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Israel will never escape Netanyahu He has learned from Berlusconi, Boris and Trump

The king of political comebacks. Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images


October 31, 2022   5 mins

Even before he became Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, at the age of 43, was already being called “yesterday’s man” by the Israeli media. Just five months after being elected leader of Likud, Israel’s main Right-wing party, interviewers were asking him to his face: “Are you a political failure?”

It was August 1993 and the Labour government led by Yitzhak Rabin had just signed a peace agreement with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation, promising a fresh outlook and a “new Middle East”. Netanyahu, with his grim predictions of bloodshed and Israel’s gradual destruction by the Palestinians’ “salami tactics”, barely made it into the backpages.

But as the Oslo Process descended into chaos, with Palestinians carrying out suicide attacks in Israeli cities and a Jewish settler massacring Muslims at prayer in Hebron, Netanyahu gradually regained his footing in the polls. In November 1995, the assassination of Rabin by a Right-wing extremist caused his popularity to plunge again, as many blamed him for inciting violence. Lagging 25 points behind Labour, many in Likud favoured replacing him as leader, but Netanyahu quashed any opposition. He flew to America, hired a Republican attack-dog strategist, and fought a ferocious campaign depicting himself as the man to bring “a secure peace”. He deployed thousands of volunteers in the streets with signs reading “Netanyahu is good for the Jews”. In six months, he turned his fortunes around, and in May 1996 beat Rabin’s successor with a sliver of the vote.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is invariably described as a political winner. But he has suffered plenty of defeats. He lost power after his disastrous first term in 1999. Then in 2003, he was beaten in the Likud leadership election by Ariel Sharon, whom he had mistakenly taken for an aged caretaker who would easily be swept aside. When he finally regained the leadership in 2006, Likud suffered its worst result in half a century. What marks him as a politician is not his string of victories, but his enduring ability to come back and bury his opponents after everyone has counted him out.

After four decades in public life, at the age of 73, Netanyahu is on the brink of yet another comeback. Tomorrow, he will lead Likud for the 11th time in a parliamentary election, the last four of which ended in a virtual tie between the bloc of parties supporting him and those who refused to serve under a prime minister indicted for fraud and bribery. In June 2021, the opposition parties managed to come together in a bizarre coalition of nationalists, centrists, Left-wingers and conservative-Islamists, cobbled together by columnist and chat-show host Yair Lapid, which finally ejected Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office. But that coalition was never going to last. Sixteen months later, for the fourth time in his career, Netanyahu is once again the leader of the opposition taking on an incumbent: the architect of his most recent downfall, Prime Minister Lapid.

The polls have him just about breaking even, with the pro-Netanyahu bloc on 60 seats, one short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. But no one bets on the polls when it comes to Bibi. I began my career as a trainee reporter covering Netanyahu’s first run for prime minister in 1996 and have reported on every campaign of his since. Last week, I went to see one of his last rallies in Maale Adumim, a large suburb-settlement to the east of Jerusalem with 40,000 residents, where Likud won 48% of the vote last year. The turnout was disappointing: no more than 300 people, many of them children. Israelis, no matter where they lean politically, are tired of elections. Netanyahu isn’t.

In 26 years of campaigning, he hasn’t changed. He still strides masterfully across the stage, whipping up a cheering crowd. The carefully calibrated stump speech, its messages pre-tested with focus groups, still sounds like it just occurred to him on the spot. This has been a long campaign — officially four months since the Knesset was dissolved — but for him it began the moment the Bennett-Lapid government was sworn in on 13 June 2021 and another Knesset member had to tap him on the shoulder to remind him to vacate the Prime Minister’s seat on the Knesset floor. He will be the oldest member of the next Knesset but is still brimming with energy.

Any politician running for national office must be equipped with an over-sized ego and the self-belief that makes them think they can take decisions affecting the lives of millions. Netanyahu has an infinite supply of both. He is fueled by a sense of destiny, built up by being the son of a historian, the austere and dogmatic Professor Benzion Netanyahu, who saw the Jewish past, present and future as a never-ending struggle for survival in a bleak antisemitic world.

His opponents fight election campaigns. He is fighting every day of his life for the very existence of the Jewish people. His personal fate and that of the nation are one and he will never give up fighting, just like his father who continued his research almost until his death at 102. If he fails to win a majority tomorrow, he will try again. And again.

Such political irrepressibility is unrivalled by any contemporary politician, except perhaps Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Just like Bibi, “Il Cavaliere” (“The Knight”) has won, lost, and come back again despite those pesky Leftists prosecutors trying to pin corruption cases on him. In Netanyahu’s autobiography, there is a telling anecdote of a meeting between him and Berlusconi:

“So, Bibi,” he asked me, “how many television stations do you have?” “Israel has three stations,” I answered.

“No, I mean how many of them work for you?” asked Silvio, who owned Italy’s largest media empire.

“None,” I said. “Actually, all of them work against me.”

“So how can you win elections with both hands tied behind your back?” he asked, bewildered.

“The hard way,” I said.

Berlusconi entered politics at an older age, after accumulating a private fortune and building his own media empire. Not having what Netanyahu has called “my own media” still rankles him. He is convinced that were it not for Israel’s independent-minded press, he would never have lost a single election. After all, if Israelis had a clear view of him, they would have realised how essential his leadership is and how laughable any of his so-called rivals are. It is the media who is the real opposition and who egged on a weak Attorney General to press charges against him. Central to those charges is the claim that he used his position to bribe media owners to change their coverage of him. And central to his defence is the insistence that he was merely trying to level the playing field.

Netanyahu knows what Berlusconi and Donald Trump also understand instinctively. To triumph against the odds and then prepare the way for constant comebacks, winning elections is not enough. You must rebuild the political, social and media landscape in your image. The first stage must be a total revamp of your own party. Netanyahu achieved that by pushing out all his Likud rivals and flooding the membership with fanatical loyalists. Similarly, Trump pushed the GOP to its worst nature while Berlusconi formed his own, tailor-made Forza Italia and People of Freedom parties. As we saw in Britain just last week, politicians like Boris Johnson who fail to remake their parties rarely manage to make comebacks.

At 86, Berlusconi is unlikely to ever make it back into office again, but if it were not for his restructuring of post-war Italian politics, Giorgia Meloni would not be prime minister today. Neither is Trump’s return in 2024 at all certain, but his angry and polarised American politics will remain. And if Netanyahu loses on tomorrow night, his opponent will still be governing a country deeply divided between those who cling to Bibi’s staunchly nationalistic identity of Jewish survivalism, and those who prefer a much vaguer sense of secular Israeli citizenship. Whatever the result, Israel will remain Netanyahu’s for years to come.


Anshel Pfeffer is a senior correspondent for Haaretz and Israel correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Bibi
The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.

AnshelPfeffer

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Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

This author is letting his bias trickle into his words every paragraph or two (against Netanyahu) but with all that, it’s an expertly written article. My congratulations to the author. To improve in future, I’d recommend removing your own viewpoint from your words. Your audience should be guessing, but you make it obvious. Less is more.

Last edited 1 year ago by Samuel Ross
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Can you indicate where you see this bias?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

I agree, I can’t see where the bias is in the article. It seemed to me a fairly apolitical summary of him

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

“Trump pushed the GOP to it’s worst nature” is a pretty solid clue. Both sides are pretty shrill and hateful these days. Only partisans of one side or the other believe their side to be innocent. Think about Romney saying he didn’t care about the Americans who don’t pay taxes, or Obama with his “clinging to guns and religion” comment. Both those ugly comments happened well before Trump, but they were gaffes, mistakes, the kind of thing people say to close friends at parties to get a laugh or make a point that the people being disrespected aren’t supposed to hear, like talking about people behind their back. Things can be hidden, but that does not mean they do not exist. Only an infant believes that. Trump, because he has no manners, or sense of shame, or decency, or any moral compass, said the quiet part loud. He has never had any compunction about saying anything straight to anybody’s face, because he’s a narcissistic self absorbed buffoon. Yet, the reaction to his buffoonery revealed the ugliness in the other side as well. “Basket of deplorables”, is just as filled with venom and contempt as Trump’s rhetoric. Trump’s a con-man, not a wizard. He didn’t conjure up all that vitriol and anger out of thin air. He simply inadvertently revealed the condescension, disregard, and contempt that had been politely hidden by both sides. He brought out the worst in pretty much everybody, but he didn’t put it there.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

“his bias trickle into his words every paragraph or two (against Netanyahu) â€œ
Netanyahu, not Trump.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I’d say Trump has pushed the GOP towards its worst nature, just like the progressives have done the same to the Democrats. Neither party seems to really represent the average American anymore

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I have to agree and disagree. The author seems to have a grudging admiration of Netanyahu and a bias against Trump. In my view Trump didn’t “bring out the worst in the GOP”, he has challenged it to be better, and he is still challenging it. Trump was elected by the people and not by his party. Netanyahu has also been elected by the people and despite politics. Both men, however, are the consummate politicians.
Juxtaposing any politician with Berlusconi is a “seeming” negative, for sure, but shining a bright light on all of them is the rising of Georgia Meloni. She is the voice of a strong and disciplined Mother of Us All. I am praying for her and for all of the strong leaders who protect our well-being from Islamist terror, soul-killing Communism, brainless Progressivism, and Nazi hate.

Isabel Ward
Isabel Ward
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Anybody who knows anything about Israeli media knows Haaretz is somewhat to the left of the Guardian. So getting one of their journalists to analyse Netanyahu is a waste of time.

Bill Tomlinson
Bill Tomlinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

The headline reads
“Israel will never escape Netanyahu” .

Why on earth would it want to?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

“Angry and polarized American politics” were not and are not Donald Trump’s doing, but rather that of the Swamp felonry who dreaded what he would learn and expose about them. Ironically, if they had let him do his job, he’d still be President, the US would be in fantastic shape (remember energy independence?) and he’d have probably let them slink off into comfortable obscurity after making them pay back some of what they stole from the taxpayers. Instead, we have senile laughing stock puppet occasionally occupying the Oval Office and a citizenry at each other’s throats – all thanks to the Swamp that will not be drained until we’re all drowned in the stinking mire with them.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

Draining the swamp is a tough task and I don’t think Trump is up to the job. It needs to be an insider, someone who knows its workings and its weaknesses inside out, rather than an outsider like Trump.
But we need to find that person very quickly, before the Swamp takes us all down with it into oblivion. On both sides of the pond, by the way.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

You might be right, but insiders have no incentive, being part of the swamp themselves. His enemies made Trump a colossus. They have only themselves to blame for what will happen to them next week.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Trump, or a Trump figure, is part of the process. But the weakness of The Donald is that urge to smash everything. What needs doing is to challenge very loudly and maybe brutally the new orthodoxies, but not to damage the system which protects the liberties of the people.

The march on the Capitol was an enormous mistake. He should have conceded gracefully at the outset, and resumed the fight against the erosion of the constitution and American values, and the undermining of the economy by the Democrats; he would be miles ahead in the polls by now. Even better, to anoint several successors to carry the message to the next generation.

Bill Tomlinson
Bill Tomlinson
1 year ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

“Trump, or a Trump figure” = Ron de Santis.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Yes, a costly mistake. You could say the same thing for his performance in the first debate with Biden.

On the other hand, he didn’t “smash” enough. If only he had fired the likes of Fauci and Birx in early 2020. . .

Nitzan Waisberg
Nitzan Waisberg
1 year ago

Great overview. I’d add that it is not just Jewish (Orthodox) Survivalism but the fact his loyalists have been positioned through the entire state beaurocracy and make a living working and channeling funds to various organisations. For example the Messianic public school system (Mmamlachti-Dati), the educational branch of the far-religious right, in one of the recent elections secured a promise to get additional funding per student in the state budget meaning their students would receive 30-60% more money per student than any other student (secular, arab
), this was done with public political support from people who are essentially civil servants, but with a political loyalty. While Netanyahu was in the opposition they didn’t get these funds but they still operate a huge publicly funded, Netanyahu loyal, organisation that didn’t go anywhere. This is just one example. The whole country is wired this way.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nitzan Waisberg
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

I have no love for the left. But my experience here makes me very wary of the right. The way some posters fixate on one or two words in a story that really have very little to do with the subject itself and completely ignore the real subject in favour of reading it in a way that suits their political views resembles something like rabid dogs snapping at shadows. And then they object to UnHerd publishing the story, as if it’s some right-wing publication that’s betrayed them. I fully expect a flood of red marks, so pile it on, because I know you won’t be able to resist.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
lancelotlamar1
lancelotlamar1
1 year ago

This is a brilliant piece, and helps me understand Bibi, and his ambition, and appeal better than anything I have ever read as an American Christian.
Bibi is right that there is and will always be a struggle for the very existence of Israel and the Jewish people. People see and feel that passion. It may seem too much at times, but it is better to err on his side and survive than on the side of accommodation and an illusory “peace” and be annihilated.
Sadly, that is a choice Israelis must always make because of who they are historically, and where they are geographically.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago

Who is this new Unherd editor who feels the need to introduce lazy, throwaway anti-Trump statements into every piece?

I understand this practice is de rigueur in so many media outlets, but here. . .?

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hendricks

Why not?