(February 3, 2023 / JNS)
Last summer, I had a meeting with then-leader of the Israeli opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu. I told him that if he won the premiership again in the upcoming election, he would become the Muhammad Ali of Israel.
“Why the reference?” he asked me.
“Because he’s the only heavyweight to ever have won the world championship three times,” I answered.
The Bible says that “a chord tied with three strings will not easily break.” Bibi’s return for an unprecedented third time as prime minister of Israel is a vindication of the economic reforms he introduced to liberalize Israel’s economy, the peace treaties he signed with the Abraham Accords and the tough-on-terrorism policies he pursued as Israel’s leader.
Former President Donald Trump announced his own bid to return to power just days after Bibi completed his. He’s probably wondering how Netanyahu dodged the supposed blue wave of 2022, which saw a string of right-wing political defeats, from Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania to Herschel Walker in Georgia to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
How did Bibi—already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister—overcome four former IDF chiefs of staff through five furious elections in the last three-and-a-half years?
Puzzling to some, Bibi’s political comeback makes perfect sense to me.
Firstly, he has a phenomenal team behind him, which includes Likud’s Amir Ohana, the new speaker of the Knesset, an openly gay former national defense officer and one of the most committed and capable Jews I’ve had the privilege of knowing. Then, there is Ron Dermer, Israel’s brilliant new minister of strategic affairs and one of its foremost diplomats and defenders whom I’ve known since my years as a Chabad rabbi at Oxford University, where Ron served as our student president. Among Bibi’s most intimate friends and trusted advisors, Ron is reportedly tasked with overseeing the keynotes of Netanyahu’s legacy—preventing a nuclear Iran, strengthening the America-Israel relationship and advancing the Abraham Accords peace with Israel’s neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia.
But besides a great team and his obvious inborn talents, the secret ingredient to Bibi’s enduring appeal to voters is his ability to communicate authenticity.
I have known Bibi for more than three decades, ever since he lectured for me to a standing ovation at the Oxford Union, amid a crowd of Israel critics whom he won over with unmatched passion and eloquence. Bibi loves the Jewish people and sees it as his historic mission to protect his nation from genocidal enemies like Hamas and Iran. He believes—unflinchingly—that all Jews are his family and Israel is our home. His abilities in politics, media, and economics are external manifestations of a fundamental will to protect the Jewish people and secure the future of Israel.
Bibi, like all historic leaders, is far from perfect. But he’s driven by cast-iron convictions that have driven Jewish patriots since Samson battled the Philistines, the Maccabees the Assyrian Greeks and Bar Kochva the vaunted legions of Rome.
In the American political arena today, this kind of authenticity is increasingly difficult to replicate.
In the U.S., politics have become synonymous with double-dealers and corrupt smoke-filled rooms. Politicians on both sides of the aisle scream the same predictable, poll-driven platitudes, while concealing the motives—and sometimes even the names—of donors whose contributions can’t even be counted or traced.
More importantly, the political shape-shifting exhibited by candidates is absurd enough for even the least discerning voters to see right through them.
In his highly readable new autobiography Bibi, Netanyahu tells a story that’s relevant here. Traveling home from Australia, the prime minister describes how his son Avner, a baby at the time, began to cry. A frustrated passenger on the flight lashed out at Bibi’s wife, Sara, telling her forcefully to shut the baby up. Bibi, despite being Israel’s financial minster and former premiere, responded with trademark Israeli panache: “I walked up to the passenger and clenched him by the lapels of his fashionable leisure jacket. ‘Listen, that’s my son and he’s been hurt. Now you shut the … up.’… We heard no more complaints during the rest of the flight.” Bibi’s explanation for his behavior: “When it came to physically protecting my family, I was always ferociously unyielding as though possessed by some primal instinct.”
This story is extremely revealing about the Bibi I have known for three decades and his feelings toward the Jewish people. Bibi sees the Jewish people as his family. He is their guardian and protector. And he keeps on being voted back into power because even his critics cannot deny the power of his Jewish pride. Whether militarily, in the media or from the Prime Minister’s Office, Bibi has made the choice repeatedly to serve the Jewish people even it meant taking on four chiefs of staff and countless heads of states.
At a certain point, everyone will be impressed by a man who refuses to rest and who protects his loved ones from attack at all costs. The authenticity exposed by fighting fearlessly is not lost on the voters.
Trump rose to power due in no small part to his ability to communicate another kind of authenticity. American politics had become swampy. The two parties promised more of the same. And Americans said it was time to bring a disrupter to Washington, even if they had questions about his character. But if anyone that wants Trump’s current endorsement is expected to inject insane MAGA Botox like election denial to smoothen out ugly wrinkles in their political platform, that authenticity will die on the stump, as we witnessed with so many of Trump’s chosen candidates who, like Dr. Oz, were eviscerated at the ballot box, even as they had Trump’s own top consultants, like Larry Weitzner of Jamestown Associates, guiding them.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the author of The Israel Warrior and Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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