Those disappointed by the seeming victory of the Likud leader in the 2 March 2020 elections should take the time to acknowledge not only the inadequacies of his opponent, but the clarity of the Netanyahu worldview and its correlation with the hopes and fears of Jewish Israeli voters, argues Dr Jack Omer-Jackaman in this passionate essay.
Kneel ye minions, in homage to the Teflon king: for Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] has won. Or at least, since no-one ever wins Israeli elections in the conventional sense, he has surely improved the Likud’s showing decisively enough to finally provide Israel with a functioning government. With the final vote tally not yet in, with projections showing the Likud currently three seats short of a parliamentary majority, and with the ‘kingmaker’ Avigdor Lieberman yet to show his hand we should perhaps be wary of such definitive pronouncements. Political predictions, especially in Israel, can certainly make fools of the predictor. And yet, I argue that a Netanyahu government is surely coming; that this time, the compromises and defecting MKs will be found. Netanyahu’s challenger for the Premiership, former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, is putting on a brave face but looks to me a beaten man.
And so, the handwringing from progressive friends of Israel, in whose diminished number I dwell, can commence. We will lament the seeming drift of Israeli society ever-rightward, as well as, ironically, the unfairness of the fact that Bibi will prevail despite more Israeli citizens voting for anti-Netanyahu parties than those who voted for his right-wing bloc. And yet, amidst our disappointment and our despair at its implications, intellectual honesty demands that we recognise this profound achievement of the Likud, not only by comparison with its showing in the previous two stalemates, but in the context of the Netanyahu years as a whole.
We should also try to understand the endurance of the Netanyahu brand. For, with three serious indictments hanging over his head he has convinced a greater proportion of the Israeli electorate to vote for him than at any of the eight other times he has faced the public at the ballot. The man is possessed of something like a political genius and of a rarely paralleled instinctive feel for his country’s psyche.
Compared with September 2019’s previous ballot the numbers, even at this comparatively early stage, are revealing. The votes of Yamina – the ultra-nationalist coalition of the Defense Minister Naftali Bennet – have declined. Having pledged to govern with Bibi’s Rightist Bloc some of its voters of last time seem to have gone over to the Likud. More revealing still, Yisrael Beitenu – the party of the secular nationalist Lieberman – had a bad night, it’s vote share showing a sharp drop. The 70-000-odd voters who (seem to) have abandoned Lieberman have surely gone to Bibi: either they have held their nose at the prime minister’s pragmatic embrace of the theocrats of Shas and United Torah Judaism (previous and prospective coalition partners both) or else their support of Yisrael Beitenu was not motivated by this in the first place and they have been won to the Likud by dissatisfaction with Lieberman’s prevarication, attraction to some of Netanyahu’s tougher recent talk, or fear of the ‘leftist’ (as sold by Bibi) Gantz.
The combined forces of the Zionist left – the camp which dominated Israeli politics for the first three decades in the life of the Jewish State – this time ran as a single ticket and performed miserably. It will, in fact, be among the least represented of all the parties or alliances which received enough votes to pass the threshold for Knesset representation. In fact, it has haemorrhaged voters even from its dreadful showings in the April and September 2019 elections. The question of where the votes on which the Zionist left relied have gone over the last 20 years is a perennial one. The possible answers to the question of where many of the few it had left have gone over the past seven months are intriguing. Some leftist voters have clearly thrown in their lot with the Joint List (a coalition made up largely of politicians from Israel’s minority Arab community) whose impressive performance in September has, gratifyingly to this observer, been bettered this time. But defectors to the List do not account for the whole of the Left Zionist haemorrhage. Nor do the votes seem to have gone to Gantz, to whom the left offered coalition support and whose own vote share – and indeed prospective number of seats – has held steady. So there are two possibilities: 1) Netanyahu has persuaded 100,000 Likud voters to turn out this time when they stayed home last time, while previous Left-Zionist have this time stayed home in despair; 2) Bibi has actually poached a small but significant number of centre-left voters from the remnants of the traditional Zionist left.
It must be said that in Gantz, Netanyahu was facing an opponent possessed of but a fraction of his skill, cunning and ideological commitment. His Kahol Lavan coalition, meanwhile, after the initial novelty of its formation and rise, offered none of the dynamism and freshness required to unseat a leader as synonymous with power as Bibi. Indeed, its platform was, on any number of issues, virtually indistinguishable from that of the Likud. The logic of its broad coalition – Yair Lapid for the charisma; Yael German as sop to the left; Moshe Ya’alon providing the rightist heft – may have been tempting, but next to Bibi’s clear vision it leaves one in mind of analogies about horses and camels and committees. As a result, the whole basis of its appeal to voters has been not a fresh vision for Israel, but rather a personal assault on the character and moral fibre of Netanyahu. The left-Zionist Democratic Alliance came up with the laughable slogan for the September election: ‘No to Likud. That’s for sure.’ Frankly, this might well have been the Blue and White slogan too. The sum of their political commitment was: No to Bibi. Which begs the question – seemingly asked by those Israelis immune to its appeal – and yes to what? Days before the election a recording was leaked revealing Gantz aide Israel Bachar referring to his boss as lacking courage. The aside was uttered in conversation with a Rabbi, clearly no respecter of the sanctity of the confessional, but what was so damaging was that it confirmed what was so apparent already.
In taking on Bibi in a mudslinging battle, the erstwhile General was hopelessly outgunned. As the wise sage of The Wire Omar Little put it (via Waldo Emerson): ‘Ayo, lesson here, Bey: if you come at the King, you best not miss’. And miss Gantz did. In addition to the fact that this focus was rather de-fanged by the surfacing of allegations surrounding the conduct of the company Fifth Dimension, with which Gantz was involved (absolutely no wrongdoing on Gantz’s part is alleged) he also seems to have over-estimated the proportion of the public for whom the Netanyahu corruption allegations were a decisive factor; if you are going to stake your all on the Israeli public not being prepared to suffer an indicted defendant in the Prime Minister’s residence you had better be right. Amid all the bruhaha of the Trump Deal announcement, one of the more remarkable (and neglected) episodes was the way in which Gantz was played like a fiddle by Bibi, rushing back from Washington to take part in the Knesset hearings on Bibi’s immunity, only to discover that the latter had dropped his request. This deprived Blue and White of one its chief weapons – that Bibi was trying to evade justice – leaving it with little to fall back on.
The focus on Bibi’s Court and its supposed decadence and venality risks obscuring just what drives the Prime Minister and how these motivations align with the hopes and fears of vast swathes of Israeli society. In other words, there is a wilful lack of understanding of the character of Netanyahu and the extent of his appeal. Internal and international enemies alike portray him as cynical and get a kick out of mocking the image of domestic largesse, but there is a sincere and highly complex psychology to Netanyahu which, in my view, informs his every political move. Those determined to take him down should devote more attention to this. For, outrageously cynical though his electioneering is (and not for nothing did President Reuven Rivlin, a former Likudnik, condemn this whole cycle of campaigning as ‘grubby’), the truth of the matter is that Netanyahu is a politician with genuine conviction. He sees himself as an actor upon the grand stage of Jewish history and holds the belief that, in this era, he alone is possessed of the strength and grasp of history to vouchsafe the Jewish people. It is my belief that he rises and sleeps every single day with a genuine commitment to this self-appointed destiny and that he envisages a day when the scribes will write of him as a latter-day Judas Maccabeus, the leader of the Maccabean revolt against the Hellenic oppression of the Jews.
So sure is he of the rightness of his own diagnosis of the dangers facing the Jewish people that anyone daring to demur – to argue that, say, accommodation with the Palestinians will actually provide for a secure Israel in the long-term – is to be regarded as a lily-livered appeaser. It is these beliefs which guided him when he first assumed the leadership of the Likud, then in opposition, to foment such hatred of Rabin and the Oslo process, and which guide him today as both a bulwark against Palestinian aspirations and in his relentless campaign to prevent a nuclear Iran. The latter, remember, has involved him facing down, and burning every conceivable bridge with, the Obama administration in perhaps the single most egregious episode of diplomatic rudeness the US has ever known. Such outré behaviour, and the alienation of much of non-Israeli Jewry, requires not only chutzpah but an iron conviction in the rightness of one’s reading of the Jewish story; a reading in which enemies are eternal and existential and to be met only with force and resolution. One could bastardise a slogan from his previous American enemy Bill Clinton which would encompass the Bibi worldview: ‘It’s the security, stupid’. Or, in the Blairite version: ‘security, security, security’.
Such an obsession is, perhaps, an inevitable consequence of learning one’s Jewish history at the knee of Benzion Netanyahu, his father and the historian of medieval Spain whose work on European antisemitism led him to a devotion to that Zionism which brooked least compromise with both native Palestinians and global opinion. Much is made of the foundational impact of Benzion on the Netanyahu mind-set, as well as the effects of the slaying of his brother Yoni in the 1976 raid in Entebbe. The elder Netanyahu son is regarded as a true hero of Israel, and there is no doubt that his iconography advanced the career of the middle son. Like Yoni, Bibi was himself a recruit to the Sayeret Matkal, the most selective and elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces. This, again, is missed by international observers: the sharp suits and dubious gratis cigars notwithstanding, Bibi has bona fide tough guy credentials which aid in his presentation as the ‘safety’ candidate.
And herein lies the rub: in the eyes of many, perhaps even most, Jewish Israelis, Bibi has brought security to Israel. There have been no major wars on his watch, while the number of Israelis killed in paramilitary conflict during his tenure(s) are low enough to be the envy of far more admired Israeli leaders. In a frontier society with a long collective memory of historic agonies and still affected by the trauma of the Second Intifada, this goes a long way. Add to this the remarkable economic growth (in GDP terms) over which he has presided – both as Prime Minister and in a widely admired stint as Ariel Sharon’s Finance Minister in the 2000s – and you can see why the status quo remains attractive to those who have voted Likud in large numbers. Indeed, the preservation of existing situations is the guiding principle of the Netanyahu playbook. His alliances with the new breed of rightist international radicals and norm breakers – antisemites among them – mask the fact that as an Israeli he is a true status quo conservative. In fact, although he has to keep the annexationists of Yamina within his tent, their particular brand of nationalism is to be exploited but practically ignored, if at all possible. In public he talks their talk, but the truth is that he would rather things remain as they are; with the Palestinians enfeebled, demoralised and stateless and with settlements expanded but not formally annexed.
Netanyahu has already outstripped the colossal figure of David Ben-Gurion in terms of total number of years served as Israeli Prime Minister. As the third giant of Revisionist Zionism –after Jabotinsky and Begin – he has played an enormous role in solidifying the hegemonic grip the Revisionist Right has enjoyed since 1977. It is worth taking a moment to note the enormity of the Revisionist achievement: for nearly the entirety of the second half of Israel’s history as a state, a movement which was so reviled as to be beyond the pale of the political mainstream until Levi Eshkol lent Begin legitimacy in 1967 has near-dominated national political life. Indeed, only the Likud, and only Netanyahu, could continue to sell persuasively to their working class, still largely Mizrahim, base the narrative that they are the plucky underdogs, triumphing against both the odds and the massed ranks of the ‘elite’.
Bibi has also shown himself possessed of extraordinary powers of recovery, picking himself off the canvas not only in 1999 but in 2006 when Sharon’s foundation of Kadima left his Likud with only 9 per cent of the vote, less than the ultra-orthodox Shas party. He may hope to one day command a heroic role in the story of the Jewish people. But he is, already, one of the very grandest actors in the short history of Israel. The future – the short, medium and long-term – remains unknowable. It may be that in spite of his success in this latest election a sustainable government remains beyond him. It might also be that the corruption indictment really will be what brings him down: this is certainly the view of his biographer, the incomparable Anshel Pfeffer. For the answers to these we will have to wait and watch with interest. For now, we must grudgingly acknowledge the latest in the series of comebacks from Israel’s Teflon King.