King Bibi Rules, but He's Weaker Than You Think

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Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, shown here in cartoon form garbed in ermine-finished purple crowning himself, isn't as strong as one might think.
Like Elvis, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu may be called "the King," but his powers are more finite than many think. Credit: Eran Wolkowsky

It appears Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama had a pretty good meeting in the White House this week.

Nothing meaningful was said (as expected), but the two leaders got to check their respective boxes. Netanyahu gave lip service to the idea of a two-state solution (an idea even the administration is reportedly despairing of). Netanyahu (probably) got the increase in military aid he was shooting for. Obama bought himself, and whoever ends up winning the Democratic presidential nomination, some peace and quiet by playing nice with Netanyahu.

In the videos and photos released from the meeting and its aftermath, Netanyahu appeared pleased, relaxed.

And really, why should Netanyahu be anything but pleased? His first meeting with Obama post-Iran-deal-squabble found Netanyahu more confident in his position than he has been in years, possibly ever. Since his decisive election victory in March Netanyahu has managed to solidify his rule, expand his already far-reaching influence on Israeli media, and quash all possible successors so thoroughly that even after his security and economic agendas blew up in his face in recent months, no credible opponent has sprung up.

True, Netanyahu's government hinges on a narrow majority, but the sort of internal rebellions that crippled his last government are far less likely. That's because Netanyahu himself now accounts for 25% of his own government. Netanyahu is Israel’s prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, minister of economics, minister of regional cooperation and development, minister of communications, and chairman of Israel’s security cabinet. (Until recently he was also the minister of health.)

That list of titles may sound like the character bio of a new king on HBO’s Game of Thrones, but it’s really just the list of the ministries occupied by one man, Netanyahu.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama share a laugh during their 90-minute meeting on Nov 9, 2015, at the White House.Credit: AP

The nickname “King Bibi” coined by Time in 2012, has never felt more accurate. In fact, Netanyahu’s dominance of Israel seems so unshakable these days, that he might as well be upgraded to Emperor.

But Netanyahu’s power can be misleading. He may lord over Israel, but his power is in fact predicated on him not doing much of anything. Sometimes even kings have to answer to somebody - and King Bibi answers to the status quo.

Hitler's mentor?

In recent years, as Israelis embraced the tenets of Netanyahu’s worldview - his belief that Israel is locked in a mythical struggle that can never end, that ipso facto a “solution”, peaceful or otherwise, is impossible – they also came to the conclusion that the strained, frenzied status quo is the best they can hope for. Therefore, they figure, it must be protected at all cost.

Netanyahu is the perfect person to defend it: after all, he is the one politician who has never claimed there is anything beyond the status quo.

And so Israel became, in effect, Bibi Nation, a country shaped by the pessimism of its leader. As this pessimism entrenched itself, Netanyahu’s clout grew more and more powerful. Recently, he seems to have begun adopting the mannerisms of an imperial ruler. Or, at least, an Eastern European one.

For instance, he now allows himself to say things no one else would dare say. Any other prime minister would have likely been crucified for saying that Hitler needed the guidance of a Palestinian cleric to kill Jews, or be branded a nebbish defeatist for uttering something as utterly hopeless as Netanyahu’s recent claim that “Israel will always live by the sword”.

Also, Netanyahu (whose numerous expenditure scandals and infamous penchant for hedonism has been long parodied by Israel’s satirists, bought himself a new plane. And a castle. Israel’s security cabinet has recently approved the purchase of a new jet for the prime minister (and the president), along with a plan to build a new office and residence for the prime minister in Jerusalem. The cost: 1 billion shekels ($250 million).

He also has very little patience these days for rules or protocols. Netanyahu has steamrolled his way into approving the government’s patently bad deal with Israel’s natural gas monopoly in a manner so brutal it makes his crusade against the Iran deal shenanigans look like a trip to the grocery store.

Then there are the fawning public tributes. For example, this frighteningly Ceausescu-esque birthday video made for Sara Netanyahu by Eastern European orphans. Or this Gaddafi-esque birthday video made for Benjamin Netanyahu, starring some of Israel’s top celebs and public figures.

But there’s a condition to Netanyahu’s great power, and it is that when it comes to the Palestinian issue, he must rule from a gilded cage of inaction. Bibism, the worldview he instilled into the people of Israel, is by now bigger than him personally. Israelis may idolize Bibi, but they worship at the church of the status quo.

The status-quo zealot?

Outside observers may wonder why Netanyahu doesn’t use his immense power to pursue radical policies.

Despite a seemingly clear mandate to pursue his policies, Netanyahu has in fact done very little since entering his new term, or indeed his first one.

Even with the West Bank on the verge of a popular uprising, Netanyahu has remained quite passive. He has avoided drastic measures on Temple Mount, in the settlements or in regards to the Palestinians.

In fact, contrary to his image as a right-wing zealot, Netanyahu has always chosen the status quo over his stated ideology. Unlike Israeli leaders such as Arik Sharon or Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu has never revealed any game-changing initiative. He has always preferred occasional short Gaza skirmishes to comprehensive plans.

Just look at his recent behavior: in March Netanyahu renounced his commitment to the two-state solution. This week he told Obamahe “has not given up on a two-state solution”. (He has zigzagged on this many times over the years).

Acting ideologically has never rewarded Netanyahu. It took him years to reclaim the popularity he lost following the drastic budget cuts he made as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s second government. During his first term as prime minister, he opened up the Western Wall Tunnel, sparking massive riots that haunted him years later. His actions on the gas issue, the only issue he acted on during his current term, led to the biggest anti-government protests in years.

Netanyahu has learned a long time ago that the key to survival in Israeli politics is to not implement your ideology - or anyone else’s, for that matter. This is why he is Israel’s most stable leader, because he has long figured out the secret key to Israelis’ psyche: when push comes to shove, Israelis will always prefer the reality they know, no matter how dim, over a change that might turn out to be hopeful. Israelis in general distrust hopeful changes. All they want is to continue the lives they know undisturbed.

Netanyahu's paradox is that he is Israel's most powerful leader, and also its weakest. His power is protected by the implicit promise that he will change nothing. He may be the closest thing Israel has to an emperor, but he is a rather powerless one, in the end. He may be adorned with spoils and kinglike adoration, but in fact, he is simply the steward of the status quo. A "king" only by nickname. More Elizabeth II than Louis XIV.