Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

How Netanyahu won: Fear, big promises and dangerous alliances

The longtime Israeli leader went for broke in the face of an indictment on corruption charges, and it paid off

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by his wife Sara, greets supporters at his Likud Party headquarters in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on election night early on April 10, 2019. AFP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by his wife Sara, greets supporters at his Likud Party headquarters in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on election night early on April 10, 2019. AFP

He has done it again. Benjamin Netanyahu, a decade in office and mired in three corruption cases, has come out on top against an opposition that boasted three former Israeli military chiefs.

The 69-year-old is Israel’s greatest political survivor. He is willing to use any tool in his arsenal to defeat his opponents and this time around was no different. He called upon a range of weapons, from fear and smear, to big promises and dangerous alliances, to get himself across the line.

At the end of it all, nearly every right-wing Israeli party declared that they will recommend him to President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government.

This race was closer than in previous Israeli elections, with seasoned military veteran Benny Gantz pushing Mr Netanyahu to the wire. The tight election, called early because of Mr Netanyahu’s corruption woes, backed him into a corner and the result was an even more toxic campaign than usual.

He is a master of manipulating public anger and fear, and he made no attempt to hide it in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote. In February, he said that Israel’s nearly two million Arabs were not true citizens of the country. “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people – and the Jewish people only,” he said. He did not stop at effectively classifying Arabs as second-class citizens.

He smeared his main election rival, Benny Gantz and his coalition partner Yair Lapid, with the claim that they would attempt to muster a left-wing government “with the support of the Arab parties” that would leave Israel’s security weakened.

Worse still, he aligned with some of the most racist factions in Israeli society to achieve the seats he needed to form a coalition. He agreed to merge a small Jewish supremacist party into another party of religious Zionists, one less overtly racist than the ‘Jewish Power’ party that he sided with.

That party and its leaders have called for the removal of nearly two million Arabs from the country, a ban on marriage between Arabs and Jews, a march on the Haram Al Sharif to take it over from the Islamic waqf, or trust, that oversees it.

Most importantly, it has called for violent attacks against Palestinians. These are not modest, quiet fascists, but openly racist Arab haters. They derive their views from that of the late Meir Kahane, an ultranationalist rabbi who openly called for hate crimes to be carried out against Arabs.

So Mr Netanyahu, in trying to save his political life, has grown increasingly desperate. As that desperation wears off, he might move further away from the far-right. But with the corruption cases hanging over him, a hearing he must attend, and the potential for the humiliating prospect of becoming an indicted sitting prime minister, this decision-making may yet continue. He also has to keep those right-wing parties that have supported him wholeheartedly happy, and he is likely to repay them in kind.

His gravitas as a world statesman, one who has shown that Israel can still be strong even if it doesn’t make concessions with the Palestinians, has undoubtedly helped him.

But it is the image he has cultivated as the sole protector of Israel, the man who can make Israelis feel there is a distance between those who seek it harm, that is the real reason he won on Tuesday. He just had to play a dirtier game than usual to get there in the end.

Updated: April 10, 2019 04:40 PM

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