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Benjamin Netanyahu’s Short-Lived Mandate Reveals a Historical Shift

Democratic institutions across the globe are facing an existential crisis. Israel is just one important example.
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Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel on 8/14/2019 © Roman Yanushevsky / Shutterstock

September 30, 2019 19:20 EDT

On September 26, The Jerusalem Post announced that, even after his widely reported defeat in the latest round of Israeli elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been invited to return to power, at least temporarily. In an article with the title, “Reuven Rivlin Gives Netanyahu Mandate to Form Government,” we learn the reasons why the president has offered the mandate to the second-place Likud leader Netanyahu instead of Benny Gantz, the man whose Blue and White party narrowly came out ahead.

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Permission to play the role as a legitimate authority even when legitimacy has never been clearly established

Contextual Note

The one lesson many observers drew from the election results was that, after 13 years of uninterrupted rule, the Israelis had finally tired of Netanyahu’s style of politics and his impact on their society. But when the dust cleared after a predictably inconclusive election, who has emerged — at least for a week or maybe a month — as Israel’s new leader? King Bibi Netanyahu. 

President Rivlin explains in rational terms that “Netanyahu had the best chance to form a government.” The statement is revealing. Forming a government — not just in Israel — has become a game of chance. Just look at the UK. This also reveals that politics, once about ideas and vision, has become principally a game of numbers. The Jerusalem Post reports: “Rivlin said he gave the mandate to Netanyahu because he received 55 recommendations from MKs [members of the Knesset], compared with Gantz’s 54.” While true enough, Netanyahu still needs to get from 55 to 61, which, barring a unity government between the two leaders, seems an impossible task.

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From a psychological point of view, the president’s giving the nod to Netanyahu may have diminished the chances of a unity government to the extent that Gantz, the putative winner, will find himself in the position of follower rather than leader. Netanyahu has refused to form a direct coalition with the Blue and White, knowing that, even in a power-sharing arrangement, he would no longer have the level of power he’s used to.

Some speculate that Gantz wants Netanyahu to try to form a government and fail, during which time Bibi is likely to be indicted in his upcoming court case for corruption. This would have the effect of either ending Netanyahu’s political career or at least weakening him enough to provoke a revolt in his own party, the hitherto dominant Likud. Gantz could then seek to form a coalition with Likud as Netanyahu finds himself either on the sidelines or in prison. The latest hypothesis is that Netanyahu, unwilling to compromise, will give up his mandate and, after more maneuvering and speculation about power-sharing, will allow Gantz to call for a third election — following earlier elections in April and September 2019.

Historical Note

Israelis will thus be looking for a third round of elections to clarify their future. But who could possibly imagine anything clarified in the state of Israel? Israel shares with the UK a situation in which the complexity of the politics inside the nation combines with its uncomfortable position in its region — Europe for the UK, the Middle East for Israel — to produce a mountain of uncertainty for the future. In both cases, once things got murky they could only get murkier.

September 2019 may turn out to be the moment in history when the myths that have upheld the belief in democracy across the globe have been shaken to the point of triggering a major paradigm shift. The crises that have simultaneously come to the fore in at least four different countries — all of them in some sense symbols of democracy — demonstrate in their contrasting ways the frailty of system built theoretically to reflect “the will of the people.”

The current uncertainty in the US, the UK, Israel and India (exemplified by the Kashmir crisis) illustrate this turning point. The US stands as the first nation-state to define itself as a democracy; the UK has served as the model for a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy; Israel is touted as the only democracy in the Middle East; and India is celebrated as the world’s largest democracy.

In each of these nations, the question of the “will of the people” has become a major quandary. There is no longer a clear sense for any of them of what they mean by “people.” This is further compounded by the question of who among the governing class at any given point in time has the right to exercise their “will.” In his critique of populism, “The Will of the People,” British professor Albert Weale  bluntly asserts, with perfect linguistic and scientific accuracy: “There is no such thing as the will of the people, just as there are no such things as unicorns, flying horses or lost continents called Atlantis.”

Who then are the people whose will Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi believe they can fulfill? For Trump, it’s his base, which he believes is the real America — fundamentally white and ignorant, addicted to Fox News and ready to follow all its opinions. For Johnson, it’s the 52% who in a single day expressed their emotions in a poorly formulated and inadequately informed choice whose meaning, even three years later, has never been elucidated. For Modi, it’s the Hindu majority. For Netanyahu, it’s more complex — not to say confused — for two reasons: First, because the democratic parliamentary system in Israel is proportional and, second, because the democratic system is undemocratic, since the Arabs, a near majority, have no real voice or presence in elections.

In all of these cases, “the people” has come to mean one group of people violently opposed to another group or groups of people. The groups are defined by the level of their violence, verbal or physical, and the absoluteness of their opposition. Again, Israel is the most complex of the four, if only because there are several radical divides: between Jews and Arabs; conservatives and liberals; religious and secular; and religious and extremely orthodox. This is without mentioning the divide between those who believe in one state or two states for the future of Israel and Palestine. At the same time, in the so-called “melting pot” of the US, Trump has evoked the specter of a civil war if he is impeached. More than a prediction, some see it as an incitement.

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Of the four leaders, only Modi has the advantage of political stability after a resoundingly successful reelection this year. Trump is likely to undergo an impeachment procedure that, whether it succeeds or fails, may tear the Republican Party into shreds. If it doesn’t and Trump is reelected in 2020, the trend toward a despotic police state many have come to fear will be confirmed, eventually leading to a new form of “civil war.” It now appears that Johnson’s margin of maneuver to force through his no-deal Brexit is reduced to nearly zero, barring a spectacular initiative that reduces Parliament to a helpless political sideshow. Johnson has been further weakened by Trump’s drama, since the only somewhat attractive alternative to Europe for most of the Brexit voters — who sense that Britain cannot thrive or even survive on its own — was a populist coalition with Trump’s America.

The current mandates of Trump, Johnson and, especially, Netanyahu have become totally uncertain. Perhaps the notion of mandate — like that of “will of the people” — has lost its meaning. Both ideas have served as pillars of people’s enduring belief in democracy.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has an institutionally protected mandate that will last three more years, has not yet won his struggle with the will of the yellow-vested people. The French nation expects that war of attrition to continue this year and perhaps grow in intensity. Whether it does or doesn’t, the idea of democratic rule by leaders of traditional parties has lost the prestige it once had, and instability has become the rule rather than the exception in modern democracies. Populists appear to be hankering more for a “date” with a “man” (a strong populist leader) than granting a mandate to an elected leader through electoral processes.

What happens in a growing number of democratic nations in the coming 12 to 18 months will tell us a lot about the current historical shift we are now observing. The one thing that’s clear is that it’s going to be murky. That seems to be the will of the people.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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