The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu looms so large over Israeli politics is a mystery to Israel’s friends and foes alike. If you believe what the media tell you, Netanyahu is routinely on the wrong side of history, refusing to make peace with the Palestinians, all too ready to go to war with Hamas, dangerously sparring with the U.S. president, doubting the Arab Spring when it was being hailed as the dawn of democracy and freedom in the Middle East, and threatening Iran when so many were convinced that negotiations were the way to put an end to its nuclear ambitions.
Yet Netanyahu has been in power for about half of the past 18 years and is now poised to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Bibi not only emerged victorious from Tuesday’s election, he confounded pollsters (who expected him at best to end neck-and-neck with the center-left Zionist Union) and conventional wisdom (which had it that voters were tired of him and blamed him for the many ills besetting Israel).
What is the secret to Netanyahu’s staying power?
One is lack of competition and the other is that Israel has done very well for itself in the Netanyahu years.
There was a time when Israel produced great leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. Today, Israeli party politics are more like a fetid swamp than a garden for cultivating statesmen.
Those who emerge from it to win places in the Knesset or cabinet tend to be wheeler-dealers rather than the kind of person you can imagine as a guest of the White House or taking responsibility for an army with nuclear weapons.
Not surprisingly, voters have repeatedly turned to political outsiders – Ehud Barak in 1999, Amram Mitzna in 2003, Shelly Yachimovich and Yair Lapid in 2013, and Moshe Kahlon in 2015. The first two were ex-generals who promised to square Israel’s security-versus-peace dilemma vis a vis the Palestinians; the latter three offered to rescue Israel’s beleaguered middle class with the economic magic of a little more free market here, a lot more government there. Barak and Lapid got into power as prime minister and finance minister, respectively, but both failed miserably on the job. Outsiders promise new politics, but once they are in office they are overwhelmed by the same old politics everyone else is practicing.
But Bibi’s main asset has been that history has so far been on his side.
Israel has had to fight two small wars during the past two Netanyahu governments and contend with multiple terror attacks, but Israelis don’t expect peace and quiet in the way people in Sweden or Canada do. They understand that in the Middle East, war and terror is a part of life, not a failure of diplomacy. Netanyahu was proven right in doubting that the Arab Spring would turn out well, but he hasn’t been burned by his prophecy. The turmoil in Syria hasn’t spilled over Israel’s borders while the gyrations in Egypt have resulted in an Israel-friendly government in Cairo. Nor has the absence of a peace process exploded into another intifada, as Bibi’s critics have repeatedly predicted. Relations with the Obama White House are frosty, but it’s hard to point to any tangible price Israel has paid for it so far.
The conventional wisdom in Israel was that this Pax Netanayaha turned the elections into a vote over how to best reduce the cost of living for ordinary Israelis. Yet Israelis are not in such bad shape. The economy weathered the global financial crisis with no burst housing bubble, no bailouts and barely a blip in its growth trajectory. Unemployment has fallen to record lows and the stock market is at a record high. Israel’s high tech industry is thriving. The global movement to boycott Israel has generated much smoke but little fire.
The economy has a list of problems, topped by incredibly high housing costs, a failure to integrate Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the labor market, and the effects of monopolistic businesses and labor unions. Among those, however, only housing comes close to the voters’ hearts because it affects their pocketbooks right now. It could have been enough to dent Bibi’s popularity but it was never enough to wreck it. Kahlon and Lapid, the two candidates campaigning on a cost-of-living platform, never come close to being a threat to Netanyahu. If Bibi had two things working in his favor, others worked against him.
The average Israeli respects Netanyahu but doesn’t like him an awful lot. That he is despised by Israel’s generally left-of-center class of intellectuals and pundits is to be expected. But he is distrusted by the right as well. Unlike his rivals further to the right, who pretty much say and do as they please, as prime minister Netanyahu has had to bob and weave in the face of pressure from the U.S. and Europe. This difference seems lost on the right-wing voters, who seem to think that whatever works as a campaign slogan works as foreign policy. Israelis in the amorphous center have their Bibi problem, too. They love America, like Europe only a little less and want to be welcome in the world community, not play the role of defiant outcast. They don’t share Netanyahu’s view of the world as a dark place characterized by relentless antipathy toward Israel and the Jews.
Netanyahu’s other big problem is that he is a serial killer of political allies. The Likud should in principle have no problem forming a coalition and governing effectively for the next four years, but Bibi’s natural partners on the right – Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon – all have personal beefs with him. Given the enormity of the Likud’s win, they will have litte choice but to join him in a coalition, but it’s unlikely to be a happy one of politicians united by shared ideology.