Bibi's Return

November 3, 2022
March 9, 2023
Middle East

Few politicians have dominated politics in the way Benjamin Netanyahu has in Israel over the past quarter century. Netanyahu has served as Prime Minister for 15 of the last 25 years, and while the final counting of absentee ballots may affect the makeup of his next government, “Bibi” Netanyahu seems certain to return to that office after this week’s election. Aided by divisions among his opponents, and a realization even among Israelis critical of one or more aspects of his personality or tenure that he is the only man who can govern, Israel’s voters have brought back one of the world’s most reliable politicians in dangerous times.

With around 88% of the total votes calculated, Bibi’s Likud party has won 32 of the 120 seats within the Israeli Knesset (parliament). His allies in the ultra-Orthodox Haredim parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism have won another 11 and 8 seats respectively, while a coalition of secular and religious Jewish nationalists in an alliance called “Religious Zionism” appear to have won another 14, for a total of 65. This success was aided by two anti-Netanyahu parties, the ultra-woke Meretz and the pro-Palestinian nationalist Balad, falling below the threshold of 3.25% necessary to receive seats. If, by some chance, Meretz, which is currently at 3.19%, were to reach 3.25%, Bibi would still be able to form a government with 62 seats. Balad, meanwhile, has no chance.

Netanyahu’s victory is far from a product of luck. That every major right-wing party passed the 3.25% threshold is a testament to Netanyahu’s political skill. He played a leading role in preventing fragmentation, even intervening to keep the Religious Zionist coalition together when it broke apart. By contrast, his opponents fragmented. Meretz, a party founded to promote the 1990s peace process, was unable to cooperate with the rump of the old center-left labor party, while the “Joint List” of Arab parties fell apart, with the result that both Meretz and Balad, the most extreme of the three Arab parties, saw their votes wasted.

Neither is a particular loss. Meretz has not had a clear purpose since the 1990s, as even the Arab states have conceded there is no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side, while it was Netanyahu and Donald Trump who delivered peace with the Arab world. As for Balad, it was the least savory of the Arab parties, and its longtime leader took part in an effort to breach the Gaza blockade which escalated into violence in 2014. By contrast, another Arab party, Ra’am, became the first to join an Israeli government, in the process renouncing efforts to destroy Israel in favor of trying to make it work for Arab citizens. Contrary to warnings that this choice would destroy Ra’am, and charges of treason levied by the now unemployed Balad MKs (Members of the Knesset), Ra’am increased its votes and seats, winning just under 5% of the votes and 5 seats. The only reason anyone is weeping for Meretz and Balad is because their MKs would have voted against Netanyahu.

Both Ra’am’s success among Arab voters and Netanyahu’s success overall demonstrate the gap between the concerns of elites with “democratic norms,” “personal character,” and “respectability,” and voters who value effective government and someone who will resolve their problems. Netanyahu’s appeal, after a period in which Israel saw five elections in three years, was that he could restore stability and defend Israel’s interests regardless of who was in the White House or what geopolitical crisis arose. In this, Netanyahu’s ability and willingness to work with anyone was an advantage, as was his ruthless pursuit of power.

That was a message entirely missed by his critics, who attacked his efforts to create as broad a right-wing coalition as possible. Netanyahu’s efforts to keep the Religious Zionist coalition together earned him the enmity of the liberal press both in Israel and abroad for having supported “fascists,” referring to Itmar Ben Gvir, a controversial politician whom Netanyahu helped to be included within the Religious Zionist coalition. Ben Gvir has a controversial record, including altercations with parking assistants, but he is hardly the only political figure who has a history of issues with staff, something U.S. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar can attest to. Nonetheless, the criticisms have been echoed by the Biden administration, which has already indicated to the media that the U.S. will not have dealings with any government which includes Ben Gvir as a minister.

This decision by Biden reveals his misunderstanding of Israel, the region, and Netanyahu’s success. Israel is a society too divided politically for anyone to be able to afford to keep permanent enemies and still govern effectively. Secular Jews, conservative Jews, and Orthodox Jews coexist with those of Sephardic and Ashkenazi backgrounds, and more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union – and that does not touch on Arabs, who run the gamut from Muslims to Christians to Druze.

Netanyahu has owed his success not to an ability to make everyone happy all the time, for that would be impossible, but to an ability to ensure everyone gets what they need. Netanyahu has protected the rights of ultra-Orthodox Jews to attend their own schools and follow their own familial laws and culture, including a degree of exemption from military service for religious study, while limiting the qualifications to those exemptions and increasing the rights that other Jewish groups, especially conservatives, can exercise when it comes to marriage and conversion. He has adopted a hard line on security against terrorism, but he has made clear that his security strategy relies on alliances with Arab states such as the UAE, Egypt, and perhaps even the Saudis, and that Israel’s approach in the West Bank must reflect that. At the same time he has governed with the ultra-Orthodox, he also appointed Israel’s first gay minister.

Netanyahu’s political approach has been to write off as few enemies as possible, since many opponents today could be future allies. In this respect, to call him a “Jewish supremacist” for bringing Ben Gvir into the system would be as absurd as Ben Gvir’s charges were two years ago that Netanyahu was pro-Arab as he sought to bring Ra’am in. The greater the number of parties and interests represented, the more options he has. The presence of Ben Gvir and Religious Zionism means former General Benny Gantz, whose party won 12 seats and whom Netanyahu served in a coalition with back in 2020, will come under enormous pressure to join a new Netanyahu government to limit the influence of Religious Zionism. This in turn will mean Netanyahu can threaten Ben Gvir with Gantz and Gantz with Ben Gvir to prevent either from destabilizing the government.

By contrast, the travails of the anti-Bibi coalition over the last 18 months demonstrate the instability caused by the alternative to his leadership. By writing off the support of the Religious Zionists or ultra-Orthodox sects, the coalition left themselves with at most 61/120 seats, vulnerable to a single defection. The government could do nothing without losing the support of someone, but if it did nothing for anyone, it failed to serve its voters or Israel. The allegedly “respectable” refusal to “appease” the Religious Zionists or ultra-Orthodox, or to deal with Bibi (jailing Bibi was the number one item on the government’s agenda) was the source of Israel’s instability.

Israel’s voters, by reelecting Bibi, therefore did not reject democracy or pluralism, but embraced them. They embraced the man who had proven a willingness to forgive and forget that his opponents do not share. Netanyahu has proven that he is a man who can work with the Saudis, Turks, and Egyptians, with the Muslim Brotherhood or hardline-Jewish nationalists, and with secular and religious Jews, if that is what is needed to protect Israel. Any country would be lucky to have a leader with such a talent. In the Middle East, it is as rare as fresh water.

Bibi’s immediate test will be whether he can work with a U.S. administration which does not seem to understand Netanyahu’s appeal, and which has adopted the opposite approach to politics. Like the French Bourbons, Joe Biden’s Democrats have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” over the course of the last decade. They have never forgiven Republicans for having the temerity to refuse to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016, and then the audacity of Donald Trump to win the election over Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, they have failed to evince much interest in learning why either happened. When it comes to Israel, Netanyahu’s defiance of Barack Obama, combined with his political survival, is more than an affront to themselves; it is an affront to the moral order of their universe. Netanyahu dared to oppose Obama’s “greatest” achievement in the Iran Nuclear Deal, dared to say the emperor had no clothes in front of the U.S. Congress, and then the Israeli voters took four tries to get rid of him. Their decision to return to him will be seen as an insult to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, just as the red wave will be seen as an insult by American voters next week.

Having failed to influence Israeli voters, expect Biden and Democrats to try to interfere with Netanyahu’s efforts to form a government, not because they expect it to lead to stability, but in the hope it will cause trouble. Already, Senator Bob Menendez, the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “warned” Bibi against including the Religious Zionists in the government. The U.S. has also given “guarantees” to Lebanon in the event Netanyahu wins.

The odds, however, are in Netanyahu’s favor. Biden is likely to have all the domestic problems he can handle next week. The Iran deal appears dead even among Democrats following Russia’s use of Iranian drones to attack Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Most importantly, Netanyahu is a survivor. He has already forged close ties with the Saudis and European leaders. It is the U.S. Democrats, and even Republicans, who would be wise to learn from Netanyahu, not Netanyahu who has any need to listen to lectures from the current White House. His comeback victory proves it.

Originally published on AMAC.


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