h moment of truth could be coming for two politicians who were riding high. Both have been in office for a long time and have dominated politics. Both face serious legal problems. Both have a reputation for bullying other politicians. And the colleagues they have antagonized may come back to haunt them as they face the most serious challenge yet to their hold on power.
In New York, calls on Governor Andrew Cuomo to resign or be impeached are mounting. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face yet another election that could lead to the end of his tenure as Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
Andrew Cuomo has been governor for ten years. He has been elected three times by large margins. His approval ratings, until recently, have always been high. Whatever we may think about same-sex marriage, gun safety legislation, and raising the minimum wage, these were consequential actions. Democrats across the country held him up as a contrast to President Trump and touted his performance during the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of how to lead in a time of crisis. He even received a million-dollar advance to literally write the book on the subject.
The man who was the most popular elected official in New York and one of the most popular in the country now finds himself under siege. The US Department of Justice is investigating whether he covered up the number of nursing home deaths because of the pandemic. New York Attorney General Tish James is investigating numerous charges of sexual harassment.
The loudest calls for Governor Cuomo’s resignation or impeachment are coming from leaders of his own party, including State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand, and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Some politicians seek to reach out to their opponents, knowing that today’s adversary can be tomorrow’s ally. Others play hardball, seeking to rule by fear over friend and foe alike. Andrew Cuomo has always been in the latter category. When Assemblyman Ron Kim accused Governor Cuomo of threatening to destroy him, the accusation rang true because it was in character.
Politicians who reach out often build up a reservoir of good will among their colleagues. Those colleagues will stand by him when the going gets tough. Those who rule by intimidation may be successful in implementing their agenda for a time, but they will have few friends to defend them and plenty of enemies waiting to pounce when things go wrong. And so it is, that Andrew Cuomo who ruled as a colossus now finds his own party leading the charge against him.
Benjamin Netanyahu is not just Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. Over the past 11 years, Israel has become a high-tech powerhouse. The United States and other countries have recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Peace agreements have been reached with several Arab countries, with more agreements and greater economic cooperation in the works. Israel has led the way in COVID-19 vaccinations. Iran remains a threat. But overall, Israel’s position, both militarily and economically, is stronger today than ever before. So much so, that Israel is now rated by US News and World Report as among the ten most powerful countries in the world.
The bad news is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is currently on trial for various corruption charges. They include receiving favorable news coverage from the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and the Walla news website in exchange for actions to benefit the business interests of the owners of those news sources. In another case, the Prime Minister is accused of accepting a large number of gifts in exchange for actions to benefit an Israeli expatriate businessman.
On Tuesday, Israel will hold its fourth election in two years. But this one has a different twist. In past elections the battle was between the right wing and left-wing blocs. In this election, polls show a clear majority for right wing parties. They also show a clear majority for parties opposing Prime Minister Netanyahu. How is that possible? We need to look at the careers of three political figures who were Netanyahu allies, felt betrayed by him, and are now working to defeat him.
Avigdor Lieberman is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. During the 1996 election, he was the Director General of the Likud, essentially Netanyahu’s campaign manager. When Netanyahu scored an upset victory over Shimon Peres, he appointed Lieberman as Director General of the Prime Minister’s office, a position roughly similar to the White House Chief of Staff. The two had a falling out soon after. Lieberman resigned and formed his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, which is to the right of Likud on security issues but believes the chareidim have too much political power. Lieberman has served as a minister in various governments, including Foreign Minister and Defense Minister under Netanyahu. In 2013, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu ran on a joint list. Lieberman expected the parties to merge and to be anointed as Netanyahu’s successor. Lieberman felt betrayed when Netanyahu blocked the merger. In the wake of the April 2019 election, Lieberman got his revenge. When the results came in, it seemed that the right-wing bloc had won a clear majority and that Netanyahu would lead a government that would include Yisrael Beiteinu and the religious parties. But Lieberman announced that he would only join a “sane right-wing government, not a chareidi government.” Without Lieberman’s support, Netanyahu was unable to form a government, setting the stage for a series of inconclusive elections. Lieberman, once Netanyahu’s right-hand man, is now an implacable foe.
Naftali Bennett was born in Haifa to American parents. He moved to New York in 1999 and became a software entrepreneur. He sold most of his business interests and returned to Israel to become involved in politics. From 2006 to 2008, he was Benjamin Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff, managing Netanyahu’s 2007 campaign to lead the Likud. In 2013, Bennett left the Likud to lead, first, the Jewish Home Party – the leading religious Zionist party – and later Yemina. Bennett served in several positions, including Minister of Defense under Netanyahu. When the two largest parties formed a government in which Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz were to rotate as Prime Minister, Yemina was left out of the government. Bennett, feeling betrayed, began challenging Netanyahu from the right, criticizing him for failing to annex Judea and Samaria. At one point, polls showed that Bennett was Netanyahu’s strongest challenger. His hopes have faded, as the National Religious Party broke away from Yemina, and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party has provided voters with another right-wing alternative to Likud. But Bennett still says that he is running to defeat Netanyahu and become Prime Minister. Bennett, once Netanyahu’s right-hand man, is now an implacable foe.
Gideon Sa’ar entered politics as Cabinet Secretary in Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government in 1999. He served in the same position under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2001. In 2003 he was elected to the Knesset and was the Coalition Chair. In 2009 and 2012 Sa’ar won the Likud Knesset primaries and was second to Netanyahu on the Likud slate. He served in the government as Minister of Education and Minister of the Interior and was seen as the heir apparent to the leadership of Likud. Netanyahu began to view Sa’ar as a threat and was working to undercut him. In 2014, Sa’ar resigned from the Cabinet and the Knesset to take a “time out” from politics. He returned to Likud in 2017 and, in December 2019, sought the Likud leadership, accusing the Prime Minister of turning the Likud into “a cult of personality.” Netanyahu easily brushed off Sa’ar’s challenge. In December 2020, Sa’ar resigned from the Knesset and left Likud to start the New Hope Party, with the goal of replacing Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Gideon Sa’ar, once the number two man and rising star in Likud, has now become Netanyahu’s implacable foe.
According to the polls, Likud is likely to win the most votes in Tuesday’s election but fall far short of the majority. Right wing parties are expected to win 74 of the 120 Knesset seats, a clear majority. But Bennett, Sa’ar, and Lieberman are expected to win 27 of those seats between them. That would give parties that have stated their opposition to Netanyahu 72 of 120 seats. So, while the right wing is stronger than ever, Netanyahu’s legal problems are threatening his grip on power. His undercutting of other politicians has turned one-time loyal allies – like Bennett, Sa’ar, and Lieberman – into opponents who will be more than happy to ease his way out of office.
While both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Governor Cuomo are in serious legal and political trouble, it would be a mistake to write off either one. Removing a Governor requires impeachment by the Assembly and two thirds vote to convict in the Senate. Governor Cuomo has called on the legislature to wait for the results of the Attorney General’s investigation of the sexual harassment charges. He seems to be betting that he will be able to claim that he has been exonerated, taking the steam out of the attempt to remove him.
In Israel, it will be difficult for anyone to form a government after Tuesday’s election. Sa’ar and Bennett have proclaimed their opposition to Netanyahu, but they have also pledged not to join a government under Netanyahu’s leading opponent, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid. If they honor their pledges, it could well be impossible for anyone to form a government, setting the stage for yet another election. But the history of Israel is filled with politicians who formed governments by doing things they vowed to never do. That Netanyahu will make peace with Bennett, Sa’ar, and Lieberman is well within the realm of possibility.
Israel’s election will take place on Tuesday. But the real fight for power will begin when the results come in. It could well make the upcoming elections in New York City look tame by comparison.