Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, August 14, 2012.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, August 14, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is - no less than the Israel Electric Corporation and the country's ports - a monopoly. The public's notion that nobody else can lead Israel gives him full control of the political market, at least for now. Potential rivals are inexperienced, politically powerless or handcuffed by mandatory cooling-off periods, so Netanyahu can meanwhile settle down and relax at the top of this list.

Since his return to power three-and-a-half years ago, Netanyahu has focused on two objectives: bolstering his control over the political arena and maintaining the party and coalition base needed for reelection. Endeavoring to steer the public agenda is his way of achieving these objectives.

Netanyahu has been using several methods to enhance his leadership image: mobilizing the media, adopting his opponents' positions, undermining rival parties, and raising the threat of war with Iran - an issue where he is perceived by the public as a consummate expert and supreme arbiter.

When media manipulation was not enough and his popularity waned, Netanyahu would get in front of the cameras for so-called "press conferences" (invariably speeches, no questions and answers ) and interviews. Fawning profile articles in the foreign press - widely quoted in Israel, of course - provided a lot of image reinforcement.

But the even the prime minister's rhetorical skills won't do the trick when nobody buys his positions. Netanyahu understood this and, when confronted with sweeping public sentiment against his policies, reversed course to capture the prevailing mood. The windfall was twofold: boosting his own rating and squashing the competition - for example, by declaring support for a Palestinian state, neutralizing former opposition leader Tzipi Livni in the process, and establishing the Trajtenberg Committee to quell the social justice protest. When these measures also fell short, Netanyahu had kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit released from Hamas captivity in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian terrorists - a stark reversal of his previous stance. But the ploy worked: Shalit came back a hero and Netanyahu again rode a surge in the polls for several months. The protest fell apart and lost the support of the silent majority that had daunted Netanyahu. A small number of radical demonstrators will not pose much of a problem.

Netanyahu's modus operandi against political opponents is identical to the move he pulled on the protest movement: isolating and separating the intransigent hard core from the corruptible or malleable opportunists. That's how, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak's help, he split the Labor Party when it threatened to quit his coalition, while consistently trying to divide Kadima - which did not actually split up but played into his hands nonetheless. Livni, a stubborn opponent, was isolated and shoved aside, replaced by zigzagging Shaul Mofaz as polls predicted the party's disintegration in the next election.

Netanyahu will not pursue popularity at all costs: He is prepared to sacrifice support among the general public to reinforce his political base, as he did when he leaned toward Shas in the debate on drafting the ultra-Orthodox and relinquished the short-lived partnership with Kadima. Netanyahu knows he will need Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's minions in the Knesset after the next elections to retain the premiership and he has avoided clashing with Avigdor Lieberman for the same reason - even after the foreign minister humiliated him in public. When the settlement freeze ended Netanyahu broke to the right, lavishing settlers with funds to appease Likud extremists.

When he finds himself cornered, Netanyahu relies on old faithful: shining the spotlight on Iran. Blocking Iran's development of nuclear weapons is the centerpiece of Netanyahu's foreign policy, and the possibility of going to war puts the prime minister in full control of the agenda. Potential rivals Shelly Yacimovich and Yair Lapid are not authorities in such matters and appear woefully out of their depth when Bibi and Barak start beating the war drums.

So even this summer, with his popularity in a slump, Netanyahu remains a monopoly: He is still perceived as the sole worthy prime ministerial candidate. As in business, however, lack of competition in politics is detrimental to public service. Busy avoiding risks, Netanyahu has kept only a few of his promises: Land reforms are stuck; talks with the Palestinians haven't budged an inch; and Iran continues its nuclear program. The only project he has pushed forward is the Sinai border fence, suddenly urgent due to the Egyptian revolution and the influx of African migrants. It's hard to take pride in such a meager list of achievements but, with no competition in sight, Netanyahu has no real reason to make any effort.