Netanyahu’s immortal government

What Netanyahu's fifth election victory tells us about Israeli democracy

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Last week’s election in Israel was, as ever, in a class of its own. It was in a class of its own for being the only democratic election in the Middle East; for the over three-dozen parties whose names filled the ballot boxes; and for the comically large number of victory speeches made – both Benjamin Netanyahu and his main rival, Benny Gantz, declared victory soon after the polls closed

There are no shortage of cynical theories about why Netanyahu was able to win a fifthterm in office – a hard ask for any leader, especially one in such an antagonistic political climate. Some are claiming media bias, some are claiming miscounted votes, others think Netanyahu just has too muchsupport from influential donors. 

The more compelling – and far more intriguing – explanation for Netanyahu’s success, though, seems to be something entirely different, and something within the bounds of democracy:

It’s that Netanyahu is conveniently trapped in a negative feedback loop, whereby he is moderated but never undone by his opposition. And that’s because every time his or Israel’s opponents make a move, they misstep. And they don’t just misstep, they cataclysmically trip over themselves.

First, the Israeli left – Jewish and Arab alike – missteps when it prioritises a nebulous, long run peace over immediate preventative security measures. That’s because more people in Israel value security far above appearance, brand name, or other domestic issues. Their primary criterion, when selecting a leader, it seems, is who can keep knives out of Jerusalem, mortars out of the Golan, and rockets out of Ashdod. 

That makes a good deal of sense for a people who have seen the failure of diplomacy in the Oslo Accords, the damage caused by lax military defence and one-way ceasefires during the Second Intifada during the early 2000s, and who have been continually aggravated by rocket attacks from Hamas-ruled Gaza, stabbings from the P.A.-ruled territories of the West Bank, and tunnel drilling from Hezbollah-ruled Lebanon. 

For young voters especially, who disproportionately favoured Netanyahu this election, an image of failed peace and necessary military strength is all but domineering.

The upshot of this is that, even though Netanyahu has not freed Israel to bask in the glory of pacifism, he has brought to it a degree of comfort and security that was lacking in earlier decades. That explains both why voters continually side with him rather than untested centrist candidates, and why the left (more than ever Israel’s Labor party) now capitulates time after time.

Secondly, other parties misstep by trying to be the anti-Netanyahu. You’d be remiss not to ask yourself after this election how a very centrist, charismatic, and experienced military leader like Gantz could possibly lose to an almost-centrist man about to front court on corruption charges. Very rationally, Netanyahu and his policies take a basic political science lesson and appeal to about as broad a base as possible:

He was never going to win over the two-staters voting Labor, but his last minute promise to formally recognise settlements as Israel did allow him to capture some of the right and take enough votes away from smaller right wing offshoots like the New Right. His liberal social policy similarly wasn’t going to win over hardline social conservatives, but they were going to vote for Orthodox parties anyway, and with them he took votes from the weed-smoking Zehut supporters.

For better or for worse, then, the policy and leadership preferences of Israelis is embodied starkly by Benjamin Netanyahu. His most feared opponent would have to be someone who is functionally himself, minus the corruption charges. 

The fact Gantz performed so well makes sense on this thesis: he was closer to the image of Netanyahu than most candidates – not close enough, of course, but closer. Anyone who distances themselves from that ideal is, at least for now, distancing themselves from the Prime Ministership.

Thirdly, the rest of the world missteps every time it inordinately condemns Israel at the UN, every time it tries to engage in unjust boycott, and every time it votes-in governments which aggressively oppose the Israeli state. The reason is straightforward. The people of Israel do not want to be left isolated, especially the wealthiest, most politically active members of its society, who require global reach.

A leader with some track record of diplomacy is therefore ultimately desirable for Israel. That explains why Netanyahu’s diplomatic connections to other powerful nationalist leaders – think Narendra Modi or Donald Trump – help his cause so greatly. It’s why travelling through the major cities of Israel, you’d struggle to miss the giant billboards featuring Trump and Netanyahu’s contrived handshake. 

More interestingly, the prominence of Netanyahu’s connections on his campaign trail also reveals an incumbency bias inherent to Israel right now. While most democratic countries are holding onto their leaders for less and less time, Israel is about to break its own record with Netanyahu. Israelis are so risk averse right now because they feel isolated that they disproportionately favour stable leadership, and that’s what voting for Netanyahu gives them.

Regardless of ideology, all signals indicate that Israel’s democracy is as alive as ever (read: very). Yes, Netanyahu is continuing to provide a much sought after certainty to his country, and he’s reaping the rewards at the ballot box and breaking term records while he’s at it. And yes, really, despite all the build up to this election, it looks as though Netanyahu’s next term will closely resemble the last one. But the Middle East’s only democracy is responding exactly as we should expect it to do, and exactly as we rationally should have predicted. 

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