It’s a sweet win for Netanyahu, but Israel’s got the Bibi blues
Despite winning a record fifth term, the resilient prime minister teeters on a precipice between political triumph and personal tragedy
Twenty years ago, after three rocky years in office, Benjamin Netanyahu lost an election to Ehud Barak, a former army chief. Some said his political career was over, that beneath the perfect English, suave style and well-crafted sound bites was an inexperienced, ineffectual leader.
But Bibi bounced back then and, while serious questions remain about how long he will be able to stay at the top of Israeli politics, he has done the same now.
This week, the Israeli prime minister achieved possibly his sweetest victory. Facing Benny Gantz, another former chief of staff and his most serious rival to date, while fighting charges of bribery and fraud, and with Hamas firing missiles into Israel during the campaign, Netanyahu’s Likud won more votes and more seats than he has ever won before.
Later in 2019 he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, reward for his relentless focus on the issues that matter most to voters. Unemployment is low, the economy is growing and Israeli tech and innovation is booming. In foreign affairs Netanyahu has been hyperactive, highlighting his success on a busy schedule of overseas visits and hosting an impressive cohort of top-rank world leaders in Jerusalem.
His strong relationship with Donald Trump’s team, in particular, has paid off, with the US embassy moved to Jerusalem, formal recognition of the city as Israel’s capital and, just recently, US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. In May 2018, Trump even reimposed tough sanctions on Iran, a policy shift Netanyahu had campaigned for since the nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015.
On the basic matter of security, there are serious problems that require major decisions – missiles launched from Gaza, terrorist attacks in the West Bank and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. But by the standards of Israel’s history, the past four years have seen only a small number of serious attacks and few deaths in army combat operations.
Netanyahu also managed to take the sting out of the corruption cases that could have reduced support for his Likud party and driven away voters appalled by stories of lavish gifts for favours and new media laws that enriched a businessman in return for positive coverage. His strategy of talking constantly about the cases, alleging a leftist witch-hunt, and playing down the details, worked. When Israel’s attorney general announced his decision to indict Netanyahu, his supporters either refused to believe the charges or decided that a corrupt Bibi was better than any of the alternatives.
However, victory does not signal the end of his troubles and his triumph has been tempered by the impressive performance of Gantz.
Both their parties are tied with 35 seats which, considering Gantz only entered politics a few months ago, is an extraordinary result. Just as Netanyahu galvanised his supporters, his divisive politics and alleged corruption energised more than a million voters to flock to Gantz.
Netanyahu will become prime minister simply because his allies won more seats than Gantz’s allies on the centre-left. His campaign was a strategic masterclass, but it was infested with the toxic tactics of the gutter.
He deliberately and carelessly ruptured the foundations of Israeli democracy – vilifying leftists, de-legitimising Arab parties, working to bring racist Meir Kahane-inspired thugs into the Israeli parliament and slamming the media for fake news. To fight off corruption allegations, he questioned the independence and motivations of the institutions of state that guarantee the rule of law.
The upshot is that he finds himself on a precipice between political triumph and personal tragedy. Despite winning a fifth term as prime minister, the evidence in his corruption cases will probably be leaked this week.The election result has highlighted the split among Israelis between those who need him to lead and those who want him to go. At a time when he should be working to heal these divisions and serve the Israeli people, he is instead focused on fighting criminal charges. Today, he can celebrate his success, but in 2020 he could be in prison.• James Sorene is the chief executive officer of BICOM.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)