Netanyahu's 'Just win, baby!' elections - analysis

It was an ugly election - this one uglier than most - because it was so non-ideological: so little about issues, and so much about personalities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares victory at a Likud party rally early on April 10, 2019 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares victory at a Likud party rally early on April 10, 2019
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Al Davis, the iconic owner of the NFL Oakland Raiders football team, had a well-known motto: “Just win, baby!’
It is not important how you win, just that you win. This sentiment reflected the motto of an even earlier fabled NFL legend, this time Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
What is true on the football field is even truer in politics. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is poised for the fifth time to yet again be tabbed by the president to set up the next government, knows how to win. He has the political antennae to know what it takes to win, what is needed to enthuse his base and then goes after it – no matter what, no holds barred.
It was an ugly election, this one, uglier than most because it was so non-ideological: so little about issues, and so much about personalities.
To win, Netanyahu had to run a divisive campaign; had to orchestrate a merger between Bayit Yehudi and the far right Otzma Yehudit; and had to win a bear hug from US President Donald Trump. Though there will be a price for each of those actions, he is willing to pay it if he has to – all in order to win.
The price of running a divisive and ugly personal campaign is that it leaves a stain, and makes it that much more difficult – though perhaps not impossible – to try to unite the country when it’s all over, as Netanyahu began trying to do in his early morning victory speech.
The price for orchestrating the merger between Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit to form the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP) is that this was seen by many both here and abroad as Netanyahu mainstreaming and making common cause with anti-Arab racists, something that does little good for Israel and its image. And the price of the Trump hug is that the US president will now expect a similar embrace in 2020 from Netanyahu, something that – if Netanyahu obliges – is likely to alienate half of the American public and a majority of US Jews.
Yet Netanyahu is willing to take all three steps. Why? Because it ensures victory. Or, as Davis famously said, “Just win, baby!”
And as for the price of that victory, well, we’ll just deal with that later.
Israel rightfully prides itself in its ability to find short-term solutions to problems. Throw a challenge at this scrappy little country, and it will find a solution. Nobody does short-term problem solving better than Israel.
Need examples? Hamas developed Kassam rockets and acquired other missiles to fire into Israeli communities, so Israel developed the Iron Dome to knock them out of the sky. Hamas and Hezbollah built attack tunnels to infiltrate into the country, so Israel developed a way of detecting those tunnels. Short-term solutions.
So, too, Netanyahu. The right-wing had too many small parties, some of which would not cross the electoral threshold, so he orchestrated the Bayit Yehudi-Otzma Yehudit merger. The Likud was losing too many votes in the polls to the right-wing parties, so he started talking about annexation of parts of the territories. His relationship with Trump is seen by most Israelis as a strong asset, so it was highlighted and amplified throughout the campaign.
And the fallout caused by those decisions? Well, he’ll deal with them down the road.
In the snake-pit of Israeli politics, a man does not win the right to form the next government in five of six elections without having supreme confidence in his own abilities. And Netanyahu is nothing if not confident of his own abilities, including the ability to solve the short-term problems caused by the decisions he made in this campaign.
His campaign rhetoric was divisive? Never mind. Now it will turn much less sharp. He mainstreamed an anti-Arab party? No matter. He will now have ample time to explain it as simply an act of political prudence – not any identification with their platform – and then note that none of Otzma Yehudit’s representatives actually made it into the Knesset. And regarding the bear hug Trump will now expect in 2020, Netanyahu believes that he will be able to find a way to return it without antagonizing the Democrats.
Whether he can succeed in any or all of the above is a 50-50 proposition. But it doesn’t matter, because it helped him win. Netanyahu has adopted Lombardi’s philosophy about winning not being everything, but the only thing, because if you don’t win in politics, you really can’t do anything. So he wins... again, and again and again.