The End of the Netanyahu Era — And What Comes Next

June 2, 2021

Through election after election and coalition after coalition, Netanyahu has successfully clung to the office of prime minister since his election in March 2009, just under a year after the initial founding of J Street. If and when this new government is indeed sworn in and Netanyahu is finally booted from the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street, it will mark the end of an era not just for Israeli politics, but for J Street and the American Jewish community as well.

Throughout his last decade-plus in power, Netanyahu has positioned himself as the absolute center and the protagonist of Israeli politics and society — a ubiquitous political manipulator singularly focused on promoting his own power and advancing his right-wing ideological project. While he certainly did not invent or introduce ethnonationalism, fearmongering, personal corruption and incitement to violence, he helped to ensure that these abhorrent ideas and tactics became increasingly prominent and dangerous aspects of Israel’s political culture.

Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the damage Netanyahu and his party has done to Israeli democracy, civic institutions and the rule of law, the degree to which they have harmed Israel’s relationship to American Jews or the negative impact they have had in expanding settlements, undercutting hopes for a two-state solution and delegitimizing the entire concept of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and compromise.

That’s why, for all those who care about Israeli democracy and still believe that a better future is possible, Netanyahu’s fall from power is a cause for great relief — even as we recognize that the political defeat of one dangerous man will not magically bring about all the change we still yearn for, or meaningfully alter the lives of Palestinians living under occupation.

Just as the defeat of Donald Trump still did not end the threat or lasting impacts of Trumpism, so too the very welcome toppling of Netanyahu by an extremely broad “change coalition” does not erase the danger of his right-wing movement and vision. It does not end the 54-year old occupation that began long before Netanyahu took power, and will continue after him. What it does mean is that — for the first time in many years — Israeli leaders and society could have an opportunity to change course.

Even now, after coalition agreements have been formally reached, Netanyahu has roughly a week in which to maneuver to try to block the new government from being formed. If the prospective new “change government” does in fact take office, its exact shape and priorities remain very difficult to predict.

On the one hand, it would be led for several years by Naftali Bennett — a thoroughly right-wing politician who came up under Netanyahu’s tutelage and has consistently presented himself as an even more hardline, pro-settlement, anti-Palestinian, right-wing alternative. Bennett has repeatedly made clear his support for de jure and de facto annexation and fierce opposition to Palestinian statehood — which makes him highly unlikely to lead or tolerate any steps toward diplomatic compromise.

On the other hand, with Bennett himself holding just six Knesset seats, the new coalition’s survival would also heavily depend on the inclusion and buy-in of center, center-left and left-wing parties including Blue and White, Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz. These parties could occupy critical ministries and will likely seek to block any overt acts of de jure annexation, while also promoting critical, welcome measures to strengthen democracy, civil society and coexistence inside Israel.

Amazingly, the new coalition is also set to include Ra’am, a primarily Islamist party of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Their active participation would mark the first time in history that a majority Arab party actively formed part of an Israeli governing coalition, a notable and welcome milestone that could help further normalize Palestinian citizens of Israel playing a major role in political life.

Certainly, this ragtag coalition of left, center and right-wing parties united primarily by their opposition to Netanyahu will likely struggle to agree on a policy agenda. While we have good reason to hope that it would be far more moderate and reasonable than its predecessor in many areas, we also cannot expect that it will act to end the intolerable, unjust and deteriorating status quo of endless occupation and recurring violence.

For J Street, our mission at this historic moment is clear. In the wake of the horrific violence of recent weeks in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, we have begun to call for a fundamental reset of US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a reset focused on addressing the root causes of violence, including the daily injustice of occupation, and on holding our close ally far more accountable for its actions.

Now, with a new political era beginning in Israel, such a reset could not be more timely.

In the coming weeks and months, as a new government finds its feet, American leaders should reaffirm their commitment to Israel’s security and future — while at the same time making absolutely clear that the disastrous, right-wing policies and ideology of the Netanyahu era have put both in terrible jeopardy.

They should urge the new government to pursue a very different new path, one that recognizes the dangers and injustices of occupation and meaningfully commits to diplomacy and compromise. They should not hesitate to confront unacceptable destructive measures by Israeli or Palestinian leaders which violate human rights and push peace further from reach — including acts of de facto annexation like settlement expansion, demolitions and evictions.

As we urge Congress and the Biden Administration to pursue this reset, we will also continue to do all that we can to stand with and strengthen our progressive Israeli allies — those who will now likely have a foothold in government as well as those outside the Knesset who continue to advocate for the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to freedom, security, equality and self-determination.

We will make clear to the new Israeli government that the overwhelming majority of American Jews share our movement’s opposition to settlement expansion and occupation, our support for a lasting peace agreement and our commitment to democracy, equality and human rights.

We don’t know for sure what will happen in the coming days and weeks — no one does.

But we do know that no matter what, in this moment of transitions, new opportunities and new challenges, our work will continue to focus on the transformational changes that we need to see in American politics and policy in order to promote true progress and a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.

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