Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Bibi and Donald: Continuing the Damage After the Fall

There are several ideological similarities between former President Trump and (about-to-be) former Prime Minister Netanyahu. There’s also an interesting political-party similarity. In short, they are continuing to damage their political party’s fortunes, even after leaving office.

Indeed, one can start with the “fall” itself. There is little arguing the fact that Trump and Netanyahu lost the leadership not so much because of the opposition’s attractiveness, but mainly because enough voters had enough of their continued dysfunctional rule. Joe Biden was no one’s idea of a charismatic candidate; none of Israel’s several opposition parties didn’t even come close to the Likud’s electoral tally. And yet, enough Israeli voters clearly decided “just not Bibi” – just like America’s voters deciding “enough of Donald” – that both countries have undergone a change in governance.

In most democratic countries, losing the leadership entails the ruler “going home”. In Great Britain, for instance, the last PM to lose and then come back into office was Churchill – over 70 years ago! Since World War II, democratic Germany has never undergone such “resuscitation”. The U.S., too, has only one such example (Grover Cleveland), one hundred and thirty years ago. But Bibi and Donald seem not to have taken this “retirement” principle to heart.

Trump has already announced that he is seriously considering running again in 2024 and has ramped up his fundraising efforts. Moreover, he has gotten heavily involved in certain state and local races, especially against any Republican officeholder or candidate that has the gumption to believe that the party has to move on. Some political commentators foresee a political bloodbath for the GOP in 2022, as it conducts internecine warfare in Republican primary elections between traditional Establishment candidates (the Romney faction) and the populists (MAGA Trumpists).

The Israeli case is somewhat dissimilar insofar as its electoral system is very different. Netanyahu has no intention of stepping down from leadership of the Likud and vows to fight tooth and nail against the new (and quite fragile) coalition. However, this leads to a strange paradox. Given how diverse are the parties in this new “Change” government (from the solid Right to the extreme Zionist Left), one would expect it to collapse soon enough under its own weight. But that won’t happen in the foreseeable future – certainly as long as Bibi leads the Opposition! That’s because this Coalition has one main purpose: ensuring that Netanyahu never returns to power. Thus, the very fact that Bibi is a popular (within his camp) and powerful (within his party) Opposition leader, actually guarantees that he and the Likud will stay out of power for a long time to come!

Indeed, the greatest fear of Yair Lapid and his Center-to-Left coalition partners is that somehow Bibi “disappears” (politically), because then Lapid’s Right of Center partners – Bennett, Saar, and even perhaps Lieberman – might well defect to set up a Likud-led (but Bibi-less) Right-wing government. That most probably would not happen immediately but given that these three leaders’ ideology is much closer to the Likud’s than to Lapid’s (and leftward of him), it cannot be discounted either.

Netanyahu will not leave without a dogfight, given that he feels in a stronger position regarding his court trial (actually three of them, simultaneously): better to sit in the dock as a political leader of great stature than as an average “former politician”. It is not at all clear at this stage that there is anyone within the Likud strong enough to displace him – especially after Gideon Saar’s electoral debacle in the Likud leadership fight a few years ago, when Bibi crushed him.

So we are left with a very strange situation: the Center-Left was determined to oust Netanyahu from power, but now it fervently hopes that he stays as Leader of the Opposition. Conversely, the Likud has been fiercely protective of their embattled leader, but now must find a way to rid themselves of this political albatross in order to return to power. Indeed this newspaper reported on June 2) that Likud members are split as to whether he should stay or take a “time out” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/poll-shows-nearly-half-likud-members-back-netanyahu-taking-time-out/). The longer the Likud stays in the Opposition, and the more it becomes clear that it’s because of Netanyahu that the party continues to be out of power, the greater the pressure that will build internally to finally remove him from the Likud leadership. That won’t happen right away, but it will almost definitely occur in a year or two.

Meanwhile, as long as Bibi stays, the new governing coalition will survive and perhaps even flourish because of the very strong epoxy glue holding it together: making sure that former PM Netanyahu stays “former”.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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