Argument

Netanyahu Keeps Winning Because He’s an Effective Leader

Israel’s prime minister has now served in the role for as long as the country’s founding father. Voters support him because they’re convinced he keeps them safe and reduces their international isolation.

Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in Sde Boker, Israel on Nov. 14, 2010.
Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in Sde Boker, Israel on Nov. 14, 2010. Moshe Milner/Israel GPO

Benjamin Netanyahu is a controversial guy. He can be entertaining and charming at times—but brazen and arrogant, too.  Bill Clinton, who’s hard to alienate, especially when it comes to his love for Israel, exploded to his staff after his first official encounter with Netanyahu: “Who’s the fucking superpower here.” His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, once likened Netanyahu—unflatteringly—to Newt Gingrich. And President Barack Obama couldn’t stand him. 

Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to face indictment while in office, and he seems determined to do anything he can to remain in power, including maneuvering an entire nation into a do-over election in September rather than let his rivals get a chance to form a government. And some polls suggest a majority of Israelis—who never loved him—may finally be tiring of him. 

On July 20, Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, as the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history.

And yet, despite all this, on July 20, Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, as the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. 

How did he do it? The theories abound: He’s a brilliant politician, preternaturally unscrupulous; he’s had no credible opponent possessing his political skills or prime-ministerial aura; he’s been riding a right-wing wave which has kept Likud in power for 31 out of the 42 years since 1977. 

All of these explanations are true and important. But there is one critical addition, without which Netanyahu would never have survived this long. As politically inconvenient and excruciatingly painful as it is for his critics (myself included) to admit, in many areas he’s been a very effective prime minister. He has brought relative economic stability and growth, security, and a dramatic expansion of Israel’s diplomatic footprint during a time of tremendous regional and international instability. 

Netanyahu’s longevity is driven by the inconvenient fact that for more than a decade, for better and worse, enough Israelis believed they couldn’t live without him. 

Having known and worked with Netanyahu for many years while I was at the U.S. State Department, my sense initially was that the man was at war with himself. There was great tension between the tough-talking Likud politician—whose primary objective was to maintain his base and stay in power—and the aspirational leader who sought to emerge as a historic figure and accomplish great things for Israel. I remember thinking soon after he shook hands with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and cut a deal with him in 1998—something he vowed he’d never do—that this tension was real but reconcilable, and that he could manage both. 

As politically inconvenient and excruciatingly painful as it is for his critics (myself included) to admit, in many areas he’s been a very effective prime minister. 

Since then, it’s become clear that Netanyahu’s pragmatism was always subordinate to his politics. There was no real internal struggle. With Netanyahu, it was always one step forward and then another sideways, if not back. Politics and commitment to power, his base, and the Likud tribe—but only with Bibi at its head. 

And yet despite his vanity, vindictiveness, and selfishness, his alleged corruption, and his all-consuming obsession with power, enough Israelis believe he’s also delivered on keeping Israel relatively safe, secure, and prosperous. The price paid for keeping the man responsible for these accomplishments in office for so long will—like Netanyahu himself—remain a matter of intense controversy. 

Of all the issues that matter to Israeli voters, security is paramount—both actual security conditions and, equally important, their sense of security. The fact that their prime minister exudes confidence and experience when it comes to protecting them has made Netanyahu “Mr. Security” in the minds of many voters. 

He’s no master strategist or tactical genius, but his credibility on the security front rests on two undeniable realities. First, Netanyahu’s past decade in power, from 2009 to 2019, has been one of the quietest in Israel’s history; there has been no major Arab-Israeli war. Compared to the first decade of the 21st century, during which the Second Intifada of 2000-2005 claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and a major war in Lebanon in 2006 shut down the northern half of the country for a month, the Netanyahu years have been tranquil. 

Sure, there’s been Palestinian terrorism, and Gaza has remained a perennial problem, particularly during the bloody 2014 Israel-Hamas war and last year’s March of Return. But despite criticism from his former defense minister and current rival, Avigdor Lieberman, that Netanyahu has been a weak enabler of Hamas, his sensible aversion to risk and avoidance of a major ground incursion, let alone reoccupation of Gaza, demonstrated rationality and prudence. The northern front with Hezbollah has remained quiet now for 12 years; and through preemptive strikes, largely in Syria, against Hezbollah and Iran—as well as cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin—Netanyahu has stayed out of the Syrian civil war and managed to avoid a major escalation with Iran.  

Netanyahu’s obsession with killing the Iran nuclear agreement and freeing Israel from the shadow of an Iranian bomb, while shortsighted in the view of many Israel analysts and defense professionals, has added to his luster politically and demonstrated that he could both exploit and ally with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. 

When it comes to peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has demonstrated a remarkable consistency and political acumen in opposing, benefiting from, and exploiting the failures of his predecessors. He opposed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s failed Oslo negotiations; railed against Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s bid to make peace with Arafat and Syria in 2000; and predicted that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005 would fail. Indeed, Netanyahu has helped to craft the dominant narrative in Israel of a divided and incompetent Palestinian national movement comprising a weak Palestinian Authority that offers social-security benefits to prisoners and the families of those who kill Israelis and a hostile Hamas allied with Iran.  

As Israel shifts rightward, Netanyahu has managed to outflank both the left and the center on this issue. In the most recent Israeli election campaign, his main rival, Benny Gantz, barely mentioned the Palestinian peace issue and, when he did, bragged about how many Palestinian terrorists he’d killed. With the peace process all but dead, Netanyahu has tried to bury it permanently by expanding settlement activity while playing at negotiations, banking on Palestinian rejection and avoiding actually following through on some of his controversial campaign promises—like annexation of the West Bank—that would embroil him with the international community. 

He never envisioned himself as the midwife of a Palestinian state, certainly not one hewing closely to 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Netanyahu sees himself as a strategic thinker. But he seems to have little concern about what the impact of an ongoing occupation might have on the demography, security, and democratic and moral character of a Jewish state. Yet he has managed to convince enough Israelis that however uncertain and problematic this future may be, it’s much less dangerous than a Palestinian state based on what even the dovish former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban referred to as “Auschwitz borders.” Having a Palestinian national movement divided between Hamas and Fatah has helped him enormously. 

As Netanyahu has navigated a difficult security environment, he has broadened Israel’s reach to the international community in ways few believed possible. Anshel Pfeffer, an astute biographer of Netanyahu, has written about Netanyahu discrediting the “peace camp” by disproving their warning: If Israel didn’t settle with the Palestinians there’d only be war and pariah status for Israel. 

Instead, in the age of Netanyahu, under some of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history, in the face of increasing settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem, in the wake of wars with Hamas that have led to thousands of Palestinian deaths and injuries, and with very little pretense that it’s interested in a serious peace process, Israel has become less isolated, not more. 

Led by Netanyahu, Israel has broadened its ties to Latin America. In September 2017, Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit South and Central America, stopping in Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, and Mexico. And in January Netanyahu was in Brazil to meet with far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Netanyahu has also had warm relations with illiberal leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Netanyahu’s ties with authoritarian leaders in Brazil and Hungary have not helped his image in liberal quarters. But he’s never been one to place moral interests above political ones. Israel has also hosted presidents and prime ministers from Togo, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Zambia, Sierra Leone, and Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland). And in the past three years, Netanyahu has made four visits to Africa. As of 2019, Israel has full-fledged embassies in 11 out of 54 African countries; commercial partnerships exist with several more. This is a dramatic reversal since the 1970s, when most African countries—attracted by promises of cheap Libyan and Saudi oil and under pressure from Egypt and the Organization of African Unity—severed their ties with Israel in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 

Taking advantage of a mutual fear of a rising Iran, Netanyahu has also created a web of unprecedented ties with Arab Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Netanyahu—like Rabin—has also paid an official state visit to Oman. And the recent U.S.- hosted conference in Bahrain shows that, at least on the business side, the Gulf Arabs are less sensitive to an Israeli presence than they once were. 

These new ties are consequential, but should not be seen as anything resembling a warm embrace. A desire to remain on the right side of the Trump administration and the benefits for the Arabs of under-the-table security cooperation were the main drivers, rather than love for Netanyahu or his approach to the peace process. 

Finally, Netanyahu has successfully maintained and broadened his personal relationships with key world leaders. Israel now has better relations with all the leaders of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council than at any time since the state was created. His many meetings with Putin, now in double digits, have worked for both leaders—bringing Netanyahu prestige and policy advantages, especially in Syria. 

One measure of Israelis’ assessment of their leaders is a prime minister’s ability to manage the U.S.-Israeli relationship. And by all accounts, Bibi is managing just fine.

Trump has emerged as the most pro-Netanyahu U.S. president ever. For reasons of politics and ego, Trump has bestowed tremendous and popular benefits on Israel: recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and moving the U.S. embassy; recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; turning a blind eye to Israeli settlement activity; and pushing an anti-Iran policy that has helped Netanyahu politically. One measure of Israelis’ assessment of their leaders is a prime minister’s ability to manage the U.S.-Israeli relationship. And by all accounts, including Trump’s repeated pro-Netanyahu interventions in Israeli elections, Bibi is managing just fine. 

A strong case can be made—as Netanyahu’s adversaries have argued—that these accomplishments are fleeting and unimportant when measured against the damage he’s done to the country’s image and character, not to mention the rule of law and democratic norms. Still, in a democracy with real elections that aren’t rigged, governing for a decade is no simple matter. It requires more than just good luck and smart politics; it takes competence and skill. And, love him or hate him, Netanyahu has brought both to bear.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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