Israeli Politics Gets Really Personal


Benjamin Netanyahu became the subject of ridicule this week, after he had 40 top Likud candidates pledge their allegiance to him.

The prime minister seemingly panicked after the politician who forced new elections said that he may consider circumventing Netanyahu after the September vote, and making another Likud lawmaker the prime minister.

Soon after Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, outlined this possibility, Netanyahu started talking about a “shady plot” to unseat him. Likud politicians were presented with a pledge, which Netanyahu welcomed for making his party “more unified than ever.”

But he was widely mocked. “Netanyahu’s paranoia has crossed all reasonable lines,” claimed Labor party leader Amir Peretz. Ehud Barak, who is heading the Democratic Israel party, said that Netanyahu has turned his politicians into “puppets.”

Three corruption cases are expected to come to a head for Netanyahu soon after the Sept. 17 election, and this has led some in Likud to wonder whether the leader, who was always their trump card, is becoming a liability. After all, the centrist Blue and White party is even game for a unity government if Likud gets a different leader.

When I heard the news this week, I was transported back to university. “Netanyahu is the only Likud candidate for prime minister and there will be no other candidate,” states the Bibi pledge. It echoed so closely the religious declarations I studied in Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven,” claimed the Acts of the Apostles.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, Netanyahu isn’t presenting himself as God-like, but there is a grandiose nature to the declaration, and this isn’t accidental. Netanyahu is in “another league,” election billboards declare, showing him in the company of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The function of a religious declaration and the Likud oath is the same — to focus on what people want, be it salvation or electoral success, and insist there’s only a single route there, and entertaining any other constitutes a folly.

Gideon Rahat wasn’t surprised by the pledge when I reached him this week. The political scientist from the Israel Democracy Institute and Hebrew University is an expert on the growth of personality politics in Israel, and told me: “Everything today is about specific personalities. It’s something that wouldn’t have been imaginable in old times here.”

Even the state’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, got burned when he tried to push his personality above his party. In 1965 Ben-Gurion broke away from the dominant Mapai party, which still won 45 seats in the election while his Rafi party won just 10.

Rahat has assessed the growth of personality politics in two dozen parliamentary democracies, using 11 measures, and found that it is most pronounced in Israel and Italy. “People are talking about politics in terms of personalities and not parties, and journalists see it as a personality competition,” he said.

“The real veteran parties like Labor and Meretz suffer, while smaller personality parties succeed, and Likud becomes highly personalized.”

The deadline just passed for parties to register for the election, and the list of those standing underscores this. There is Blue and White, center-leaning but with questions over precise policies, and more defined by its leader, former military chief Benny Gantz. Democratic Israel is largely the initiative of Ehud Barak, who is looking to propel his one-man comeback.

On the other side of the map, United Right is pinning its hopes on the popular Ayelet Shaked at its helm, Yisrael Beiteinu is very much the political vehicle of its leader, Lieberman, and the same goes for Moshe Feiglin in the Zehut party.

Ironically, the era of personality politics in Israel can be tied to a politician who Netanyahu became dismayed with and a move that he reviles. In 2005 then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left Likud, founded Kadima, and with its backing pulled out of Gaza. This was a turning point when personality triumphed over party.

And just as it served Sharon well, it serves Netanyahu well. “Personalization works for Bibi and Bibi works for personalization,” said Rahat. With him, his party and the success of “the right” all synonymous with each other, the much-talked-about “immunity” bill planned for after the election — legislation that could keep Netanyahu out of court assuming he is re-elected — can be presented as a matter of political urgency.

But there is a question in all of this that is being whispered by some Likud-niks. What if they don’t win the election? What if the center pulls a rabbit out of the hat, and forms a coalition that leaves Likud out in the cold? Even bulletproof Bibi would probably need to step down, because of the stigma of failure and because of his legal problems.

Where next for the party that has spent years telling people that only Bibi can lead Israel? What would the party whose up-and-coming talent has been quashed by Bibi do for leadership? So many politicians active today worked under Netanyahu but left him after they displayed flair — Lieberman, United Right’s Naftali Bennett, Blue and White’s Moshe Yaalon. Others, like Shaked, wanted to join Likud but were rejected because they threatened Bibi.

Netanyahu may have drawn up an agreement that will be ignored post-election, or the smartest agreement of his political life. It’s also possible that he just signed a death warrant for the Likud party.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.