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FP’s Guide to Benjamin Netanyahu
Facing another election, will the prime minister survive?
It was only last month that Benjamin Netanyahu was poised to get a fifth term as Israeli prime minister after his Likud party won the most seats in a national election, but now he’ll have to face a new vote after failing to cobble together a coalition government. No politician would like to be in this situation. But for Netanyahu, whose hold on power has appeared nearly unbreakable for a decade, it must be particularly galling.
To explain how he got here—and what comes next—we’ve gathered our top reads on Netanyahu and Israel’s complicated politics.
“James Baker temporarily banned him from the State Department. Madeleine Albright described him as an Israeli Newt Gingrich (and it wasn’t a compliment). Bill Clinton emerged from his first meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 (then serving his first term as prime minister) more than a little annoyed by his brash self-confidence,” begins the Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller in a prescient 2012 piece on the prime minster. “Netanyahu is the first Israeli premier to trigger truly bipartisan recoil. But love or hate him, we’d better get used to him”—a prediction that time has borne out.
Of course, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the prime minister. In recent years, he has been plagued by corruption scandals, defections from his administration, and challenges from ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition. Never one to back down, though, he has taken a page from U.S. President Donald Trump. “He has constantly accused the Israeli media of spreading fake news and encouraging the police and the prosecution to initiate a witch hunt against him,” the journalist Amos Harel explains. In fact, “the first thing Sara Netanyahu told the Trumps, when the American president and his wife landed here in May , was that both couples enjoy great support from the public and suffer from unfair and biased reporting from the media.”
Another strategy? Distraction, argues the journalist Neri Zilber. In late 2018, Netanyahu called early elections for this spring. The prime minister, Zilber explains, must have hoped that the move would get him out of a showdown with ultra-Orthodox coalition members over a military conscription bill and take attention away from his legal troubles. If the ploy succeeded, he concludes, it would mean “a fourth consecutive term for Netanyahu, and fifth overall, almost unprecedented in Israeli political history.”
Going into the vote, Netanyahu had many factors working in his favor. In another piece, Zilber details the ways in which Trump had come to his ally’s aid. In March, for example, “Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, upending decades of U.S. foreign policy and reminding Israeli voters that no one on the Israeli political scene has Netanyahu’s standing in Washington.” The journalist Joshua Mitnick points to the prime minister’s continued support among other right-wing party leaders, his popularity with the public, and his foreign-policy record. And Michael Koplow, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, describes Netanyahu’s unprecedented “cult of political personality,” which has allowed him “to cultivate a myth of being ‘Mr. Security.’”
After Israel’s election results came out in April, the writer Gol Kalev pointed to the ultra-Orthodox’s ongoing support for Likud. Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh and Colum Lynch predicted that the result could allow the prime minister to take Palestinian statehood off the table. And Ben White considered the future of a two-state solution when “[i]n an election that was dominated by the question of whether Netanyahu would be toppled, the Palestinians barely figured.”
For now though, Netanyahu’s plans are on hold as the country prepares for another vote. For Israel, if not for Netanyahu, this should be familiar territory. As Dahlia Scheindlin reminded last year, historically, most Israeli coalition governments “collapse and lead to early elections.” In fact, “Israel has had 34 coalitions in 70 years.” Whether Netanyahu will be in charge of forming the next one will now be determined at the polls on Sept. 17.