The Great Survivor: How Benjamin Netanyahu clung on to power in Israel again

The Great Survivor: How Benjamin Netanyahu clung on to power in Israel againIt was an election challenge that would unnerve even the most hardened political operative: Benjamin Netanyahu was asking Israelis to give him a fifth term as prime minister. But both he and his wife were facing criminal corruption charges. A majority of Israeli voters were telling pollsters they were tired of Mr Netanyahu after 10 years in office. And his opponent was a decorated former general, exactly the kind of man Israelis have historically chosen as their leader.    Yet a week before the election, the character playing Mr Netanyahu on Israel’s leading satire show, A Wonderful Country, delivered a monologue that would prove prescient. “I gave them a head start," the Netanyahu character mused. "Three indictments, 500 rockets from Gaza into Israel, shortages tens of thousands of hospital beds... And at the end, we will still win 30 seats.”    Mr Netanyahu, known in Israel as "Bibi", did even better in Tuesday's election. Early results showing winning 35 seats, the largest result for his party since 2003. His centrist challenger, Benny Gantz, also won 35 seats but Mr Netanyahu had the much clearer path to forming a coalition government.  He is arguably now the most successful election-winner in Israeli history. In July this year he will overtake David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, as the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.  Whether Mr Netanyahu can stay in office long-term in the face of the criminal indictments against him is another question. But for now it is worth asking: how did he win again?  Real achievements Even those Israelis who don’t like Mr Netanyahu’s brand of divisive Right-wing politics grudgingly acknowledge his achievements in the fields of security, diplomacy, and the economy.  His ten years in office have been some of the most peaceful in Israeli history. The suicide bombings that plagued the country in the early-2000s are a thing of the past. He kept Israel from being dragged into bloody Syrian war even though he has repeatedly ordered strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria.  And while Mr Netanyahu has failed to come up with any long-term solution to the situation in Gaza, the periodic fighting against Hamas has not resulted in large-scale casualties among Israeli soldiers or civilians.      On the diplomatic front, Mr Netanyahu has been proven correct in his thesis that he can refuse to move towards a Two-State solution with the Palestinians without paying any serious international cost.  Israeli jets have repeatedly struck in Syria Credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo Instead of becoming more diplomatically isolated, Israel has increasingly open relations with the Gulf Arab countries, based on their shared opposition to Iran. Mr Netanyahu has brought security cooperation with Egypt, Israel’s former mortal enemy, to new heights. And he has boosted Israel’s diplomatic standing in Asia, Africa and Latin America while receiving unprecedented support from the Trump White House.   Israel’s economy has almost doubled in size since Mr Netanyahu came to power in 2009 and it has emerged as one of the world’s most innovative hi-tech nations. Its growth rate has consistently outstripped that of the UK and other developed countries.   L'├ętat, c'est moi The main thrust of Mr Netanyahu’s election campaign was that he is an indispensable leader, without whom none of these achievements would be possible.  He argued that Israel’s successes abroad were down to his personal relationships with world leaders. One billboard showed him grinning alongside Donald Trump, with the caption: “Netanyahu: in a different league”. Implicit in his argument was that Israel would be committing an act of self-sabotage by not re-electing him, depriving itself of the man who personally holds the keys to unlocking success.   He underscored Israelis’ sense that the whole state depends on him by making himself foreign minister for the first three years of his premiership, and recently appointing himself defence minister.   The campaign seems to have worked. Many voters seem to have decided it was simply too risky not to re-elect Bibi. A little help from his friends Most leaders would spend the last weeks before an election vigorously campaigning at home. But Mr Netanyahu instead took his campaign abroad. He first went to Washington, where Mr Trump handed him a pre-election gift by recognising Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.  Donald Trump and Mr Netanyahu after the US recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights Credit: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File Last week he went to Moscow, where Vladimir Putin helped him pull off another diplomatic coup: the return of the body of a missing Israeli soldier killed 37 years ago in Lebanon.    In between the two trips, Mr Netanyahu hosted Jair Bolsonaro, the far-Right president of Brazil, who had flown 6,500 miles to meet him in Jerusalem.    The world leaders all knowingly played along with Mr Netanyahu’s election campaign, helping him to project himself as a global statesman - one too busy with international affairs to worry about domestic politics.   Israel has moved to the Right Israel has moved staunchly to the Right in recent decades, giving an inbuilt advantage to any Right-wing leader trying to see off a challenge from the Left or Centre.  Nearly two-thirds of Israelis - 63 per cent - identify as Right-wing. Compare that to just 15 per cent who identify as on the Left and 18 per cent who consider themselves in the Centre.  There are many reasons for this Rightward shift but fundamentally Israelis have soured on the idea that peace with the Palestinians can be reached through negotiations based on a Two-State solution. Mr Netanyahu successfully stoked the fears and angers of Right-wing voters. He forged an electoral pact with a Jewish extremist group and presented himself as a champion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and a staunch opponent of a Palestinian state. People can argue whether Mr Netanyahu’s success is a cause or a symptom of this move to the Right. But it’s clear that in Israel’s current political environment, the wind was at his back.  Limp opposition Mr Netanyahu’s chief opponent, Benny Gantz, seemed like an ideal candidate.  He was a former general with vast military experience, the same pedigree as the last two prime ministers from the Centre-Left, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin.   But Mr Gantz also had serious deficits. He had no experience in government or politics and his only position outside the military was at a technology start up which failed miserably. Benny Gantz could not match Mr Netanyahu's political skills Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images The ex-general often looked awkward on the campaign trail and could not match the prime minister’s political dexterity. His campaign had few policy specifics and its main message seemed to be its opposition to Mr Netanyahu, rather than real proposals of its own.   Some voters, even those sick of Mr Netanyahu, decided that Mr Gantz was simply too inexperienced and untested to go straight into the prime minister’s office.  A winning formula Mr Netanyahu repeated the same trick which helped him win the last election in 2015. In the final days before voters went to the polls, Mr Netanyahu began giving dozens of media interviews, where he appeared worried and anxious.  He warned that he was in serious danger of losing power and being replaced by a government of the Left. The only way to stop that, he said, was if Right-wing voters of all stripes rallied around his Likud party.  The tactic - known in Israel as “hitting the panic button” - worked in both 2015 and again in 2019.  Voters who had been planning to support one of the smaller Right-wing parties were frightened into supporting Mr Netanyahu’s Likud at the last minute. In doing so, they helped hand the prime minister victory once again.




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