Benjamin Netanyahu's Surprising Staying Power

Netanyahu continues to outlast his many critics.

The Netanyahu phenomenon most likely wouldn’t be possible if the Israeli electorate hadn’t become more conservative. But since 2000 and the second intifada, that’s the trend. Consider the fact that the left represented by the Meretz party contributed 12 seats to Rabin’s coalition in 1992; today they’re at 5. Combine that with the harder line views of the Russians, Orthodox, and Israelis from Middle Eastern communities, toss in the settler movement and you can see the pattern. This shift to the right isn’t necessarily permanent. In fact, this recent election wasn’t a triumph of the hard right at all. Lieberman’s party lost seats and so did Naftali Bennett’s. And the Labor Party now merged as the Zionist Union polled a very respectable 24 seats.

The right circumstances and leadership could energize a more dynamic center. But right now that’s a thought experiment. Since 2000 there’s no doubt that Israeli voters have become more cautious on matters regarding national security issues even while they have focused as much or more on progressive changes on housing, cost of living, banking reform, and strengthening the middle class. This reformist spirit combined with a conservative take on national security is probably best embodied in Moshe Kahlon, the new finance minister and a key member of the Netanyahu government. Still, as important as domestic issues are, security continues to trump all. And the prime minister’s success in weaning 200,000 Israeli voters back to Likud in the recent election by playing on the fears of the Arabs and even American pressure proves it.

The Dangerous Neighborhood

Perhaps more than any other single factor, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s durability is a response to a Middle East that is angrier, more turbulent, and more dangerous than ever before. Other than the strengthening of Egyptian-Israeli relations largely in response to the threat from Hamas and jihadi groups operating in Sinai, there’s very little good news. In fact, the sense of the region coming apart is what Israelis perceive in the daily news takes: in Gaza, Hamas survived the war and is rearming; in Lebanon, Hezbollah is estimated to have 100,000 high-trajectory weapons; on the Golan, once the region’s quietest border, al-Nusra and pro-Iranian elements are seeking to ensconce themselves; in Sinai, jihadi groups wreak havoc on Egyptian troops. And in Syria and Iraq, IS continues not just to survive but to export their savage online theater with beheadings and burnings of Christians, Shia and Sunnis who oppose them.

In short, the meltdown across the Arab world only reinforces Netanyahu’s harder edge and very cautious approach when it comes to making concessions to the Palestinians, and bolsters his case that Iran’s behavior in the region, already expansionist, will become worse once it’s fueled by billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Netanyahu’s message is a compelling one.

“I have the experience in dealing with the Arabs; none of my opponents do. I’ll protect the country and not be pressured by the Americans or the UN into making dangerous concessions at a dangerous time.”

In this respect the broken, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East remains the best set of talking points for Netanyahu at home and in Washington too. And from the looks of things, the Middle East is a gift that will keep on giving.

Can Netanyahu and his Government Last?

You wouldn’t think so. A government dependent on a single seat is vulnerable to varying degrees of serendipity, blackmail, and extortion, not to mention the fact that the prime minister has promised things to both the religious parties and to his new finance minister and he must deliver or risk coalition instability. Still, narrow also means Mutually Assured Destruction. If one party steps out of line or asks for too much, the whole coalition could collapse. You could always go to new elections. But what’s the point? More than likely the results would be the same.

Clearly Netanyahu wants to broaden this government, maybe with Lieberman (very doubtful now); with Lapid (unlikely) or with his eyes on the big prize—the Zionist Union. Chances are that’s a bridge too far. Herzog will demand a price that Netanyahu may not want to pay. But in Israeli politics these days we shouldn’t rule that out because just about anything is possible.  Anything that is except for an Israel without Benjamin Netanyahu. And it would take a veritable political earthquake, scandal, or botched crisis to produce that.

Aaron David Miller is Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Image: Flickr/Speaker John Boehner