Is time almost up for political survivor Netanyahu?

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In May 1999, I sat in a room in northern Israel, watching election results on TV with a group of Israelis who had voted against then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When the results showed that Ehud Barak had defeated Netanyahu, cheers filled the room. Little did we know that Netanyahu would become one of the world’s ultimate political survivors.

In the last two weeks, Netanyahu has again foiled his political rivals. After he agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, following the latest crisis between the two sides, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman withdrew his party from the ruling coalition in protest. It briefly looked like Netanyahu’s coalition might collapse and face early elections, but he has managed to hold his government together, albeit by a very small margin.

Lieberman now faces the risk that his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, might lose seats in the Knesset when elections do take place. Meanwhile, Netanyahu managed to make another rival look weak. Education Minister Naftali Bennett demanded the position of defense minister in exchange for keeping his party in the coalition. However, he soon backed down, succumbing to pressure from his own party to maintain the right-wing coalition. Netanyahu took the defense portfolio for himself.

Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996. He walked a fine line between trying to wreck the Oslo Accords while appearing to go along with them in order to placate Washington. In Israel, he faced opposition from the political left, as well as from right-wing voters who disapproved of any negotiations with the Palestinians. This difficult balance helped Barak win in 1999.

However, Netanyahu was not out of political power for long. In 2003, he became finance minister. After he resigned in 2005, he soon became leader of the Likud party. He became prime minister again in 2009, and he has held that position for nearly a decade now. If he survives in the role for a few more months, he will become the longest-serving PM in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu has several traits that have helped him maintain longevity in Israeli politics. One of his greatest skills is the ability to constantly promote the narrative that Israel is under threat — and that he is the only leader responsible and experienced enough to protect the country. He doubled down on that message in a Nov. 18 speech that helped save his coalition, saying, for example: “We are in the midst of a battle, and in the middle of a battle we don’t abandon our posts.”

Netanyahu’s current political position is precarious, with a significant risk that his coalition will collapse before elections are due in November 2019.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Netanyahu has used the story that Israelis need him to protect the country throughout much of his political career. He always has some specific threats he can cite; for example, today, those threats include Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran’s presence in Syria. Beyond these, his narrative appeals to a core aspect of Israeli identity. Given Israel’s history — and the history of the Jewish people prior to Israel’s creation — it is hardly surprising that Israeli identity is imbued with a sense of constant threat. Netanyahu is highly skilled at tapping into that, and shaping it to whatever specific or vague threats he wants to highlight.

Similarly, Netanyahu regularly warns other right-wing politicians and voters that, if right-wing rivals bring down his coalition, they will face a serious risk that a left-wing coalition will replace them. The seriousness of this risk is debatable, but he points to historical examples and the argument helps keep partners and potential competitors in line.

Other political skills that he employs include adaptability, which allows him to regularly change his policy positions while explaining his shifting views in ways that enough Israelis will accept. His proven ability to pre-empt or defeat rivals makes some potential foes reluctant to try their luck against him.

Netanyahu also benefits from the fractious nature of Israeli politics, which makes it difficult for coalitions to form against him and creates multiple opportunities for Netanyahu to play divide and rule. The weakening of the Israeli left since the Second Intifada also works in Netanyahu’s favor.

However, there are questions about how long Netanyahu’s dominance of Israeli politics will last. His biggest vulnerability is the taint of corruption — and the actual risk that legal charges will soon be brought against him in two cases. This is not the first time that Netanyahu has faced such a problem. During his first tenure as prime minister, he also faced allegations of corruption and other personal scandals, which weakened him in the 1999 elections. At a time when global sentiment isturningagainst corrupt leaders, this issue may be Netanyahu’s Achilles’ heel.

Netanyahu faces other challenges. He portrays his political experience as a form of stability, but Israel may not be immune to the broaderglobal trendagainst leaders who have been in power for many years. He still struggles to balance the compromises necessary to govern with ideological right-wing demands. He has a number of potential political rivals, although the number of competitors makes it difficult for the opposition to Netanyahu to coalesce around one challenger.

Netanyahu’s current political position is precarious, with a significant risk that his coalition will collapse before elections are due in November 2019. However, even if elections are held early, his Likud party might do well. It would be foolish to underestimate Netanyahu, but his vulnerabilities might yet combine with changes in Israel’s political environment to remove him from power.

 

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