Monday, November 19, 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu - Indispensable Man

It was French president Charles de Gaulle who mordantly remarked that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” True enough. For the foreseeable future, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s most indispensable man. He is already its longest-serving leader starting from 1996 until July 1999 then returning in March 2009.

Now, with elections looming in March 2019 Netanyahu is trying to extend his political longevity into 2023. His endurance is due to a combination of popularity, a canny ability to elbow aside prospective rivals and unparalleled competence.


Like any politician, Netanyahu’s approval rating fluctuates. However, in poll after poll, he triumphs over all other party leaders. With Netanyahu in the number one spot heading the Likud slate, the party is projected to achieve a plurality of support in all polls with an average (as of November 2018) of 32 Knesset mandates. His nearest rivals are Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party with 18 and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party with 11 mandates.

The once formidable Labor Party, rebranded as the Zionist Union and jointly led by Tzipi Livni in the Knesset and Avi Gabbay in the party chairmanship has yet to find its political footing. His only living predecessors are Ehud Olmert of the defunct Kadima Party and Ehud Barak of the Zionist Union/Labor Party. An embittered Olmert was released from prison in 2017 after serving time for corruption. Barak at age 76 fulminates against Netanyahu and hints of a comeback but few analysts take him seriously.

Netanyahu is more popular with his base than the public at large. His detractors think him Machiavellian, duplicitous and smug — willing to do anything to stay in power. His supporters would not automatically disagree. Over 60 percent of Israelis tell pollsters that they will be voting for a party other than Likud – some supposing their favored party will join a Netanyahu led-coalition while others hoping against the odds that Likud can be ousted.

Opponents would like to think the prime minister’s core voters are by definition illiberal, hawkish and religiously inclined. However, the 30 percent of voters who plan to vote Likud reflect a broad segment of the population.

Last Man Standing

Netanyahu spots, exploits and then discards capable political operatives. Just-resigned Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett were all once in his orbit. Lieberman went on to form Yisrael Beiteinu, Kahlon established Kulunu and Bennett brought together Orthodox Zionist factions under the Jewish Home Party.

Netanyahu maneuvered former Internal Affairs Minister Gideon Sa'ar into quitting by claiming he was conspiring against him; benefitted as police announced a sexual harassment investigation (subsequently dropped) against former Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom forced him to end his political career. He pushed out the principled but politically naive former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. He coopted Benny Begin (former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s equally principled and politically inept son). He kicked Danny Danon a popular Likud minister upstairs to the UN ambassadorship and brazenly exploited party rules fine print to toss firebrand Moshe Feiglin off the Likud election slate.

Netanyahu has not groomed a successor, and no Likud MK has anything close to the prime minister’s gravitas. He has a barely cold peace with President Reuven Rivlin, age 79, a hawkish liberal in the Jabotinsky mold.


Journalists who have observed Netanyahu over the years admire his fitness for office even if they disagree with his actions. A strategic thinker, Netanyahu’s scope of knowledge is both broad and deep. He is a voracious reader and a quick study. He has been his own Foreign Minister, and no one seems to think there is a better person for the job.

The perception of expertise comes across to average Israelis who give him high marks for his handling of Iran policy. He presents as a steady hand on the helm. While he is not charismatic, he is a gifted speaker in both Hebrew and English.

Foreign leaders may not like what he says but cannot deny that he speaks with panache and authority. When he first took office in 1996, the Internet was not a widely used tool. Netanyahu quickly appreciated its potential and became a master of social media. He uses it to circumvent the Israeli press which he denounces (with justification) as elitist and hostile.

He knows how to take credit and avoid blame. As Israel’s budget deficit grows to 3.6 percent and while the finance minister and the governor of the Bank of Israel bickered over the wisdom of tax cuts, Netanyahu remained above it all basking in a comparatively strong economy.

Israelis credit him for outwaiting the unpopular Barack Obama and are appreciative that relations with the US have stabilized. Netanyahu is the face associated with brand Israel and some 74 percent of Americans have a favorable attitude toward the Jewish state. According to a recent Gallop poll, 83 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of independents and 64 percent of Democrats support Israel.

Corruption? So, what?

The prime minister or those around him are under multiple police investigations for possible fraud and moral turpitude. Under Israel’s system, the police investigate and can recommend that the Attorney General issue an indictment.
Case 1000 – The police allege Netanyahu accepted $280,000 worth of luxury gifts from wealthy friends in return for favorable government treatment.

Case 2000 - Netanyahu is alleged to have cut a deal with tabloid newspaper Yediot Aharonot publisher Arnon Mozes to limit the circulation of the only pro-government tabloid Israel Hayom owned by Netanyahu-backer Sheldon Adelson in exchange for favorable coverage in Yediot

Case 3000 - Figures in Netanyahu’s inner circle including his attorney David Shimron are purported to have peddled influence in the procurement of German submarines and patrol boats for Israel’s navy.

Case 4000 - relates to whether the Netanyahu’s wife Sara dangled a telecommunications company executive regulatory relief in return for favorable coverage from the company’s Walla news

Case 1270 - Refers to whether a former Netanyahu spokesperson Nir Hefetz indirectly dangled the job of Attorney General through an intermediary to a sitting judge.

Separate from all this, Mrs. Netanyahu is in court for allegedly using public monies to pay for restaurant meals to be delivered to the official residence despite having chef on staff. She says she was saving the government money.

Veteran Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman maintains that Israelis do not mind if Netanyahu appears a tad corrupt because culturally they admire a politician who is nobody’s fool. Better to have a political figure who cannot be taken advantage of than one who is incorruptible but naïve.

Further reading:

Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu
by Anshel Pfeffer

The Netanyahu Years
by Ben Caspit and Ora Cummings

The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu

by Neill Lochery


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