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The Sea Change That Is the Fall of Netanyahu

The likely ouster of the seminal Israeli prime minister would end a decade in power that changed both Israel and the U.S.

Benjamin Netanyahu had to cancel.

A veteran of the Israel-Palestine peace process, or lack thereof, got the call from the young Likud chair on the make. The aspirant political head of Israel’s lynchpin right-wing party would days later confess to a peccadillo, not his first, with a P.R. advisor. In commando fashion, Netanyahu took the offensive. He appeared on live television to head off the scandal. He owned it. 

That it was hardly the forty-something’s first affair, or that the indiscretion was committed to the disrespect of not his first, but third wife, or that the genesis of the exposure was the filming of the adult proceedings by a former political aide, all didn’t matter. He won the race. It was the early 1990s, and Netanyahu’s panache was perhaps part Bill Clinton and former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry: betrayed by all around them, especially by their own capacity for vice, and yet somehow gutting through it. 

Today, we would call such bravado “Trumpian,” but if the 45th president was the exponent of such an approach, he was hardly its architect. Netanyahu’s ascent in Israeli politics—to the pantheon of historical significance that includes Israeli founder David Ben-Gurion, President Shimon Peres, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—was far from a done deal when he was coming up, for reasons that should now be obvious. He had a brief stint as prime minister in the late ’90s, only to again find himself out in the relative cold. In the years following, flamboyant advocacy for the Iraq War hardly burnished his reputation as a statesman (something rivals like Secretary of State John Kerry would remind the legislature in later years). 

Historically, Netanyahu had been a divisive figure in America, as U.N. ambassador in the ’80s and later in a variety of roles formal and informal that let the MIT graduate deepen his ties to Washington. James Baker—the Republican godfather, Reagan chief of staff, and George H.W. Bush secretary of State—hated Netanyahu, to say nothing of the ascendant Republican lockstep with Jerusalem. This saga is replayed in Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s new biography of the old man of state.   

But it’s history. Because Netanyahu absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, got the last laugh. 

As an octogenarian Baker was caterwauling against the again-prime minister’s “political gamesmanship” in the mid-2010s, the Israeli standard-bearer received a king’s welcome in the U.S Congress, an escalation in his feud with the sitting American president, Barack Obama. If it was risky, it didn’t immediately matter, as Netanyahu received the gift of a career with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

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So, as the ax is now raised on Netanyahu’s career, excuse this writer for holding out for finality.   Netanyahu has gotten out of jams before; in fact, he seems to live for jams, like the man he eventually befriended, Donald Trump, he is a day-to-day player. 

But it looks grim.

The ingredients of Netanyahu’s potential demise are in and of themselves vintage Netanyahu: so garrulous in his approach that he has been betrayed by a former chief of staff. Should Neftali Bennett, who has assembled an outrageous anti-Netanyahu coalition that includes Islamists, win a confidence vote in the Knesset, he will finally put to an end the current prime minister’s 12 years in power. As the European philosopher and Portuguese politician Bruno Macaes recalls it, Netanyahu finally met his match: “So Naftali Bennett got to be PM. Not surprised. He had the fire.”

It’s hard not to link such a demise to current events: Netanyahu’s ubiquitous criminal exposure, Trump’s ejection from Washington, and the changing dynamics of the U.S. perception of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In May, Israel flattened Hamas targets in Gaza; they won the skirmish. But it’s less clear—with a Democratic Party and U.S. millennial demographic trailing away from steadfast support for the Israeli hardline—that the country won the media war, which would be a first.  

Such a reversal would come at a bittersweet time for the brand of conservatism and nationalism Netanyahu has come to define himself by: civilizational pride has arguably never been more pronounced since the country’s founding, with birth-rates, including secular births, an outlier in the Western world. Many U.S. conservative commentators read into the Israel file lamented Bennett for a cynicism, for a naked will to power that came at the expense of ruining a good thing. 

But the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, on Thursday made all but explicit that no man is too big to fail, even Benjamin Netanyahu. He met with perennial Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz, the alternate prime minister (only in Israel) and the defense minister. “The secretary and the alternate prime minister discussed the U.S.-Israel partnership and America’s ironclad commitment to Israel’s security.” 

So should this be a sunset, worthy of the orange-pink landscapes of the Tel Aviv sky, it will be a spectacular one, with Netanyahu going down as in league with the precarious giants of his age. Trump. Modi. Erdogan. Putin. Netanyahu.