Bye bye Bibi: Netanyahu under pressure

By Callum Tilley

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (or Bibi, as he is known), is facing increasing domestic opposition. Following a lull in opposition after the terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7th, 2023, protesters have been pushing for early elections and the removal of Netanyahu since late January. This has come in the form of protests on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with thousands gathered outside the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) at the beginning of April to demand Netanyahu’s resignation. 

This comes at a critical moment for Israel and indeed the wider Middle East, with the Israel-Palestine conflict expanding to include neighbouring states like Iran. Balanced on the edge of perhaps the next global geopolitical conflict, or perhaps a second generation Cold War between Israel, Palestine, and their respective allies, Israel’s leadership is increasingly embattled. The questions surrounding Netanyahu’s position, and who mighty replace him, have repercussions that reach wider than the immediate Middle Eastern context.

Netanyahu has been facing opposition for longer than the current geopolitical crisis. Perceived to be increasingly right-wing by opposition parties, leaders, and political activists, his policies have displayed increasingly authoritarian tendencies in recent years. The party that he leads, Likud – the ‘National Liberal Movement’ – has increasingly supported policy positions that place it firmly in the ‘conservative nationalist’ political grouping. 

Netanyahu’s authoritarian tendencies have only worsened since the October 7th attacks

This has been exemplified in recent attempts to curb the powers of regulatory institutions, most notably the Supreme Court. In July 2023, the Knesset passed a bill to restrict the Court’s right to declare government legislation unlawful, but the court struck down the bill using the very powers the bill sought to limit. The passage of the bill in the Knesset was widely seen as an infringement on the checks and balances explicit with in the Israeli constitution and was met with widespread hostility both domestically and abroad. 

The changes even concerned President Biden, Netanyahu’s long-time ally and personal friend, who called the passage of the reforms “unfortunate”. Closer to home, “huge protests” in major cities marked intense domestic opposition to the ‘reforms’, while inside the chamber opposition politicians shouted “shame” and “government of destruction” before storming out of the chamber. This attempted destruction of judicial autonomy and governmental oversight is just one example of Netanyahu’s slide towards authoritarianism. 

Netanyahu’s authoritarian tendencies have only worsened since the October 7th attacks on Israel; Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli journalist, has argued that Israel’s left (the current political opposition) has “encountered unprecedented repression” as “influential right-wing figures” have associated Hamas’ crimes with perceived left-wing weakness. Nonetheless, this reported “repression” has galvanised domestic opposition, arguably making Netanyahu’s position weaker.

Domestically, opposition twofold; on the street, and in the Knesset chamber. Many Israelis are protesting at their government’s treatment of Palestinians, demanding a diplomatic solution, a negotiated release of the hostages, and an end to military conflict. In terms of opposition to Netanyahu, the geopolitical elephant in the room is the ongoing crisis in Gaza. Despite initial solidarity after the October 7th attacks on Israel, seen in the formation of a cross-party War Cabinet, Netanyahu’s subsequent and increasingly-harsh actions in Gaza have prompted domestic and foreign opposition. Increasingly difficult to justify as ‘self-defence’, Netanyahu’s bombardment of Gaza has alienated even his closest allies. At the State of the Union address in January, Biden was caught on a hot mic telling members of Congress that “Bibi” would have to have a “‘come to Jesus’ meeting” to find a rapid resolution to the crisis. Even the United States, the staunchest ally of Israel, is getting cold feet at the continuing humanitarian suffering in Gaza.

Many Israelis are protesting at their government treatment of Palestinians, demanding a diplomatic solution, a negotiated release of the hostages and an end to military conflict

In the chamber, opposition stems both from the harsh treatment of Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s perceived security lapses that allowed October 7th to happen in the first place. In November opposition leader Yair Lapid raised the possibility of replacing Netanyahu as Prime Minister, saying that, if “Netanyahu and the extremists” are replaced, many opposition parties would continue to support a coalition under a new leader of Likud. If members of his coalition withdrew their support, Netanyahu would be forced to seek support elsewhere or even resign and place his party over his own position. 

If more than 60 lawmakers in the 120-seat Knesset supported a motion of no confidence in the government, it would trigger an election. Potential replacements include Benny Gantz, former Defence Minister; Gideon Sa’ar, whose New Hope faction is part of the National Unity party; and Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party. As the coalition currently maintains a slim four-seat majority, replacement is a possibility; however, would require a general election, during which Netanyahu would have a free hand to pursue his own policies. With the war in Gaza and the potential for a bigger war erupting to the north with Hezbollah, few politicians want unclear leadership and an election. 

Any attempt to replace Netanyahu could destabilise Israeli politics

As Jamie Dettmer, a journalist for Politico, has argued, there are a variety of ways Netanyahu could stabilise his leadership. The return of Israeli hostages still believed to be held in Gaza; the death of the Hamas leadership; or the group’s exile to anywhere not adjacent to Israel — any of these could boost Netanyahu and strengthen his position ahead of a bid to replace him. The U.S. could also throw him an inadvertent lifeline by withdrawing or reducing its support for the war, allowing Netanyahu to “stand up to Washington”, a well-worn trope that has served him before. 

Any attempt to replace Netanyahu could destabilise Israeli politics; his survival of an attempt could make him erratic and push him closer to authoritarianism. A replacement would most likely be more moderate than Netanyahu, but he could continue to haunt Israeli politics and provide an alternative centre of gravity – much like Liz Truss does in the U.K. Whilst change could provide momentary instability, it could also provide Israel with new leadership more open to de-escalation and diplomatic solutions. A more moderate replacement could de-escalate the conflict in the Middle East, but would have a huge challenge in placating recently-enraged Iran and diplomatically resolving the question of Palestinian statehood. Bibi won’t go without a fight, but – once opposition to him, popular and parliamentary, coalesces – neither will he be able to cling to power indefinitely.  

Image: World Economic Forum via Flickr

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