Benjamin Netanyahu, political wizard - analysis

There is a reason Netanyahu is in eyeshot of Ben-Gurion's longevity record.

By
April 8, 2019 22:34
4 minute read.
Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, February 28th, 2019

Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, February 28th, 2019. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes to cast his ballot on Tuesday, this will be his 13th year and 27th day in office, exactly 100 days shy of the Israeli prime ministerial longevity record set by founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion.

Thirteen years and 27 days. That is a big chunk of time. In fact, it is 18.5% of this country’s entire history. If one US president would serve for an equivalent slice of US history, that would mean serving for more than 44 years. Imagine US President Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, for 44 years.

There are many ways to explain Netanyahu’s longevity. Part of it has to do with his success in projecting himself as Mr. Security, as a leader who knows how to bring down terrorism, while at the same time not being a military adventurer.

Regarding the terrorism, during his current decade-long consecutive term, an average of 16 Israelis have been killed each year in terror attacks, as opposed to an annual average of 118 in the nine years previous. And as far as not being a military adventurer, Israel has not been involved in a full-blown war during Netanyahu’s 13 years in power – the 2014 Protective Edge Operation was a more limited campaign.

Part of Netanyahu’s success is also his ability to come across not only as Mr. Security, something highly valued in this justifiably security-obsessed country, but also as Mr. Diplomacy.

Here is a leader who – he has shown – not only can stand eye-to-eye with the world’s leaders – from former US president Barack Obama, to Trump, to Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – but who can also articulate Israel’s position on the world stage better than any Israeli since Abba Eban.

And then there is the economy. For many, despite the complaining around the Shabbat table, life here is not bad. Yes, there is poverty, particularly among Israeli-Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox. Yes, housing costs are ridiculous and food prices are high – Israel was recently ranked as having the 13th highest cost of living in the world.

But, still, unemployment is at 4% and life for many is pretty good. One measure: last year, a record 4.1 million Israelis traveled abroad at least once. With the country’s entire population nearing the 9 million mark, that means just less than half the nation went abroad last year – a sign that many people have money for vacations, which says something about the economy.

As a result of these security, diplomatic and economic considerations, much of the public – at least according to polls taken in the run-up to Tuesday’s balloting – seems willing to overlook the corruption allegations against Netanyahu. And this attests to something else about the prime minister often overlooked: the man is a master – a master – politician. He likes to present himself as a security maven, or as a statesman or an economic thinker, but beneath it all – and upon which it all rests – he is a political wizard.
The fact that public support for Netanyahu did not plummet in February when Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit recommended that the prime minister be indicted on bribery, fraud and breach-of-trust charges bears witness to his tactical political skills.

For a less skilled politician, such a recommendation would have been a death-knell. But Netanyahu took the sting out of the Mandelblit recommendation by shouting from every rooftop for months prior that he would be indicted, and that this was the result of the Left gunning for him – that they were using the legal system to bring him down because they could not do it at the ballot box.

With these arguments, Netanyahu preempted and, by doing so, took all the surprise out of the Mandelblit announcement. While the attorney-general’s recommendations strengthened the enmity of those who hate Netanyahu, it does not seem to have made a dent in those who do not, with many of those people saying either “so what,” or that what he is accused of doing is no worse than what every other politician does.

It takes a gifted politician to bring about that type of reaction.

It also takes a rare political tactician like Netanyahu to line everything up in such a way that in the three weeks before the elections both the US and Russian presidents – two men who are not ordinarily on the same page – take action to boost his chances for reelection.

It is certainly no coincidence that 52 years after Israel took the Golan Heights – and 38 years after it extended its sovereignty there  – Trump recognized the move just two weeks before the election.

Nor is it coincidence that 37 years after Zachary Baumel went missing in action, his body was returned to Israelwith Putin's help – just five days before the election.

For their own reasons, both Trump and Putin – as their actions made clear in recent days – are interested in Netanyahu remaining in power. And what Netanyahu has managed to do is leverage these actions in such a way that the issues were on the agenda and in the public conversation in the waning days of the campaign as much as indictment recommendations.

There is a reason Netanyahu is in eyeshot of Ben-Gurion’s longevity record: when it comes to politics, nobody has a better understanding of where the public is – and what will move it – than this prime minister.


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