the US president on Wednesday delivered a blunt assessment. “I haven’t spoken to him,” Mr Trump said. “Look, our relationship is with Israel.”
The week before, as polls predicted Mr Netanyahu’s dismal election showing, Vladimir Putin made the Israeli leader wait hours before a meeting, according to one Israeli foreign ministry official, who said Russia’s president was wary of being used as a prop in Israeli elections.
“There is at least some feeling among Israelis — but I think also from outsiders — that Netanyahu has been certainly weakened by this outcome,” said Dan Shapiro, who was US ambassador to Israel from 2011-2017. “Netanyahu was badly wounded and may be on his way toward the end of his tenure”.
In his peak, Mr Netanyahu was the cantankerous gadfly in the world’s thorniest disputes. He bickered with neighbours (Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan), wooed autocrats (Mr Putin), made not-so-secret overtures to Arab strongmen (Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) and waded into the sea with Hindu nationalists (India’s Narendra Modi.)
Now, his fall from grace — if not yet from power — has real implications for Israeli foreign policy.
In recent years, he has also served as foreign minister, and then defence minister, hoarding the influential portfolios from fellow coalition allies, forging personal relationships he has deployed to further both his own political interest, and the rightwing agenda that has effectively scuppered any peace talks that would produce a Palestinian state.
While it is not impossible that Mr Netanyahu might wrangle an unwieldy coalition out of the fractured Knesset, he is certainly weakened, said Mr Shapiro. That lowers his credibility among world leaders, especially Mr Trump.
“Trump likes to associate with people he thinks of as winners, and was clearly troubled that Netanyahu did not form the government after the last election,” said Mr Shapiro. The cooling off extends to other world leaders too.
Wary of leaving Israel when possible coalition talks loom, Mr Netanyahu has cancelled one of his favourite diplomatic outings, to next week’s UN general assembly in New York. Over the year has used the occasion to lambast Tehran and the Palestinians on the world stage, bringing props and declassified intelligence to make apocalyptic warnings about a nuclear-armed Iran. That also meant the cancellation of a tentative meeting with Mr Trump.
The policy and political paralysis — Israel has not had a smoothly functioning government since December — has wider regional implications. While Benny Gantz, the retired military chief who heads the Blue and White party, is a security hawk himself, he does not yet have the personal relationships that Mr Netanyahu had cultivated over a decade.
He has also sold himself as a less belligerent version of Mr Netanayahu, and shown no religious acquisitiveness over land in the West Bank that Palestinians have claimed for a future state.
But if he succeeds in wrenching the prime ministership from Mr Netanyahu, Mr Gantz will immediately inherit a shadow-war with Iran, where Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes in Syria and elsewhere on Iranian soldiers and its regional proxies such as Hizbollah. There is also simmering hostilities with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where regular counter-strikes have threatened war on at least two occasions in the past year, and the prospect of being dragged into the US-Iran conflict.
“It is a difficult thing to duplicate,” said a foreign ministry official, who said he had watched Mr Netanyahu defund the ministry and replace deep, institutional relationships with his personal charm and bombast. “You will have a new man, and you won’t have old partnerships — you have to start from the beginning, and it takes time.”