Israel Still Loves Netanyahu
By Shmuel Rosner
New York Times
April 10, 2019
JERUSALEM — There are more than a few reasons to dislike
Benjamin Netanyahu. He can be smug and vindictive. He can be ruthless when going
up against political enemies. He is likely to be indicted on corruption charges
related to three separate cases, which, if they are accurate, indicate that he
is greedy, vain and manipulative.
And yet last night, this dislikable prime minister appears
to have won his fifth — yes, fifth! — term in office. If he forms a
government in the coming weeks, as he is expected to, Mr. Netanyahu will surpass
Israel’s founder David Ben Gurion as the country’s longest serving prime
minister. How is this possible?
To be fair, this was a close race. The main opposition
party, Blue and White, is expected to get as many seats in the Knesset as Mr.
Netanyahu’s Likud party. The coalition that he forms will probably have little
more than the minimum 61 seats behind it.
Given Mr. Netanyahu’s unsavory qualities, many people
were intent on defeating him. Just a few months ahead of the election, Blue and
White, a new centrist alliance led by three decorated generals and a former
security minister, came together with little purpose other than to present an
alternative to Mr. Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009. They campaigned
fiercely — but civilly. At rallies, General Benny Gantz, the head of Blue and
White, made it a habit to thank the prime minister for his service to the
nation; this was a mirror image of Mr. Netanyahu’s and Likud’s name-calling
and personal attacks. But civility and centrism weren’t enough to carry the
Mr. Netanyahu may be cynical but he doesn’t rig
elections. He wins fairly, often against great odds, including, this time, the
coming indictments against him and an understandable fatigue with his decade-old
leadership, not to mention various other inter- and intraparty squabbles. But he
seems to have succeeded again this time for the same reason he has dominated
Israeli politics for most of the past 25 years: because when it comes to
Israel’s national security, he is a leader with strategy and vision. And that
is what many voters want.
In the mid-1990s, during his first term as prime minister,
Mr. Netanyahu rejected the assumptions underlying the peace process with the
Palestinians. At the time this was considered daringly right wing. Today, it is
considered common sense in Israel, including by Mr. Netanyahu’s political
rivals. Likewise, Mr. Netanyahu was one of the first politicians to recognize
Iran as the main threat to Israel’s survival, and fought fiercely in
international forums to get the world’s attention to this problem. Today, this
view is also widely appreciated across the Israeli political spectrum.
The list goes on: In 2005, he warned that withdrawing
Israeli troops from Gaza would end in disaster — and it did. He successfully
resisted eight years of the Obama administration’s pressure to offer
concessions to the Palestinians. He quickly forged an alliance with President
Trump that has already proved to be of great benefit to Israel. In two years,
Mr. Trump has moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, withdrawn
from the nuclear agreement with Iran, recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the
Golan Heights, and on Monday, designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Corps as a terrorist organization.
Blue and White tried to make this election a referendum on
Mr. Netanyahu. Its campaign focused largely on the prime minister’s personal
failings, the corruption accusations against him, and exhaustion with his
leadership. But in Israel, security trumps all other issues. (A
poll ahead of the election found voters rated security as their No. 1
Blue and White thought that by placing former Israel
Defense Forces chiefs of staff at the top of the party list, it could counter
Mr. Netanyahu’s image and experience as a defender of Israel, diplomatically
and militarily. But the public still showed that it trusts the incumbent more.
Has Mr. Netanyahu ever been wrong when it comes to
security? The truth is, many Israelis will find it hard to think of an example.
And this goes not just for voters for the Likud party, or even the right-wing
parties that are expected to join Likud in the next government, but even for
Blue and White, which largely echoed Mr. Netanyahu’s positions on important
foreign policy and national security questions.
Those Israelis who do want Mr. Netanyahu gone — and yes,
there are many — want him gone because of his personality, his coarsening of
Israeli political discourse, his pettiness and, maybe, his corruption. Those
Israelis who want Mr. Netanyahu to stay — and the election makes clear that
there are many — want him to stay despite those same characteristics. They can
forgive the prime minister for often being a small man, because they appreciate
him as a great leader.