History will not look kindly on Netanyahu era
Multiple election winners are always worth examining. What are the secrets to their success? How did Tony Blair win three terms at the head of a British Labour Party that had been out of power for 18 years? What was Margaret Thatcher’s secret? Angela Merkel will be stepping down in September after four successive election victories in Germany.
Another serial winner, Benjamin Netanyahu, is about to face his fourth election test in two years and is aiming to become Israeli prime minister for the sixth time. He has a stellar track record in elections, having won six and lost just one. He is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, with a total of 15 years in office.
Yet, with all this success, why is he not seen as an Israeli hero, a champion, a leader that the nation has fallen in love with? David Ben-Gurion is revered in Israel, as are other founding fathers, but Netanyahu is not. Yes, he has a passionate base, not least among Israel’s right-wing nationalists, who love his pro-settlement stance. Hence, Netanyahu has pledged to legalize a whole raft of settlement outposts if he wins on March 23. At the same time, every Israeli is acutely aware of his glaring flaws — his arrogance and ego for starters. Despite all of this, he is still capable of getting across the line.
The obvious reason to start with why he keeps winning at the polls is that Israel has been, since the turn of the century, a right-wing country. Israeli Jews consistently vote for right-wing parties and Netanyahu can hoover them up into his coalition. Conversely, the Israeli left is in ruins. The Labor party, which dominated the first three decades of Israel’s existence, is history. The even more left-wing Meretz may not get past the 3.25 percent threshold of votes needed to enter the Knesset.
Brand recognition counts and Netanyahu’s rivals remain largely unknown quantities. Experience also matters in a country that perceives itself as always being under threat. Netanyahu, who is also known as “Bibi,” trades on the political inexperience of his opponents. He has a record of keeping Israelis safe and that is a vote winner.
Netanyahu was also Trumpist before Donald Trump. He was in the avant-garde of populist politics. Bibi rails against the media and so-called fake news. His corruption charges are, in his world, all trumped up. He rarely bothers with mainstream Israeli TV interviews. He is also not averse to lying, but the key is, like Trump, he completely commits to the lie. Hesitancy and doubt are not permissible.
Honesty and integrity have never been necessary for Netanyahu. He is focused on winning at all costs. He demands loyalty from others but does not return the favor. For example, Trump expected Netanyahu’s public backing ahead of the US election in November — after all, Trump had delivered for Bibi countless times — but he did not get it.
He also outmaneuvers his opponents. Netanyahu is a master of the dark arts of communications. He can do angry Bibi, charming Bibi and even comic Bibi. He is keenly aware of which messages will cut through to the specific segments of the Israeli electorate he wants to target. He knows how to trap his opponents.
One of his political conjuring tricks is his ability to lure the Palestinian citizens of Israel to vote for him. According to one poll, a third want Netanyahu to remain as prime minister. Why, one wonders? What has Netanyahu done for them to deserve their consideration?
If the Israeli PM is to lose, this may be the time, as this vote perhaps more than any other will be a referendum on his rule.
Luck is vital and Netanyahu has undoubtedly been lucky. His opponents over the years have been lackluster and generally unimpressive. Events have often gone his way and what a gift Trump was. At some stage, this will run out.
Losing Trump might be that moment. Will the cold shoulder from Joe Biden hurt Bibi? It took four weeks for the Israeli prime minister to get a call from the White House. The answer, however, is probably not. The Israeli right knows that times will be tougher with Biden whoever is PM, and that Netanyahu had a good harvest from the four years of plenty under Trump.
It is impossible to predict who will come out on top next week. There are too many variables, not least the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Many Israelis might even be too scared to vote. Netanyahu is blamed for Israel’s high death rate, but at the same time he is promoting himself as the man who orchestrated the impressive rollout of the Pfizer vaccine to more than half of the Israeli population, way ahead of the rest of the world.
The “anyone but Bibi” bandwagon gets pretty crowded at every election. Benny Gantz, the leader of the flailing Blue and White alliance, is clear: “The day after the election, I will support anyone capable of forming a coalition of 61 votes who is in favor of the independence of the judiciary and respect for democracy and who is not named Netanyahu.” Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, wants to send Netanyahu to a landfill in a wheelbarrow along with the Ultra-orthodox parties.
As with previous elections, it may take weeks to decide if there has actually been a winner. But if Netanyahu is to lose, this may be the time, as this vote perhaps more than any other will be a referendum on his rule. He is wounded politically, on trial for corruption and has lost his ally in the White House. As the saying goes, all careers in politics end in failure, so he will lose one day. Many believe he will fight to stay in office whatever the result, inspired by the example of Trump in the US.
The Israeli electorate might next week consign Netanyahu to political history, though few would bet against him. But when those history books are written, how many writers will enthuse about the Netanyahu era? Will any credible analysts gaze at these years and label Bibi great? The answers are none and no, respectively. His talents are too weighted in the political dark arts. His politics are too opaque and lack a driving vision for his country. Above all, his flaws are too just egregious to ignore.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech