Opinion

Netanyahu Deserves to Win the Election. And We Israelis Deserve Him

Outside Israel, there's disbelief at Netanyahu's success when he’s so corrupt, divisive, racist, rejectionist and autocratic. But he's delivered, on his own terms, and Israeli voters have serially failed to demand better

An electoral campaign poster bearing the portrait of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party. Tel Aviv, April 3, 2019
AFP

At this point, with five days of campaigning and election day itself still ahead of us, anything can still happen.

The polls could be telling us only part of the story. Perhaps they have missed a quiet migration of soft-right voters from the current governing coalition to Kahol Lavan. Maybe they are over-sampling some of the coalition’s smaller elements, which on April 9, will fail to cross the threshold and be wiped out. Perhaps the turnout in the Arab sector will be much higher than expected or the undecideds will align themselves differently.

Perhaps. But those are all hopes that, for now, seem increasingly hollow.

Benjamin Netanyahu is almost certainly about to win a fifth election. He deserves to win. He has won a ruthless and brilliant campaign, anticipating nearly all his rivals' moves. No one has even come close. Just listen to Benny Gantz’s voice in the radio interviews he gave on Thursday morning. He sounds tired and beaten. Relieved that it will all be over in a week. Not like a man preparing for power.

Just compare Gantz to the energetic Netanyahu, a man ten years his senior, who has been doing this for over three decades, is running in his tenth election, and the seventh as leader of Likud and candidate for prime minister. For four years he hasn’t given a real interview to a real journalist, but in the final stretch he’s back and it’s like he never left the fray. Sharp, on-message, expertly parrying awkward questions. You can hear he still loves every moment of it.

In the space of ten days, Netanyahu has traveled to Washington and Moscow, for meetings with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. In between the new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro flew more than 10,000 kilometers to pay homage.

President Donald Trump welcomes visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019
Manuel Balce Ceneta,AP

All these world leaders are eager to be seen in Netanyahu’s company on the eve of a close election, and despite all the allegations of corruption and flirtations with racism. Perhaps because of them. And just like that, on the way, thanks to his connections with Putin, Israel under Netanyahu has finally brought home Zechariah Baumel, 37 years after he went missing in action in Lebanon. Five previous prime ministers tried. He succeeded

And if the leaders of the world want Netanyahu, why shouldn’t the Israeli voters?

But do they? It’s not entirely clear. The polls, if we can trust them, say that a clear majority, nearly 60 percent, say they would like Netanyahu to go. But those same polls show those same Israelis don’t really want anyone else.

Gantz may have come close. In a couple of polls he even overtook Netanyahu by one percent in suitability for prime minister. That’s not the kind of result you get when a nation is truly fed up with its old leader and is prepared to trust the alternative.

Israelis are like smokers who would really like to quit but don’t believe they can function without the constant dose of nicotine. It’s not just Netanyahu who has created such a compelling narrative for his indispensability. It’s his opponents on the center-left who have lost their narrative.

For decades, the opposition to the right-wing governments and their chorus of international support had a clear message. If Israel doesn’t solve the conflict with the Palestinians, it will never have a strong and prosperous economy, and its citizens won’t enjoy a western standard standard of living.

They warned us that the occupation is untenable and unsustainable and if Israel won’t end it, then one of two things will inevitably happen: the Palestinians would rise up in another, and much more terrible, Intifada; or the world would treat Israel as a pariah, just as it did to apartheid-era South Africa.

That narrative has evaporated over the ten years of Netanyahu’s rule. An end to the occupation and a solution of the conflict with the Palestinians have never seen so distant.

But Israel is experiencing unprecedented prosperity and, for the first time in its history, even a double-A credit rating. Its foreign relations are booming with countries across the globe, including with various Arab regimes, and no one is putting serious pressure of any kind on Israel to make progress with the Palestinians.

And despite two large offensives in Gaza, a short "stabbing Intifada," and skirmishing with Iran and Hezbollah in the skies over Syria, this has been the calmest decade for Israel in the last 50 years. Arguably its calmest ever, while all around, the region has descended in to chaos.

This is not a call to Israeli readers to vote Likud, or any of the parties that will be supporting Netanyahu’s coalition. I won’t be doing so, and I hope that he loses, though the chances are becoming pretty slim.

Netanyahu will do anything to stay in office. Stoke Israelis’ darkest fears, appeal to racist demons and undermine the pillars of Israel’s incomplete and limited democracy to fend off the charges of his rank corruption. These alone are reasons for him not to be reelected.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and PLO secretary general Saeb Erekat, attend the the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia.  March 31, 2019
Fethi Belaid,AP

As are his rejectionist policies, which will enshrine the current situation in which millions of Palestinians have no civil rights, Israel’s minorities are treated like second-class citizens, a small group of fundamentalist rabbis have a stranglehold on personal status issues, keeping women prisoners in miserable marriages, an energy cartel monopolizes Israel’s scarce national resources and his complete and blatant disregard for the safety and sensitivities of Jews around the world.

I still believe that Netanyahu’s success is essentially a short-term one, and the Palestinian issue will come back to haunt us, just as his lack of investment in education and social integration mean that the economic development is already slowing down.

But Netanyahu deserves to win based on political performance, on delivering what his ideological base desires, on statesmanship in an increasingly cynical, nationalist global arena and on winning the battle of narratives with the left.

Having published a biography of Netanyahu a few months ago, I’ve given dozens of talks and interviews in recent months on his career and tried to explain his longevity in power. Disbelieving foreigners ask how he has hung on for so long when he’s so obviously corrupt, divisive and increasingly autocratic. They find it hard to accept that he kept winning, and will probably win on Tuesday, simply because he’s delivered.

He has done what he promised 26 years ago in his book, "A Place Among the Nations." He wrote there that Israel could have an independent policy, a strong economy and brazen out the pressures to make concessions to the Palestinians, the world would accept Israel’s position, take the Palestinian issue off the agenda and move on. We all wanted to believe in the late Shimon Peres’ "A New Middle East." But it’s Netanyahu’s book which has proven prophetic.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem April 1, 2019
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

There is something deeply insulting in the way Netanyahu and his true believers talk of him as an indispensable prime minister. As if a country of nine million citizens, a society which prides itself on having survived in a challenging environment and a knowledge-based economy, thanks to the personal qualities and intellect of its members.

That Israel, despite all it has achieved in the last 71 years, is in such a perilous state that, were it to decline the services of this unique leader, would find itself teetering on the brink of disaster.

Israel has better potential prime ministers than Netanyahu, with better - and certainly less destructive -policies. But those Israelis have failed to come forward and wrest the job from Netanyahu’s hands, and failed to present their plans in a more persuasive narrative. And the majority of Israeli voters have failed to demand better than Netanyahu.

That’s why he deserves to win, and why Israelis deserve him as their prime minister.