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Why Israel is stuck with Benjamin Netanyahu

Despite failing to secure a decisive victory in three elections and being on trial for corruption charges, Netanyahu remains Israel’s prime minister. How has he held on for so long?

On 20 April, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu took to the podium for his annual address at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. But this year was not like any other. Netanyahu was speaking to a nation suffering a prolonged constitutional crisis that had led to three general elections in less than a year. His message was recorded in advance, due to the restrictions imposed by the global Covid-19 pandemic. And, unlike in 2019, Netanyahu had a date had set for his trial, where he would face criminal charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

“Unlike during the Holocaust,” Netanyahu told a nation in lockdown, “we saw the danger in time”. Israel had, he said, “made important decisions such as closing the country’s borders, while harnessing the entirety of the country’s systems to the cause.”   

The crass juxtaposition of the Holocaust and the pandemic, the insinuation that Jews would have been safer had Israel’s leader been around during the Second World War — this is classic Netanyahu. His political pitch is to highlight existential threats to the Jewish state, such as Iran, a hostile EU or a novel coronavirus, to present himself as the safe pair of hands, and a leader not only of Israelis but of all the world’s Jews. This strategy has brought Netanyahu — or “Bibi”, as he is nicknamed in Israel — five terms in office, and made him the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Four of those have happened concurrently since 2009. His first term ended a decade earlier in 1999. 

The threats that the 70-year-old Netanyahu has on his radar have never been limited to those external to the state, however. As the leader of the right-wing Likud Party, Netanyahu has long warned his supporters of the existential dangers of a political left that would, in cahoots with “terror-supporting” Arab counterparts, stop at nothing to bring down Israel’s government. Twenty per cent of the Israeli population are Arab citizens.

Over the past year, as criminal proceedings against him have edged closer to trial, Netanyahu has also railed against Israel’s judicial system, which he claims is rigged and an arm of the deep state. The prime minister and his family are the perpetual victims of a hostile left-wing media.

But as he stood on the podium that evening, his trial looming like a grey cloud on the horizon, Netanyahu could breathe a certain sigh of relief. The same day, he had reached an agreement to form an emergency unity government with his main rival, the former Israeli army chief of staff Benny Gantz. Under the rotation deal, Netanyahu will stay put for another 18 months before standing aside for a man who pitched himself to the electorate as “just not Bibi”.

Gantz, who is now the country’s alternate prime minister and defence minister, had previously declared that he would never sit with Netanyahu in government. But on 17 May, the largest government in Israel’s history was sworn in. The new administration bears the signs of extensive wrangling and compromise, with 25 new positions added. The bloated list of 35 ministerial positions and 16 deputies includes a minister for “higher education and water resources”. But Netanyahu wanted to conclude the political crisis quickly. And his trial, which had been due to start in mid-March but was postponed amid coronavirus lockdown, was now just a week away.

Israelis demonstrate on the first day on Netanyahu's trial

It was not, then, the victory Netanyahu might have dreamed of. But despite the challenge from a credible opposition movement, which hadn’t existed before that first election all the way back in April 2019, and despite the fact that a small majority had voted against him, Netanyahu clung to power.

The new government also shows signs of Netanyahu’s gift for horsetrading. The process of forming the unity government split two of his key rivals — Gantz’s Blue and White liberal centrists, and Yamina, the hard-right coalition — while the centre-left Labour party was hoovered up into the unity government. Naftali Bennett, once Netanyahu’s chief of staff but now a personal rival, was relegated to the opposition.

This ability to navigate Israel’s fractious system of proportional representation has been a crucial part of Netanyahu’s story. Dozens of parties and alliances compete for influence in the Knesset. In this environment of constant negotiation, alliances are fragile and instability is inevitable. In the first of the three general elections, a lifetime ago in April 2019, it was another of Netanyahu’s friends-turned-enemies, Avigdor Lieberman, who triggered the political crisis by refusing to join a coalition government. With Netanyahu unwilling to accept defeat, a Likud lawmaker introduced a bill to dissolve the Knesset, and a second election was called. Speaking to the press after that vote, a visibly chagrined Netanyahu denounced Lieberman, a hard-right conservative who has previously advocated population transfer of Arab citizens, as a leftist, to the amusement of the reporters present.

The next election in September 2019 also yielded an impasse. Though the centre-left parties together had secured more seats altogether, it was Netanyahu who got the 61 recommendations he needed from lawmakers for President Reuven Rivlin to hand him the mandate to form a government. But with negotiations failing, the mandate went to Gantz, the first time since 2009 that someone other than Netanyahu was given the task. When he didn't manage to form a government either, the baton was passed back to the Knesset. The impasse remained, however, as no other candidate received the backing of 61 MKs. The Knesset dissolved and the country yet again went to elections. After election number two, Netanyahu twice asked parties in the right-wing and religious bloc to sign a pledge committing not to join a Blue and White-led minority government supported by Arab parties.

The third round of elections in March 2020 was hardly more decisive. This time Likud won 36 seats to Blue and White's  33, but Gantz got the mandate because Netanyahu could not secure the crucial backing of 61 lawmakers.  When he didn't manage to form a government, either, the mandate went again to Netanyahu. Both after the September and March votes, President Reuven Rivlin called on Gantz and Netanyahu, as the leaders of the two largest parties, to form a national unity government. When Gantz ultimately agreed after the third election many voters were furious. He cited the Covid-19 crisis as a reason for going back on his pledge not to serve in a government with a prime minister under indictment. Gantz had also been subjected to vicious negative campaigning from Likud, which cast aspersions on this mental health and personal life, alongside the incitement against Arabs which Gantz and his party did little to counter. 

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My father, who has lived in England since 1987, flew back to Israel three times to vote for Gantz. He is one of those bitterly disappointed by the unity government outcome. “The more I think about it, the angrier it makes me,” he told me recently. “Bibi symbolises everything that is bad in politics. There was an opportunity for someone fresh who hasn’t been in politics all his life to take over.” Netanyahu became a Knesset member in 1988. “Bibi is clearly a very talented politician,” my father added. “The problem is – just as we saw in the coronavirus crisis, he uses his talent not for the good of Israel but for the Netanyahu family.”

Others think Gantz did the right thing, even a brave thing, by ending the political turmoil and preventing yet another election. By the time the cabinet was sworn in at the end of May, the country had been under interim government for nearly 18 months. It is not only the cracked political landscape that Netanyahu knows how to navigate, but Israel’s deeply divided society. He has stoked divisions between right and left — a common refrain is to describe the left as “traitors” — and between Arabs and Jews. In 2015, Netanyahu uploaded a video to Facebook on election day warning that “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves”. After September’s vote, he railed against the option of Blue and White forming a minority government with “terror-supporting” Arab lawmakers, saying this was an existential threat. In a video on social media he appealed to the party, “Are you out of your mind? There’s still time to stop this insanity”. In response Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-majority parties, tweeted a photograph of himself reading a story to his children. He captioned it: "After a long day I have to put these three existential threats to bed!"

Netanyahu’s party went further still. In April’s election, Likud sent monitors with body cameras to a number of polling stations in towns with majority Arab populations, in what was seen as an attempt to intimidate voters. Ahead of September’s vote, the party tried – and failed – to pass a bill to allow cameras at polling stations, ostensibly to prevent voter fraud but with almost certainly the same intent.

Amid such incitement, the chances of Jewish-Arab political co-operation were slim. Blue and White did meet with Joint List, the alliance of Arab-majority parties, during coalition negotiations after the second election, posing for a potentially paradigm-shifting picture together. Lawmakers on that slate were even prepared to recommend Gantz as prime minister to the president as part of the “just not Bibi” camp. But Blue and White was apparently unprepared to put off the voters it might have attracted from Netanyahu’s base by condemning the race-baiting rhetoric, and a Jewish-Arab coalition remains a sadly impossible proposition.

Now, days after his trial started on Sunday 24 May, Netanyahu is still the prime minister – despite his indictment, despite the small majority against him, despite the racist and divisive rhetoric and the reports of voter intimidation, despite the huge gaps between rich and poor in the start-up nation, the moribund peace process, ongoing occupation and moves towards unilateral annexation, and — perhaps most maddening, to his detractors — the fact that he just doesn’t seem to want to budge.

What keeps him in power? Perhaps it is the fact that, like everything else in Israeli politics, there is little consensus on any of this. To his supporters he is the ultimate leader, dismantling political rivals, standing up to the US on Iran, building Israel’s international ties despite the pesky conflict with the Palestinians, and counting the world’s buoyant autocrats as his friends. Election campaign posters last year showed him alongside Putin and Trump with the tagline, “Netanyahu: In a league of his own”. On his 70th birthday last year, Trump wrote “You’re Great!” at the bottom of a letter to Netanyahu. To his supporters, it is thanks to his leadership that Israel is a small state punching well above its weight on the world stage.

“I think he is undoubtedly one of the great leaders the State of Israel and the Jewish people have had,” Ariel Kahana, diplomatic correspondent of the pro-settler weekly Makor Rishon told me. “If you just look at the coronavirus crisis, which Israel came out of more or less okay under his leadership, he is a great leader — with a lot of rivals”. Kahana describes the criminal charges and criticism of Netanyahu’s socially corrosive politics as “delegitimisation” that, he says, has only ever strengthened the prime minister’s resolve. He has been underestimated. And, Kahana adds, he does not believe that Netanyahu has ever really tried to pass legislation granting him immunity from trial.

Raviv Drucker, the Channel 13 journalist long on Netanyahu’s tail, said Bibi has “managed to create the image among his supporters that you have just repeated perfectly,” when I relayed this analysis to him. “He created the idea that all leaders try to create, that there is no replacement, there is no one else. David Ben-Gurion felt like this, and [Ariel] Sharon — many of our leaders feel that after them, there is a terrible abyss and no one else will be able to lead.”

Netanyahu’s life is one of mythologies: the influence of his father, the historian and Revisionist Zionist outsider Benzion Netanyahu, the memory of his brother Yonatan, the fallen war hero. The first Israeli leader to have been born after the founding of the state; the youngest to take office. He went to school in the US but returned home to join the army, where he served in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. Back in the US he studied at MIT and Harvard, with a break to fight in the Yom Kippur War. He later worked at the Boston Consulting Group and as a diplomat. Along the way he made new friends — Mitt Romney, with whom he worked, and the property developer Fred Trump.

It was in the US, too, that he developed his perfect English and the rhetorical flourish that is so effective in his aggressive social media presence and in his divisive speeches. What other leader has had the audacity to whip out props on the podium at the United Nations General Assembly?

In one well-known incident, which angered many in Israel, Netanyahu addressed a meeting of the Likud Party in 1999 wearing a bullet-proof jacket, as mandated by the security services. “Is there someone here who is not a Likud member?” he asked. When no hands were raised, he removed the jacket and dropped it to the floor. The stunt took place four years after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Netanyahu addresses the UN

In 1998, during his first term in office, a New Yorker profile pitched him as “The Outsider”, a man railing against left-wing elites and the media who was little liked by those around him. By 2012, three years into his second term in office, TIME crowned him on its cover as “King Bibi”, a seemingly immovable leader. In the intervening period, Netanyahu had built up a base as leader of Likud that brought together the right-wing and religious settler movement and Mizrahi Jews in poorer peripheral towns. He had cast himself, despite his own elite and Ashkenazi background, as a man still railing against elites, and as an opponent to the Oslo process. Many Israelis on the left believe Netanyahu bears some responsibility for inciting the violent atmosphere in which Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat, was assassinated by the Jewish Israeli Yigal Amir in November 1995.

Observers note a change in Netanyahu after the 2015 election, when Likud won 30 seats to the Zionist Union’s 24. “This victory brought Netanyahu and his family to another place. To a place where they started to believe, like Louis 14th, that they are the state,” wrote Limor Livnat, a former Likud minister who led Netanyahu’s campaign in 1999, in a searing column this week. “Netanyahu before 2015 and after 2015 are different people, not in the way they think, but in the way they behave,” agrees Drucker. “Until 2015 he always tried to keep some eye contact with his opponents — the High Court, the media, human rights organisations, with Europe and the EU. From 2015…these positions have become more extreme”.

“I first met him when I went on a visit to Washington as a member of Knesset,” the former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, recalled when we spoke recently over Zoom. They had dinner at Netanyahu’s residence, with his second wife, Fleur Cates. “The impression he made on me then, and since then, was of being an actor, a poser...I thought he was quite a hollow and shallow man, and I must say I haven’t changed my mind since.”   

Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, was in power immediately before Netanyahu, from 2006-09. He led Kadima, the centrist party set up by Ariel Sharon when Israel disengaged from Gaza, after Sharon had a stroke and went into a coma. Olmert was pressured to resign when he faced his own corruption allegations, for which he later spent time in prison.  There is little love lost between the two; Olmert has blamed Netanyahu for being involved in pushing the criminal proceedings against him.

“There is nothing with him [Netanyahu] that is ‘not done’ if it serves his political needs,” Olmert told me. “All the last three elections came from the constraints he was under, following the judicial proceedings developing against him. And these are things that I refused to do.” Olmert resigned, he says, because “I understood that the actors in the legal system – whether I thought they were wrong, or right or whether I thought they acted unfairly, it's irrelevant – but from a certain moment, when you are prime minister, fighting them drags you into a process where in the end you are fighting the police, the State Attorney’s Office, you fight the courts. You reach a low point that can unsettle the stability of the entire democratic and governance structure of the state.” His successor apparently has no such concerns.  

Olmert and Netanyahu hail from the same political home — from Likud, and from the Revisionist stream of Zionism, whose figurehead was Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Unlike the Labour Zionism of David Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky’s vision was defensive and liberal. He advocated the “iron wall” approach and Jewish sovereignty over a Greater Israel. Olmert took a turn to the centre when Sharon disengaged from Gaza and formed Kadima. He continues to bang the drum for a two-state solution.

“I don’t think that Bibi follows in the footsteps of Begin, or Shamir or any of the old Revisionist leaders,” Olmert told me in an email after our interview. “His father was an outsider to the Revisionist hard core and if at all he was a bitter man who felt rejected by them. Bibi inherited that bitter attitude and his positions and attitudes are different on most crucial issues.”

Netanyahu voted for disengagement under Sharon, though he resigned days before the Gaza pullout. Throughout his career he has stayed firmly on the right. Israel’s right has made peace, and left has waged war – Menachem Begin signed the peace deal with Egypt. But under Netanyahu the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has hardly moved. Since the formation of the new government at the end of May, Netanyahu has repeated his pledges on West Bank annexation, citing Trump’s peace plan as the basis for moving forward. The Palestinians have declared they will end security co-operation with Israel and the US in protest.

Netanyahu’s gestures towards annexation do not necessarily mean that he is ideologically committed to the vision of a Greater Israel. As a pragmatist and an ideologue, he understands the need to play to his base. This week, Netanyahu told Likud lawmakers that he intends to apply sovereignty to areas of the West Bank on 1 July. His base may not be so easy to please, however. The settler’s Yesha Council has raised concerns over the plan, saying it will leave a number of settlements isolated and surrounded by a Palestinian state. Still, whether he goes through with annexation will depend on the political price. “If he thinks it will cost another intifada, violence, the peace treaty with Jordan, I don’t think he will go through with it,” says Drucker, “but if he gets the feeling he can do it without too heavy a political upheaval, he will see it as a way of securing his legacy.”

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On Sunday 24 May, the first day of his trial, Prime Minister Netanyahu once again addressed the nation from a podium in Jerusalem. This time he was at the courthouse. Flanked by ministers in medical masks, the prime minister repeated the mantras honed over three election campaigns. "The objective is to depose a strong, right-wing prime minister,” Netanyahu said of the trial, “and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years… while the media continues to deal with nonsense, with these false, trumped-up cases, I will continue to lead Israel.” Aside from seeing to the economic crisis, he said he would continue saving “the lives of thousands of Israelis ahead of the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus." He repeated a demand for the trial to be shown live on TV to guarantee transparency.

The world has, of course, changed since Netanyahu first entered politics in the late eighties. Like Donald Trump, he shows an instinctive understanding of social media, and an ability to manipulate its short-form arguments. As the speech on Sunday exemplified, he is also a populist archetype, employing division and hysteria for political ends. Ahead of the March election, Gantz’s party warned that Netanyahu was in danger of becoming an “Israeli Erdogan”, and raised the possibility that Netanyahu would try to pass legislation granting himself immunity from prosecution.

Anshel Pfeffer, whose biography Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu came out in a new edition in March, says if Netanyahu can be compared to British prime minister, it is Tony Blair: “they both have this incredible way of manipulating the feelings of voters.” But in his dealings with the democratic institutions of the state, Pfeffer says he is closer to Silvio Berlusconi than Erdogan.

“You can't really break down the democratic institutions like the Knesset. But — if you are ruthless, if you have no sense of shame, like Netanyahu has, and if you are very popular as well — you can try and work around it, and sort of bypass the democratic institutions.” This says Pfeffer, was Berlusconi’s aim, and his undoing; “he failed, and I think Netanyahu is coming up against a similar kind of dynamic now”. 

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It would be simplistic to paint the Israeli public as simply a victim of Netanyahu’s manipulative populism. Though that small majority voted against him, Likud remains of the largest parties in the Knesset. His bloc of right-wing and religious parties largely stood behind him through three elections. He is still a relatively popular leader; in a poll at the end of February, ahead of the March vote, 45 per cent of respondents said Netanyahu was most suited to be prime minister, 10 per cent more than Gantz. According to a poll published by 103FM days after his trial began, Likud would win 41 Knesset seats if a fourth election were held now. Gantz’s Blue and White, now in coalition, was down to 12 seats, the fourth-largest party. 

While some voters might believe Netanyahu when he alleges the cases against him are a stitch-up, some, aware that he may be corrupt, think it matters less than the ability and experience he projects, or his position on the political map. He is, after all, not the first Israeli politician to stand trial, and he wouldn’t be the first to go to prison.

“Many people in Israel don’t believe in the rule of law, or if they believe in it they think it matters less than other things,” says Drucker. “They prefer other values that Netanyahu expresses.” Netanyahu has signalled further to the right on annexation, for instance. In 2018, his government passed the Nation State Law, which declared that the right to exercise self-determination in Israel “is unique to the Jewish people”, as well as downgrading Arabic from an official language to one with “special status”. As such, Netanyahu’s base has “a very good reason to leave him [in power], despite how problematic he is".

And this plays into another issue. If the parties in the “just not Bibi” camp had been able to unite, they might have been able to form a government. The fact that Blue and White ruled out partnership with the Arab majority parties, the fact that a Jewish-Arab coalition is still so far from the realms of Israel’s political possibilities, is a function of the racism against Arabs in the country. The 103FM poll had the Joint List as the second-largest party in Knesset if elections were to take place now. Netanyahu has played on these divisions, but he didn’t invent them. When he warned of Arab voters exercising their democratic rights in 2015, he knew — like any effective populist — that he could profit by appealing to a suspicion, jealousy and aggression many voters would be ashamed to voice. Netanyahu remains standing because of his willingness to cross that line.

Then again, perhaps he doesn’t see it that way. After more than a decade in power, perhaps he has come to believe his own pitch, that everyone, even the state that he leads, is out to get him. Because without all those enemies, without the constant fight, would Israel still see any need for Bibi?

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.