Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 7 June 2024

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Biden May Spur Another Netanyahu Comeback

Israelis thought the prime minister was done for after Oct. 7. Now they see him as standing up to America.

 ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 5. PHOTO: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/POOL/SHUTTERSTOCK

Jerusalem

Benjamin Netanyahu has had so many comebacks that he appeared indestructible—until Oct. 7. He was known as “Mr. Security,” because each of his stints as prime minister followed a major setback against terrorism. He was first elected in 1996, after suicide bombers blew themselves up in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. After the failed 2006 war in Lebanon, he came to power again in 2009. He returned yet again in late 2022 following another wave of terror.

Last October, however, Mr. Netanyahu wasn’t the alternative to a security failure; he was the security failure. The massacre carried out by Hamas was a consequence of political and military blindness. That is why many Israelis—including me—believed that Mr. Netanyahu was done for. The Netanyahu coalition, which won the November 2022 election with 64 Knesset seats out of 120, lost a third of its support in the polls, plunging to a historical nadir. Benny Gantz, the leftist alternative who entered the government during the emergency, skyrocketed to historic heights.

The three criminal cases pending against Mr. Netanyahu in the Jerusalem District Court were compounded by the damning indictment of the loss of 1,200 innocent lives in one day. Throughout the autumn months, Mr. Netanyahu seemed to be a combination of Richard Nixon and Neville Chamberlain.

And then suddenly, a change in direction. Mr. Netanyahu is gradually recovering in the polls, and the gap between him and Mr. Gantz has almost closed. In the most recent surveys querying who the public considers the most suitable candidate for prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu outperformed all his rivals. While his coalition is far from clinching victory, the latest polls suggest a deadlock. Israel’s political system allows one side to prevent the other from establishing a government, potentially triggering a few more rounds of elections.

How did this happen? Before Mr. Netanyahu was Mr. Security, he was Mr. Right Wing, the man who opposed the dangerous agreements Israel’s government signed with the Palestinians. That’s exactly what he’s falling back on now. The absurdity of Israeli public opinion since Oct. 7 is that while Israelis want a right-wing government, they are fed up with right-wing politicians. But as long as Mr. Netanyahu is the right’s only alternative for prime minister, most of his voters will come home to him—some enthusiastically, others reluctantly.

That is why Mr. Netanyahu is promoting a policy of “total victory,” in contrast to the left-wing members of the war cabinet. That is why he has publicly declared his opposition to a postwar “Fatahstan” or “Hamastan” in Gaza, even at the risk of a confrontation with his defense minister. That is why he is willing to defy President Biden, even in the face of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. If a domestic criminal indictment enhances Mr. Netanyahu’s popularity in the polls, surely an international arrest warrant for defending Israel will have a similar effect.

Indeed, after Oct. 7, opposition to a Palestinian state and a similar government in Gaza has increased among Israelis. But Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents, some for ideological reasons and others simply to spite him, have joined the pressure to end the conflict without defeating Hamas, have agreed to Mr. Biden’s demands, and are setting the future establishment of a Palestinian state as a condition for progress toward normalization with Saudi Arabia. Considering that this stance is at odds with public opinion, it should surprise no one that Mr. Netanyahu is regaining support.

Israelis tend to reward confrontations with the American president when they believe he is undermining Israel’s national interest. That was the case with Barack Obama, and it is now with Mr. Biden.

Mr. Netanyahu’s situation is still difficult. That is one of the reasons he is doing everything he can to preserve the current right-wing government. But on the horizon, there’s a glimmer of hope: No one in Jerusalem will openly acknowledge it, but in the prime minister’s office, they are waiting for the moment Donald Trump is re-elected.

True, Mr. Trump crudely attacked Mr. Netanyahu and makes all kinds of contradictory statements. But Mr. Trump’s political base includes lovers of Israel from the Bible Belt, not Hamas supporters from Michigan. A huge billboard showing Messrs. Netanyahu and Trump shaking hands towered over Tel Aviv’s busiest highway as part of the Likud’s most recent election campaign. There’s no evidence that anything has changed.

The polls also hint at an intriguing scenario: Mr. Netanyahu’s main competition might come from a new hawkish All-Stars party composed of several figures who will join forces and attack Mr. Netanyahu for not being hard-line enough. If Mr. Netanyahu loses, his successor may turn out to be even more Bibi than Bibi. Even those who come to bury Mr. Netanyahu shouldn’t think his ideology is dead, and in any event, it is premature for both.

Since Oct. 7, a lot of people have been stopping me in the street to ask me if this is Mr. Security’s last term. Absolutely, I answer them. That’s what I thought about every one of his last four terms.

Mr. Segal is chief political commentator on Israel’s Channel 12 News and author of “The Story of Israeli Politics.”

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Appeared in the June 7, 2024, print edition as 'Biden May Spur Another Netanyahu Comeback'.

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