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Israel goes through governments like Manchester United goes through managers; both are in decline

July 4, 2022 at 10:45 am

Manchester United Football Stadium, Old Trafford, in Manchester, UK

Israel may not immediately spring to mind when thinking about England’s Manchester United Football Club, yet in terms of inconsistent leadership the self-declared Jewish state appears to be following a path that has epitomised the Red Devils ever since legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. The club has had eight managers since then.

In Israel, “managerial” instability is starting to be the norm in terms of its national politics following long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to put together a coalition last year. Ferguson and Netanyahu were both the longest-serving in their respective leadership roles, and both must watch as their successors fail to match their achievements for club and country respectively. Frequent changes have thus far not reversed this trend.

Depending on who one asks or what criteria is used, United are one of the most successful football clubs in England. However none of the eight managers since Ferguson have had much success, aside from Jose Mourinho who won the 2017 Europa League only to be sacked in 2018 after failing to revive the team.

Former player Ole Gunnar Solskjær was in charge the longest during this fallow period, but after three years he too was sacked and replaced by interim coach Ralf Rangnick in November last year; Rangnick left before the end of the season. New boss Erik ten Hag was appointed in April and vowed to reverse the team’s fortunes. He has already been dubbed by some sceptical supporters as “Erik ten months”, because no manager has survived in the post-Ferguson era after the club failed to qualify for the Champions’ League. Some observers have already written him off, with his sacking all but “inevitable”.

For Israel to function as a state, it depends on stable and strong leadership, which is lacking. On 1 July, Yair Lapid became Israel’s fourteenth Prime Minister, an interim role ahead of the country’s fifth General Election in just three years scheduled for October or November. The election is widely predicted to end in political deadlock and yet more uncertainty.

Lapid’s “far-right” predecessor, Naftali Bennett, took office in June last year, after the coalition government that he cobbled together was approved by parliament. He thus ousted Netanyahu, who was facing corruption charges at the time.

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Former Foreign Minister Lapid was due to replace Bennett in 2023 as part of a rotation agreement, intended to maintain Israel’s most ideologically diverse coalition and keep Netanyahu out of office. However, the political transition was brought forward after Bennett lost his majority, dissolved the country’s parliament, the Knesset, and called an early election.

This “difficult” decision, said Bennett, was taken largely to safeguard the interests of illegal Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, after several Arab Knesset members in the coalition refused to back a Bill intended to renew and uphold the setter’s legal status, resulting in it not becoming law. The Bill was seen as a major test for the fragile government. Overshadowing it all was reported tension between Bennett and Lapid which threatened the stability of the government and raised questions about whether or not Bennett would indeed step down for Lapid when the time came.

Recognising the impact that another election would have on a state teetering on the brink of collapse, Bennett warned last month that the country was “facing a real test”, which had the potential to “split up our land”. This admission that there existed genuine fear about the continued existence of the colonial-occupation state followed a more grave concern expressed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who spoke of the “curse of the eighth decade”.

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“Throughout Jewish history, the Jews did not have a state for more than 80 years except for two periods in which those states began to fall apart during their eighth decade,” explained Barak. “The current Jewish state is now in its eighth decade, so I fear that this curse will come upon it as it has on those previous states.”

Despite the best efforts of his rivals, Netanyahu remains an important opposition leader but his return to power is “by no means a forgone conclusion”, according to Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer. His track record of failing to secure a majority in four consecutive elections raises reasonable doubts about his ability to steer the country out of its deadlock.

Netanyahu does, however, possess strengths that his opponents do not have: his longer-established connections in Washington, for example, despite his strained relations with the White House in the Obama years; his involvement in the historic Abraham Accords, which saw Israel normalise ties with four Arab states; and his hawkish stance against Iran and its nuclear ambitions, especially as the Vienna and more recent Doha talks appear to be moving in Tehran’s favour with a possible deal within reach.

If recent polls are anything to go by, Netanyahu’s Likud Party is projected to win 34 seats in the upcoming election, with Lapid’s Yesh Atid winning 22. So yet another election looks set to be inconclusive, paving the way for further uncertainty.

Short-term leadership and constant change is damaging both Manchester United and the occupation state of Israel. Both are in decline, exposing deeper systematic and structural problems along the way, and neither appears to have an easy path ahead.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.