The A-Z of Israel
On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls. The world watches – but how much do we really know about the country that calls itself “the sole bastion of democracy” in the Middle East?
A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
B is for Bibi
Binyamin Netanyahu plays the family man in the company of his wife, Sara, and their sons, Yair and Avner. Photograph: Getty Images
Rafael Behr writes: One of the paradoxes of Israel is that, for a country whose identity depends on continuity over millennia, it is very young. None of the first generation of prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion to Shimon Peres, was born an Israeli. That generation spans the foundation of the state in 1948 to May 1996, when Binyamin Netanyahu was first elected.
At 47, Netanyahu was then the country’s youngest ever premier and the first to deploy slick, soundbite-driven, American-style campaign strategies. (He studied in the US in the 1970s and, unlike his predecessors, speaks English with a distinctly American accent.) The political old guard, in his own conservative Likud party and on the left, thought his style vulgar and insubstantial. Then they saw how well it worked. Yet the image of the polished performer, lacking in substance, stuck to the man they call “Bibi”.
Now he is 63 and no one disputes that he is a political heavyweight. That first period in office was marked by a relative stagnation in the peace process that looks, with hindsight, like the beginning of the end of optimism. He then crashed out of office in 1999, surrounded by corruption scandals.
Netanyahu retired briefly from politics, returning in 2003 to serve as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s cabinet. The portfolio allowed him to express a streak of hard economic conservatism in the Thatcherite vein (see P for Protest). He resigned over Sharon’s decision in 2004 to withdraw Israeli military forces from Gaza, a gambit that remains the last significant territorial concession made by any Israeli government. Netanyahu’s opposition to it indicated an ideological aversion to compromise. It also demonstrated a strategic judgement about the political dividends available to a politician who might tap in to public insecurity and the appetite for intransigence.
He succeeded Sharon as leader of Likud and engineered a reorientation away from the party’s position as a pillar of the centre right, courting voters who were gravitating towards more religious and extreme nationalist parties (see U for Ultra-nationalists). Some analysts detect in that shift the influence of his father, a Zionist historian wedded to the territorial vision of a Greater Israel. Others see Bibi’s rightward march as raw tactics, sealing off a leak of traditional Likud voters to the fringes.
He won the premiership again in 2009 and is generally expected to stay in that role after elections on 22 January. Last year, he merged Likud with Yisrael Beiteinu, a fiercely nationalist party whose rhetoric has explicitly racist overtones. Now he is facing an insurgent challenge from a new right-wing group – Jewish Home, run by Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu chief of staff.
With the most recent generation, Israeli politics has shifted aggressively to the right. Pessimism about the peace process has nurtured insecurity and corroded the liberal credentials of the state. Extreme nationalism and a paranoid, hair-trigger militarism have colonised the centre ground. That shift has tracked Netanyahu’s rise. He has followed the trend and accelerated it. There is no doctrine or great project that can be associated with Bibi, nor even any great military or diplomatic achievement – just the galvanising of fear into a desperate and ruthless campaign for self-preservation which serves as a description of the man’s career, his personality and the policies he has pursued.
Rafael Behr is the political editor of the New Statesman