What made Netanyahu Israel’s indispensable man?

The lack of a credible alternative leader or strategy for dealing with security threats means that the prime minister is still favored for re-election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Oct. 7, 2018. Credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/Yediot Achronot.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Oct. 7, 2018. Credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/Yediot Achronot.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

He did it again. Despite being placed in an impossible position by the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman over accepting another ceasefire with Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to keep his coalition government alive.

Netanyahu called the bluff of Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, who threatened to topple the government if he wasn’t named defense minister after Lieberman’s parting. That meant that when the dust cleared, one right-wing rival was sidelined, and the other exposed as unwilling or unable to take on the prime minister and set off a crisis that would force early elections.

It was yet another successful maneuver by the man who has presided over Israel since 2009, and is very likely to be put in a position to lead it for at least another four years when the country goes to the polls to elect a new Knesset either in the spring or later in 2019.

The graveyards are full of people who thought they were indispensable, and Netanyahu’s run of victories can’t last forever. But the prime minister’s frenemies within his coalition, as well as his open foes in the opposition, know that he currently stands alone when Israeli voters consider who should lead them.

This would be an extraordinary achievement for anyone, but when you consider the political hurdles that Netanyahu has overcome, it’s downright remarkable. Nevertheless, a sober analysis of the situation reveals that his triumphs say more about the lack of other options than it does about his personal greatness. For all of his deft management of the government, the failure of his opponents on both the left and the right to come up with rational alternatives has kept him as the only person most observers think has a chance of leading the next Israeli government.

The prime minister’s continued run also says as much about the intractable nature of the conflict with the Palestinians as it does about Netanyahu’s genius.

To put Netanyahu’s current position in perspective, it’s necessary to think back to when it looked as if he was done for good. After a meteoric rise to the top and beating out Shimon Peres in 1996, Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister was less than a ringing success. In 1999, he was defeated for re-election by Ehud Barak as Labor Party staged a stirring comeback.

Barak’s government lasted less than two years after he gambled his political life on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat being willing to accept a two-state solution. Arafat’s launch of a terrorist war of attrition known as the Second Intifada ended the faith of the Israeli people in the Oslo peace process, as well as the parties on the Israeli left that had championed it.

Yet the man to pick up the pieces scattered by Barak’s blunders was Ariel Sharon. It was not until after Sharon split the Likud by withdrawing from Gaza that Netanyahu would return to his party’s leadership. And it was not until after Ehud Olmert—Sharon’s successor at the head of the centrist Kadima Party—crashed due to corruption charges and the failure of another effort to make peace that Netanyahu would get a chance for the top job again.

What followed were three consecutive electoral triumphs in which Netanyahu’s Likud Party acquired a stranglehold on the ability to build a coalition that could command a majority in the Knesset. With each passing year, it has become more and more apparent than no one among his possible challengers is viewed as remotely in his class as a leader.

Even Netanyahu’s detractors must admit his strengths.

He is just about the only Israeli politician who actually understands economics, having studied them formally at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. His stewardship of its powerhouse “Startup Nation” economy has kept the country growing. Netanyahu has been an equally adept manager at foreign policy, knowing just how to talk to leaders across the globe. He has expanded ties with the Arab world, in addition to Africa and Asia, and is the beneficiary of a Trump administration that is the most favorable of any American government in history.

On security issues, he has also demonstrated a cool head, and is probably the least trigger-happy of all those who have led the country, even if his caution can sometimes also get him into trouble.

Yet it’s also true that after nearly 13 years as prime minister, many Israelis are understandably sick and tired of him. Though the corruption charges he faces may not lead to prosecution, they are indicative of the problems any leader who is in power for too long usually develops.

Though a brilliant speaker, Netanyahu is not all that charismatic or personally popular. The list of his political enemies is long and includes not only left-wing elites, but former allies who (like Lieberman, Bennett and others who head other right-wing parties) were chased out of the Likud because the prime minister wants no potential successors waiting around to profit from his setbacks.

Still, the reason why Netanyahu remains in power is that no one in the opposition can provide a serious alternative to his refusal to make more concessions to the Palestinians in the absence of evidence that they are serious about peace. Advocates of withdrawals from the West Bank have no answer to the argument that what they are doing is repeating Sharon’s Gaza-withdrawal blunder.

The parties of the left were discredited by the Palestinians’ refusal to make peace. Centrist parties are led by figures like Yair Lapid—viewed as lightweights whose stands are nothing more than a faint echo of those embraced by Netanyahu. Nor is the emergence of new factions led by former generals likely to shake the public’s belief that Netanyahu’s stance is the only one that makes sense.

One day, his luck will run out for one reason or another, and it is possible (though not likely) that some unforeseen event could topple him in 2019. But until Israelis are given a credible alternative, Netanyahu will remain Israel’s indispensable man.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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