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Why Benjamin Netanyahu's winning streak could be coming to an end

Benjamin Netanyahu. Illustration/Weef

With his re-election, Benjamin Netanyahu has become Israel’s longest-serving leader, but his victory might be short-lived if corruption charges proceed against him.

The Great Survivor has done it again. With his re-election on April 10, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu became the longest-serving leader in Israel’s history, surpassing the record of even David Ben-Gurion, the country’s revered founding prime minister.

Netanyahu, 69, pulled it off despite the taint of possible corruption charges, a provocative last-minute vow to annex Jewish settlements on the West Bank – illegal in international eyes – and a formidable challenge from a centre-left party led by a former head of the Israeli armed forces.

Ultimately, Netanyahu’s triumph was due not so much to his personal popularity – his Likud Party won no more votes than its main rival – as his ability to do deals with smaller parties on the right, thus securing the numbers for a governing coalition.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

It was edge-of-seat, high-stakes, down-to-the-wire politics. And none of it would have come as any surprise to Netanyahu’s biographer, Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who admits admiration for the politician’s resilience and self-belief, if not for his policies or ideology.

“Netanyahu has been in public life since 1982 [when he was appointed to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC] and in politics since 1988, and he has never given up,” Pfeffer told the Listener a few days before the Israeli elections.

“He has had defeats. He lost an election in 1999 and again in 2006 and he has kept coming back. He has a burning sense of destiny and a burning sense of belief in himself as the only person who can possibly lead Israel.

“He thinks the country would be on the brink of disaster if it had the misfortune of being led by someone else. He believes this 100%, and his inner circle echoes this belief back to him and it keeps him going.”

“Bibi” Netanyahu in 1968; and as part of an elite Israeli Army commando unit in 1973. Photo/Getty Images

Long-standing clash

Pfeffer’s book, Bibi, which was written without its subject’s co-operation or approval, is more than just an insightful biography. It’s also a masterful tutorial in the extraordinary complexity and brutal factionalism of Israeli politics.

It examines Netanyahu’s political career in the context of a deep and long-standing clash between the legacy established by the founding generation of pragmatic, egalitarian Israeli politicians such as Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, who leaned to the left, and the aggressively right-wing “Revisionist” movement represented by Likud and backed by conservative religious parties.

Netanyahu, the son of a prominent right-wing ideologue and intellectual, inherited his father’s contempt for the Israeli political elites. Although he served in a crack Israeli military unit (as did his older brother and mentor, Yoni, who attained posthumous hero status when he was killed in the famous Entebbe hostage rescue in 1976), Netanyahu was never part of the Israeli Establishment. In fact, he spent most of his formative years in the US, thus qualifying for the disdainful Hebrew label of yordim – a Jew who left Zion.

Pfeffer, who writes for the liberal daily newspaper Haaretz and Britain’s Economist, portrays the five-term prime minister as a masterful political strategist who plays on old divisions and grudges to stay in power.

Netanyahu with President Donald Trump in the US earlier this year. Photo/Getty Images

“Politicians intuitively seek the centre ground. They think you win elections from the centre. Netanyahu in the past 10 years has gone against that instinct.

“He understands that he doesn’t need to win by a landslide. He has never won by a landslide. He doesn’t need Likud to be a big party; he needs to be able to keep together lots of disparate groups who are angry and resentful about the old elites and he needs to keep that resentment alive.”

Although a popular outside perception of Israel is that of a gritty little country united in defiance of its Arab enemies, Pfeffer’s book portrays it as a nation of acrimonious political feuds and constantly shifting alliances – a turbulent environment in which Netanyahu is in his element.

“We talk about people being coalition builders and smoothing over differences and building a consensus and making everyone feel they belong, but Netanyahu is a coalition builder in a very different way. A lot of it is to do with keeping the old left-wing Establishment elite out of power. It’s a very effective way of building a coalition.”

With supporters at an Israeli post-election event in April. Photo/Getty Images

Intellectual elite

Comparisons with President Donald Trump seem inevitable. “What he has in common with Trump is this metaphysical feeling for the phobias of his voters,” says Pfeffer. “Trump was born rich, never had much contact with ordinary people, but he has this feeling for how that segment of the American public who voted for him feel, and how to stoke their fears.

“Netanyahu is similar. He doesn’t come from a rich family, but he does come from an intellectual elite. His father was a very aloof man and the family lived in America for large parts of his childhood and young adulthood, so he’s not connected with his voters on a social level. But he does have a feeling for their phobias. He knows how to touch those points.”

One of those phobias concerns the Palestinian demand for a separate state. Pfeffer says Netanyahu has done little to resolve the Palestinian stalemate, preferring to concentrate on creating a prosperous Western-style “bubble” in the Middle East. And the strategy seems to be working.

“He has always sought to put the Palestinian issue off the agenda and he has succeeded in doing that in recent years, which is why he wins elections. Even though Israelis know he’s corrupt, and even though many Israelis don’t like him and would probably prefer a different prime minister, they can’t really see someone else taking his place.”

Those corruption allegations could still be his undoing. Israel’s Attorney-General announced in February that he intended to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but whether that will harden into criminal charges will be determined by a hearing later this year at which his lawyers will have the chance to argue against them.

With President Vladimir Putin during a 2016 visit to Russia. Photo/Getty Images

Pfeffer says there’s a 70-page dossier detailing Netanyahu’s alleged transgressions, but there are ways he can fight the indictments. One is to successfully rebut them in the preliminary hearing. Another is for Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, to pass legislation granting him immunity, although Pfeffer says Netanyahu may not be able to rely on his coalition partners to support such a constitutionally dubious move. A third option is for the matter to go to the High Court.

Pfeffer says this is unfamiliar legal territory for Israel, although it’s not the first time Israeli leaders have fallen foul of the law. Yitzhak Rabin resigned in 1977 to pre-empt tax-evasion charges and Ehud Olmert resigned in 2008 ahead of a corruption trial.

Netanyahu has been the subject of previous police investigations, and even his wife, Sara, whom Pfeffer’s book portrays as a control freak with a massive sense of entitlement, is enmeshed in legal proceedings over extravagant, unauthorised spending.

But Pfeffer says no serving Israeli prime minister has ever stood in the dock and the law is unclear as to what should happen in those circumstances. It is also unclear whether all of Netanyahu’s coalition partners will still support him if the indictments proceed.

So, his latest term as prime minister may be his shortest. As the British-born Pfeffer says, speaking from his home in Jerusalem: “It can be fun covering Israeli politics, but it can also be exhausting and depressing.”

Mourners at the funeral of an Israeli rabbi who was killed by a Palestinian gunman on March 18. Photo/Getty Images

Strongman's figures

Another of Netanyahu’s strengths, according to Pfeffer, is his ability to forge personal relationships with other national leaders across a broad ideological spectrum. His friendship with Trump is well known, but he has also chummed up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Although those leaders can be categorised as strong-man, nationalist-type figures, rather like Netanyahu himself, less predictably he has also established a rapport with Canada’s centre-left Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and with Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s socialist government.

“He’s the prime minister of a small country – only nine million people – yet he has built this incredible network of alliances with leaders around the world. As we speak, he’s in Moscow hobnobbing with Putin. Bolsonaro has just been here to pay homage.

“People don’t want to get on Netanyahu’s bad side any more. They want to be his friends – even Trudeau. The new generation of politicians are either nationalists and populists such as Orbán and Trump, who see Netanyahu as an ideological ally, or they are a younger group of liberal politicians such as [France’s Emmanuel] Macron and Trudeau, who probably don’t like his politics but want to have a dialogue with him because he’s now seen as an elder statesman. They admire him as a survivor.”

As with his ability to discern what’s worrying Israeli voters, Netanyahu’s diplomatic skill comes from being able to identify and exploit mutual interests. “He works out what he has in common with other leaders and what joint interests they can further.

“When the Syriza party came to power in Greece, everyone thought it would be bad for Greek-Israel relations, because it was a radical, left-wing party. But Netanyahu has found common cause with Tsipras over confronting Turkey.

“He and Tsipras meet for regional summits three times a year. This is a guy whose politics couldn’t be further away from Netanyahu’s. Politicians see Netanyahu as someone they want to get along with, because this is a guy who does deals, who works out alliances and common interests.”

A mother mourning her 15-year-old son, who was killed by Israeli soldiers during a protest in the Gaza Strip on April 12. Photo/Getty Images

“Devastatingly effective”

Having written the definitive biography of Netanyahu, how does Pfeffer feel about him?

“I’m a huge admirer of his abilities. He’s a very, very capable man. I’m not an admirer of the way he sees Israel’s future and the way he exploits divisiveness. But what he does is devastatingly effective.”

Shortcomings? “On a personal level, they are his sense of entitlement, which has led to some of the indictments against him, and an obsession with how he’s seen in the media.”

Despite having first come to public attention as a polished television performer and persuasive advocate for Israel (Pfeffer says he captivated the Washington media elite), Netanyahu has an adversarial relationship with the Israeli media. Two of the corruption charges against him allege attempts to influence media coverage in his favour.

And, of course, there remains the Palestinian question; always the Palestinian question.

Within weeks of Netanyahu’s re-election, conflict re-ignited along the border between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza. On May 4 and 5, Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched 700 rockets at targets in southern Israel, apparently in protest at the slow implementation of a ceasefire deal that would have allowed more humanitarian aid into the Palestinian territory. At least 15 Palestinians were reported killed in retaliatory strikes.

“On an ideological level,” says Pfeffer, “Netanyahu’s view of Israel in the region and the world is problematic because he thinks the key to Israel’s survival and prosperity is not solving the Palestinian issue, putting it on the back-burner and trying to bully the Palestinians into submission, and it’s been working in recent years because  the international community is tired of the Palestinian issue and has got so many bigger problems facing it.

“But although his strategy is working right now, the issue is not going away. He’s still got five million Palestinians living in Gaza and on the West Bank whose issues somehow have to be addressed, and they are not going away.

“Whether or not the world cares about them, that’s something Israel has to deal with on a moral and practical level. Netanyahu is deferring that. He believes the Palestinians will give up and accept some very reduced solutions, but I doubt that they will.”

Anshel Pfeffer will speak at the Auckland Writers Festival on Saturday, May 18, at 4pm.

This is an updated version of an article first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.