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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  What if Netanyahu stepped down amid Israel-Gaza war?

What if Netanyahu stepped down amid Israel-Gaza war?

As unlikely as it might be, Benjamin Netanyahu’s departure would be a big boost not only to Joe Biden’s domestic political standing, but to the Israeli cause in America

Israeli PM Benjamin NetanyahuPremium
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu

 It is inappropriate, of course, for a US president to overtly intervene — or even be seen as overtly intervening — in another country’s politics. At the same time, it’s pretty clear that if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped down, it would be a big boost not only to Joe Biden’s domestic political standing, but to the Israeli cause in America.

So is it really that surprising that the Biden administration reportedly discussed the idea of Netanyahu stepping down with the Israeli government? Or that the prime minister’s office swiftly denied the reports?

It is not. And as unlikely as Netanyahu’s departure might be, it’s worth considering the possibility, if only to help make sense of what’s happening now.

After all, what people such as Biden (and, to be clear, me) want to say is that Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas while also reaffirming the right of the Palestinian people to freedom, dignity and self-government. Hamas’ message to Palestinians is that armed resistance is the only viable path forward. Netanyahu isn’t saying or doing anything to disabuse them of that notion, and hasn’t for his entire career.

Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who made genuine efforts at diplomacy, made life easier for Israel’s friends abroad even when their efforts failed. They created a clear distinction between Israel as a Jewish democracy and the occupation of Palestinian land as a practical reality.

Netanyahu’s approach has made diaspora support for the two-state solution look hollow, forcing a polarized choice where the only way for young progressives to signal support for Palestinian rights is to back radical movements that would mean the end of Israel. That, in turn, has made it perilously difficult for Biden to straddle disagreement among his supporters.

So far he has sided with Israel against the left — dividing his own coalition but staying on the side of the majority of Americans. At the same time, Biden has sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has called on Israel to pause its incursion into Gaza, to reach out to Palestinians, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Sunday.

Still, the internal split is politically damaging for Biden, and will likely cost him at least some support from younger progressives and Arab and Muslim Americans. That’s not to say it would be wise, politically or substantively, for Biden to join the anti-Israel camp. Alienating elements of your base is bad, but alienating the broad middle of the electorate is worse.

As strong as Biden’s rationale might be, from the Israeli perspective the case for a new prime minister is even stronger. And I’m not talking about Israel’s domestic politics, where I’m no expert, but about Israel’s ability to keep and cultivate support in the US.

That said, a quick summary: Netanyahu reacted to the outbreak of war by calling for a national unity government, as Israel has typically formed during moments of crisis. Yair Lapid, the leader of the largest opposition party, Yesh Atid, said he was willing to join only if Netanyahu kicked the small far-right parties in his coalition out of the cabinet. Netanyahu refused — he needs the far-rightists because they have backed him during his wars with the Israeli judiciary and in his personal struggles with corruption charges — so Lapid declined the offer. Netanyahu did get Benny Gantz, the leader of the smaller opposition party Blue & White, to join the team. But without Yesh Atid, it’s nowhere near a true national unity government.

If Netanyahu were not personally leading Likud, there would be much less need to maintain cross-right solidarity. Then Israel could have a proper national unity government without cabinet ministers casually tossing off tweets about their desire to permanently displace the entire population of Gaza.

Which brings us back the issue of US support. The presence of these kind of characters in the Israeli government makes it much more difficult for Biden and other liberal Zionists to hold the line against leftists who insist Israel is carrying out ethnic cleansing rather than legitimate counterterrorism. It wouldn’t necessarily make sense for America’s newly confirmed ambassador to Israel, Jack Lew, to fly over there and make these points. But these are issues that Israeli voters and elected officials ought to consider.

Netanyahu personally has been comfortable over the years with turning support for Israel into a polarized issue in US domestic politics. But Israel will not be well-served in the current conflict if Biden’s continued support becomes politically untenable. At the same time, House Republicans’ plan to condition new aid to Israel with a demand for laxer tax enforcement is a reminder that everyone in the US has their own domestic political imperatives, which will almost always take precedence over foreign policy.

Israelis aren’t going to arrange their domestic politics for the convenience of US presidents, of course. But the Biden administration is expending a lot of effort on Israel’s behalf right now, even though doing so divides the president’s supporters. Anything Israel can do to make that politically easier for him will benefit Israel itself. And finding a new prime minister who’s less dependent on the far right, and more capable of leading a centrist coalition, would go a long way in that regard.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author of “One Billion Americans."


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Published: 05 Nov 2023, 07:37 PM IST
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