Benjamin Netanyahu’s Me-or-the-Abyss Allure

The Israeli prime minister’s great success has always been pushing out his fiercest challengers.

Benjamin Netanyahu sits in his office in front of a portrait of the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl.
Benjamin Netanyahu sits in his office in front of a portrait of the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl. (Reuters)

Once again, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have outsmarted his rivals.

Last week, Israel and Gaza came to the brink of war after a botched operation by Israeli commandos that killed seven Palestinian militants. The militants subsequently fired more than 400 rockets and mortars in a 24-hour period; Israeli jets responded with scores of air strikes. But the Israeli prime minister defied public pressure to hit back harder, and instead accepted a deeply unpopular cease-fire with Hamas. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s malevolently cartoonish but politically savvy defense minister, sensed an opportunity. He accused Netanyahu of a “surrender to terror” in Gaza and resigned, leaving the prime minister with a razor-thin, one-seat majority and facing calls for early elections.

Rather than going on the defensive, Netanyahu pressed forward. He kept the defense ministry for himself, adding to his modest workload: He also serves as foreign minister and head of government. And he invoked the memory of 1992, when right-wing parties toppled a conservative government. Yitzhak Rabin soon became prime minister and signed the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu urged his partners not to repeat that “historic mistake,” lest they endanger Israel’s existential security and the supposedly tenuous rule of the right. (His Likud party has governed Israel for most of the past two decades, but acts as if it is constantly on the brink of defeat.)

Within days, the crisis seemed to have been averted. A coalition that no one much wants will lurch along, zombielike, for at least another few months (elections are due anyway by next November, when the Knesset’s term ends). And Lieberman has joined the litany of Israeli politicians who tangled with Bibi and lost. During the 2014 Gaza war, the deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, delivered his own attack on Netanyahu’s security policies, and lost his job. His next ministerial posting was as the space minister. Some Israelis quipped that Netanyahu hoped to dispatch him on a manned mission.

If he hangs on until July, Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel, as the country’s longest-serving prime minister. He has endured not by delivering broad prosperity—owning an apartment is an impossible dream for many young people—or by tackling the religious and cultural issues that animate many Israelis. Instead he has honed a simple, Hobbesian pitch to voters: The world is dangerous, and I am the only responsible politician who can keep you safe. He is happiest dwelling on matters of security and statecraft; when forced to endure a Knesset debate about some or another domestic issue, cameras often spot him thumbing a history book or a current-affairs journal.

His foreign trips have grown almost fivefold in duration since 2014. Last year he spent more than eight weeks outside Israel. Donald Trump loves him. Populist leaders around the world, from Hungary to Brazil to the Philippines, embrace him as an ally. In October he flew to Muscat to meet the sultan of Oman, a country that has no official relations with Israel. Since 2009 the defense ministry, army, Mossad, and Shin Bet have each cycled through three different leaders. Netanyahu has been the one constant.

Nearly a decade into his current stint as prime minister (he served as premier for three years in the 1990s), Netanyahu also remains the undisputed leader of Israel’s political right. His increasing stranglehold on affairs of state (he is also nominally the health minister) denies challengers like Naftali Bennett a chance to gain stature. Bennett, the head of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, tried to leverage the recent Gaza crisis into an appointment as defense minister, long a stepping-stone to the premiership. Netanyahu intimidated him into dropping that demand. For years Netanyahu blocked a bill to label Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, fearing the diplomatic consequences, only to ram it through earlier this year to shore up his right-wing support. In seeking to challenge Netanyahu, Lieberman wanted to expand his support beyond his base of right-wing Russian émigrés. Instead, he wound up a backbencher, and polls project that his party is close to losing its place in the Knesset altogether.

If anything, Netanyahu’s legal problems are arguably a bigger threat than his political ones. The attorney general is weighing corruption charges in two separate cases, and other investigations are gathering steam. He will not go quietly, though. If he wins a fifth term next year, he will try to head off criminal charges by claiming a fresh democratic mandate. Israeli voters know about the charges looming over the prime minister. If they reelect him anyway, Netanyahu will accuse prosecutors of overriding the popular will. It is a long shot, a decidedly Trumpian effort to avoid an ignominious political end. But it is another marker of how totally he dominates Israel’s political scene. The cases against Netanyahu look compelling. After a decade in power, many voters are tired of him. And yet until the charges are filed, most of his rivals are reluctant to challenge him directly—lest he escape one more crisis.

Were he to fall, there would be no shortage of potential replacements. Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud No. 2 who left politics in 2014 because of bad blood with Netanyahu, aspires to become prime minister. Benny Gantz, a well-liked former army chief, is dabbling with a second career in politics. Bennett wants to succeed Netanyahu, as does Yair Lapid, a former TV host and self-proclaimed centrist who panders endlessly to nationalist and religious voters. The culture and justice ministers, Miri Regev and Ayelet Shaked, are biding their time, too.

But few if any of them will campaign for the premiership in 2019. None has yet found a way to shatter Netanyahu’s me-or-the-abyss allure. Ask Israeli voters who they want to replace him, and the most common answer is “I don’t know.” His decision to cut a deal with Hamas, though unpopular, prevented a war. Even Netanyahu’s liberal critics doubt that many of his challengers would have made the same choice. That he survived the fallout is a testament to his political savvy.