Why Netanyahu Keeps Winning

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty
April 11, 2019

Tuesday, when Israel held its parliamentary elections, was finally Benjamin Netanyahu's time to lose. After serving as Israel's prime minister for 10 consecutive years, he would need to find another job. Just six weeks earlier, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of corruption. But even without the allegations, Israelis, who elected Netanyahu three straight times over the past decade (and another time in 1996), were supposed to be fatigued, ready for a new premier. In this political environment, Blue and White, the new alliance opposing Netanyahu's Likud Party, seemed all the more appealing—stable, centrist, and led by three former Israeli military chiefs. Democratic presidential candidates in the United States said they hoped Netanyahu would lose, campaigning against him. Even friendly, pro-Israel voices in the American media rooted for Netanyahu's challengers. This time, the mountain seemed too steep even for Netanyahu to climb.

And yet, as Israeli officials count the final ballots, Netanyahu is poised to secure an unprecedented fifth term in office. Assuming he forms a governing coalition of at least 61 of the legislature's 120 seats in the coming weeks, as is expected, he will become Israel's longest serving prime minister.

Western analysts and commentators are lamenting Netanyahu's victory. "Bottom line from Israel's April 9 elections—a deeply divided country torn between a real desire for change and the realities of dysfunctional politics; a cruel region and a prime minister eager to play to and upon a nation's fears rather than its hopes," tweeted Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"Some of us don't understand why [the Israeli people] would keep reelecting Netanyahu. I certainly don't," said MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. "Because you think that they would want a lasting peace, and he is certainly not ever going to do that." Scarborough then asked what Israelis see in Netanyahu that the rest of the world does not.

Many Democrats in Congress are also lamenting the Israeli premier's win.

"I don't think it's a very good sign," Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin told the Washington Examiner. "America's foreign policy has historically been for a two-state solution. I support that. I don't believe that Netanyahu does. And, he's made it clear that he doesn't."

To re-ask Scarborough's question, why do Israelis support Netanyahu? In short, Israelis believe he has made their lives better and improved their country's situation—radical criteria for voters, indeed!

In Israel, the most important issue is always security. For Israelis, their vote could mean the difference between life and death in a way that most people in the West cannot understand. The world's only Jewish state is located in a region where most governments do not recognize its right to exist and have no qualms about killing Jews, or about watching others kill them. Directly to the east, Israelis see the Palestinian Authority, which rewards terrorists who try to murder them. To the south, they see Hamas, a terrorist group that seeks Israel's destruction. To the north, they see Hezbollah, which has about 130,000 rockets pointed at them, and Syria, where the savage, anti-Israel beast who runs the country has spent the last eight years slaughtering his own people. And looming above, like a storm cloud, is Iran, whose anti-Semitic regime is always working to drive Israel into the sea.

In this environment, leaders who make bad decisions, even if they are well intentioned, can bring death and suffering. Look at the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israel from 2000 to 2005. Israelis were murdered in terrorist explosions while riding the bus to work or enjoying moments of peace in coffee shops. They saw their government unable to make the violence stop, especially in the early stages when Ehud Barak served as prime minister.

Also look at the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. What did Israelis get in return? Hamas, and rockets fired on their communities.

Netanyahu, however, has brought relative, long-lasting security to Israel. The terrorist attacks have largely stopped, and the only wars have been with Hamas, fought primarily in Gaza. Many Israelis see Netanyahu as a competent statesman when it comes to national security, someone who has shown sound strategic vision. Just look at Sderot, a city in southern Israel by the border with Gaza. If any Israelis would have reason to vote for a change, it would be the city's residents, who often receive the brunt of Hamas's rocket attacks. Yet Sderot overwhelmingly supported Likud over Blue and White. The status quo may be less great for them than for the rest of Israel, but they trust Netanyahu to protect their security more than even former military chiefs.

Netanyahu has often questioned conventional wisdom and, ultimately, been proven right. He warned that withdrawing from Gaza would backfire, and his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are now mainstream—not because Israel has become more right-wing, but because Israelis see the Palestinian leadership repeatedly spit on, if not try to cut off or blow up, their government's outstretched hand. The Israeli premier has also been persistent in calling the world's attention to Iran's destructive behavior, recognizing the threat long ago. He has stood up to American presidents when necessary (Barack Obama) and embraced others who have helped Israel (Donald Trump). Whether they like Netanyahu or not, most Israelis recognize his successful record on security matters.

Netanyahu has also been remarkably successful at bolstering Israel's diplomatic status. Too often observers in the West think of Israel as an increasingly isolated country, but the exact opposite is true. It seems every week Netanyahu is renewing diplomatic ties with a country in Africa or strengthening such ties in Asia or Latin America. And, of course, Israel's relationships with the Arab Gulf countries have grown stronger.

Meanwhile, Israel's economy has boomed during Netanyahu's tenure. The Jewish state has become a cyber super-power, using its high-tech industry to gain an astonishing level of investment for such a small country.

In the election this week, Blue and White did not offer any real alternative to Netanyahu. They simply made their campaign a referendum on the incumbent, banking on Israelis growing tired of his baggage. The problem is that Blue and White's leaders did not offer Israelis any sort of vision for their country's future. And many of their views concerning foreign policy, national security, and even Jerusalem are actually the same as Netanyahu's. So why would Israelis risk upending a good situation for an uncertain alternative, especially when the price for bad decisions is so high?

As Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said of Netanyahu: "Our economy is excellent, our foreign relations were never better, and we're secure … we know him, the world knows him—even our enemies know him." Netanyahu is a source of stability, a known quantity. Other countries often look to the next big thing in an election, and Israelis may like to do that, but they know the cost of such a gamble could be catastrophic.