Every once in awhile, someone eulogizes, or otherwise underestimates, Benjamin Netanyahu.
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It happened ahead of the recent elections in Israel. Polls predicted Netanyahu would be usurped by Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, and commentators quick to proclaim the “Netanyahu era” over. They were wrong.
It happened again after six world powers signed the Iran nuclear deal, dealing Netanyahu a devastating loss on an issue that had been practically his sole obsession for years. Commentators said Netanyahu had suffered the worst defeat of his political career. They were wrong again. The Iran deal had no effect on Netanyahu’s popular support.
This habit of disparaging Netanyahu goes back to 1999, when Netanyahu lost his premiership, his “spell” over the people of Israel broken for the first time. The hiatus would be fleeting: Voted back into power in 2009, he has gone on to become the second-longest serving prime minister in the history of Israel, second only to David Ben-Gurion, who had 12 years at the helm.
About a month ago, it started again. With the recent outbreak of violence that may or may not be a third intifada, wishful commentators again mused that Netanyahu had “lost control”, and anticipated that his failures on security would seriously hurt his approval ratings within Likud.
Then, last week, Netanyahu engaged in some holocaust revisionism and invented a dialogue that never happened between Adolf Hitler and the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, in which, during a meeting between the two in 1941, the notoriously anti-Semitic religious leader supposedly gave the leader of Nazi Germany the idea of killing Jews.
Again, pundits charged. A New York Times editorial called it “Netanyahu’s holocaust blunder,” speculated that the “fierce reaction” was probably “far from what he expected,” and suggested he rectify his comments with some “damage control”.
Only Netanyahu didn’t blunder. Sure, he got the facts totally wrong, but in terms of internal politics, he got it right. He hadn’t “lost it”, as other commentators suggested. As with all the other times he’s been prematurely eulogized, Netanyahu’s adversaries are missing the point: Netanyahu acts the way he does because he knows he has already won the real battle, as far as he’s concerned: the battle for political survival. All his recent, seemingly bizarre actions? Nothing more than his victory lap.
Mufti comments were ugly - but they worked
Surveying Israel’s current situation, it looks hard to make the case that Bibi won, or even gained, anything: The Iran deal is signed and sealed, the cost of living continues to soar, and Israel’s security situation is once again escalating. Israelis, already grappling with rising housing prices, now have to add random knife attacks to their ever-lengthening list of daily struggles.
Faced with such an overwhelming list of failures, any other leader would have gone by now. Not Netanyahu - for him, the rules don’t apply. Over the past six years, while failing to make things better on practically every other front, he has managed to mold the minds and hearts of Israelis to such a degree that even in his failings, he is still regarded as the only option.
The mufti scandal is a perfect example. While most of the world saw Netanyahu’s comments as a disastrous aid to holocaust deniers, they turned out to be a coup for Netanyahu: Historical inaccuracies aside, the equation Palestinians=Nazis is now treated as fact among the Israeli right, with right-wing pundits and activists rushing to tout historical “evidence” backing Netanyahu’s claims.
Netanyahu, probably Israel’s most media-savvy politician, knew the reactions he’d get. He knew papers like Haaretz and the New York Times would cry foul, but so what? The New York Times never cared for him anyway. The left may have cried foul, but the left is not Netanyahu’s base, and Netanyahu has always been concerned only with what his base thinks.
Far from being an oversight, or an error of judgment, his mufti comments were the actions of a leader who’s never been more secure, more confident of his status and in his ability to master his audience.
By placing the burden of blame for the Holocaust on the Palestinian people, he built them into a mythical, demonic enemy, bigger than any adversary the Jewish people ever faced, effectively pardoning himself for failing to “defeat” the enemy and propping himself up for being the only one insightful enough to see the enormity of the fight.
It was “King Bibi” at his most manipulative. The same Netanyahu who, on election day last March, released a vicious video warning Jewish Israelis about “Arab voters coming to the polls in droves” and turned what seemed like a sure loss into a landslide victory.
Yes, it was very ugly. But it worked. At this point in his career, Netanyahu is concerned very little with appearances and niceties.
But the Mufti debacle is a conceited action that hints at a much larger victory. The reason Netanyahu talks like that is because he can.
The victory of Bibism
If Netanyahu had just been judged by more conventional parameters, based on his not-so-great performance, he might have been gone by now. However, he has long ago fought and won a very different kind of the battle: the battle for Israelis’ minds.
In the mid-90s, two rival schools of thought were vying for support among the Israeli public: let’s call them Rabinism and Bibism. One was a proactive approach, that believed it is possible to find a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The other said the exact opposite.
Two decades later, the tally is clear: Rabin is dead, not just in the literal sense. Bibi-ism has won.
What is Bibi-ism? Netanyahu himself articulated it best this week, ironically enough when referencing the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. “I am asked if will always live by the sword,” he said, and answered: “Yes.”
Bibi-ism is the belief that there is no solution to the conflict, because the conflict is not about mundane things like lands and rights, but a mythical struggle between two abstract concepts: Western values and radical Islam. Israel is powerless to stop it, the same way Jews are powerless to stop anti-Semitism. They just have to learn to live with it. If Netanyahu has any political legacy, it is this.
Israeli life and politics are riddled with Bibi-ism. The feeble response these last four weeks of violence have elicited from Israel’s “opposition” are a testament to its triumph. Israelis’ are being killed in “lone wolf”-type attacks and Netanyahu’s main political rivals, Herzog and Lapid, can barely even muster a worthy criticism. Lapid sounds like a carbon-copy of Bibi these days. And Herzog? He has settled for a strange tactic - attacking Netanyahu on a personal level, while proclaiming he agrees with him on almost every point: Iran, terror, Mahmoud Abbas.
The pervasiveness of Netanyahu’s world view has made Netanyahu the most stable prime minister Israel has seen in decades, a practically unopposed leader, free to do as he wants.
But Bibi-ism, by now, is bigger than just Bibi. It is a lack of hope, a firm belief in the futility of hope, an overwhelming cynicism towards anyone and anything offering solutions because, as Netanyahu said this week, “There is no magic wand.” It’s a dangerous belief, but nevertheless one that has permeated Israeli culture. And it will keep eating away at Israel, long after Bibi the man is gone.