Prime Minister Netanyahu: Expiration date 10/21 - analysis
On April 30, 2019 – just over a year ago – the 21st Knesset was sworn in and it looked as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sailing toward putting together a right wing coalition of 65 seats.
After the swearing-in ceremony, a buoyant Netanyahu was asked whether this – his fifth term – would be his last in office.
“The decision whether this will be my last term as prime minister is in the hands of the public,” he said. “Of course, as long as the public wants me to continue as prime minister, and as long as I can – I will serve.”
In other words, when Netanyahu thought last year that he had another few years as prime minister in the bag – before Yisrael Beytenu's Avigdor Liberman abruptly switched ideological blocs and sent the country swirling toward a second and third election – he was not ruling out even a sixth term.
King Bibi, indeed. In a country without term limits, why not?
And Netanyahu's aspirations of more and more years in office is what makes one particular aspect of the coalition agreement he signed on Monday night with Blue and White head Benny Gantz so significant: it puts an expiration date on Netanyahu's prime ministerial tenure.
Under the agreement, once a new government is sworn in, Netanyahu will serve for 18 months, and then be replaced by Gantz. If the emergency government is sworn in on May 1, that means that Neanyahu will serve until October 31, 2021, and then step down.
And when he steps down, that will definitely be the end of an era.
Granted, Netanyahu may return if he is vindicated by the courts and opts to run again in elections likely now in 2023 or 2024, but in the interim the country will – for the first time in half a generation – get a taste of someone at the helm whose name is not Benjamin Netanyahu. By the time he steps down, kids born the year he took office in 2009 will be celebrating their bar and bat mitzvahs.
Netanyahu has loomed like a giant over Israel's political scene since the early 1990s. In American terms, it would be the equivalent of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich still being the most relevant player in American politics.
If Netanyahu does step down in 18 months – as the agreement stipulates and locks in through various legal means that show just how much the two parties don't trust one another – that will mean he will have served as prime minister for 15 years, six months and 11 days (some 12 years and seven months of that consecutively since 2009, and the rest during his first term from 1996 to 1999).
This amounts to 21%, or more than one-fifth, of the country's entire history. That is an astounding amount of time. As a result, the expiration date on Netanyahu's term in the Likud-Blue and White agreement is no trifling matter, and something that will likely trigger intriguing political and diplomatic dynamics.
On the political level, that Gantz is due to become prime minister in October 2021 – earlier, according to the agreement, if Netanyahu brings down the government – means that for Likud politicians the Day after Netanyahu is no longer some distant, unknown date.
Though Netanyahu will still undoubtedly play a huge role in the Likud even after he steps aside for Gantz, a psychological barrier will have been broken when he is no longer prime minister. This will uncork the long-plugged Likud leadership bottle, bringing all kinds of bubbles to the top.
Likud prime ministerial annabees – Nir Barkat, Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan, Gideon Sa'ar, Avi Dichter, Yuli Edelstein – may begin to make their moves, no longer feeling that to do so would be a sign of disloyalty to the Likud leader.
Diplomatically, this “expiration date” will give the Palestinians more of a reason not to engage with the Israeli government, knowing that in 18 months Netanyahu will not be the one calling the shots.
Granted, the emergency government is being set up as a parity government, with checks and balances between the two blocs inside the coalition, but the prime minister is the first among equals and will be able to set the tone. Why, Palestinian Authority leaders could be justified in asking themselves, deal with Netanyahu for the next 18 months, when they could wait out the clock and deal with Gantz, whom they might believe may be more amenable.
Iran, too, is certainly watching these developments with great interest. Let's assume that Iran wants to race forward on its nuclear program, or that it wants to more actively aid and abet Hezbollah's precision-guided missile program, or increase its presence in Syria. Would they rather do so under a Netanyahu- or Gantz led government?
And, finally, that there is now a written date when Netanyahu will leave office will also impact on Netanyahu himself. Interestingly, over the years he has spoken only sparingly of a legacy. If, as Netanyahu said last April, he was not ruling out a sixth term, then why talk yet about a legacy?
His legacy, of course, is not necessarily now in his hands. To a large degree this will be determined by the courts: whether he will be acquitted or convicted of the crimes he has been accused of -- bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
But now, with “only” another 18 months left for sure in power, he may begin taking actions to cement the legacy he wants to leave.
This could be annexation of the settlements, a dramatic step to set back Iran's nuclear program, a push to sign a mutual defense pact with the US, or perhaps a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough with the Persian Gulf countries
One of the few times Netanyahu did publicly address the legacy issue was during an interview in March 2018 during a visit to the US at the Economic Club of Washington DC.
“If you had your chance to write your own legacy now and say this is what you accomplished with your life, what would you want people to say about what you’ve done?” Netanyahu was asked. He paused to think for a few seconds, and then responded: “Defender of Israel, liberator of its economy.”
The agreement he signed Monday, which sets a stop-watch on the time he has left to cement this as his legacy, could spur him into taking actions that will make it so.