Watching Benjamin Netanyahu win elections has become so customary that it is easy to miss the profound significance of his April 9 victory. When Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak in 1999—the last time he was booted from office in an election—the Labor Party alliance won 26 seats. In this year’s election, Labor won 6. There has not been a Labor prime minister in 18 years. In the past decade of Netanyahu’s premiership—the longest consecutive time in the Prime Minister’s Office by a country mile—Bibi has done nothing less than remake the Israeli political establishment in his image. And then, on April 9, he defeated that, too.
Previous serious threats from Netanyahu’s right have come from the Jewish Home Party and Israel Beiteinu. Jewish Home was formerly led by Naftali Bennett, who was Bibi’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008, and Ayelet Shaked, who was Netanyahu’s office director during that same time and who has been mentioned repeatedly as the politician most likely to replace Netanyahu. This year, Bennett and Shaked left Jewish Home to form another party, New Right—and it failed to break the vote threshold necessary to join the Knesset. They’re out.
Israel Beiteinu has been led by the formidable Avigdor Lieberman. Until November 2018, he was Netanyahu’s defense minister. He was director-general of Likud when Bibi won its leadership two decades ago and director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office when Netanyahu was prime minister in 1996 and 1997. That party dropped by one seat.
Another center-right party was Kulanu, led by Moshe Kahlon—Netanyahu’s finance minister and a longtime Likudnik who left the party in 2014 to run against it. Kulanu lost six seats. One of the founders of Kulanu was Avi Gabbay, who was appointed by Netanyahu in 2015 to be the minister of environmental protection. Gabbay joined Labor the following year, won its leadership primary, and was at the helm for the stomping it received in April.
Netanyahu’s primary challenge was from a new party calling itself Blue and White. Among its most notable leaders was Moshe Yaalon, Bibi’s last defense minister and an experienced Likud legislator. The party’s political platform was essentially Likud minus Bibi. In the end, Likud improved on its last election showing by six seats, or 20 percent. Apparently, Likud plus Bibi is more of a winner now than it was then.
Netanyahu’s reelection was endangered by the attorney general’s announcement, barely a month before the election, that he intends to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. That man is Avichai Mandelblit; he became attorney general in 2013, and before that, he was Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary.
Everyone outside the left in Israeli politics has been in the trenches with Netanyahu—and many have emerged from the trenches to fire on him. And he’s arguably stronger than ever, at least electorally.
In Israel, he is often derided as King Bibi. In December 2016, that moniker was the inspiration for a large golden statue of the prime minister put up as a piece of satirical guerrilla art in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. But who ever heard of a potentate who must win open, democratic elections repeatedly to stay in power? Some king. And yet: Netanyahu has been in office for 10 years. The average Israeli prime minister is in office for four. And that average is inflated by the six- and seven-year runs of the state’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, who for the entirety of his political career presided over what was effectively a one-party state.
The best way to understand Netanyahu’s impact is as the final triumph of Revisionist Zionism, with Bibi crossing the finish line holding the baton handed to him by Menachem Begin, who had picked up where the Zionist theorist and practical politician Vladimir Jabotinsky left off nearly four decades earlier, at the time of his death in 1940. When Western leftists say their problem is only with Netanyahu, not the Israeli people, it rings false: Israelis may not identify with (or even like) Bibi personally, but their country’s political identity is deeply intertwined with their prime minister of 10 years. Left-wing author Dorit Rabinyan told the New York Times that a post-Netanyahu Israel might make many feel “orphaned,” and that she shared the feeling to some extent: “I’m anxious about it at the very same time that I’m hopeful about it.” Rabinyan is no closet rightist: Bennett, as Netanyahu’s education minister in 2017, excluded Rabinyan’s novel of an Israeli-Palestinian love story from school curricula. (This was silly; the book is nuanced about the conflict and does not include intermarriage in the plot.) Yet even Rabinyan admits trepidation about a post-Bibi future.
She is not alone. In the months leading up to the election, voters were polled dozens of times on whom they would prefer as prime minister. Aside from a couple of outliers, Netanyahu was always the first choice, often by a wide margin, even though his party was neck and neck with Blue and White.
Why? Simple. He has been in office long enough to find vindication for his policies. “The prime minister began his current stint in office in 2009 and some economists call the years since a golden decade,” read a pre-election piece in the Financial Times. “Unemployment has plunged to a record low, incomes have soared to a record high, the deficit has largely been tamed, and Israel’s tech scene has produced salacious tales of multibillion-dollar deals and lured tens of billions of dollars of foreign investment into the high-wage sector. … Compared with the 1980s, when Israel struggled with hyperinflation and had to issue a new currency, Israelis live in an era that the OECD recently described as ‘remarkable.’”
Netanyahu has maintained Israel’s security while avoiding major wars and keeping the economy humming along. On his watch, the United States has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the country’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, while pulling out of Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which had legitimized Iranian hegemony over territory on Israel’s borders. For all the cries of Israel’s supposedly endangered democracy, the country “has actually been moving in a democratic direction,” wrote Zev Chafets, a former aide to Menachem Begin, on the Bloomberg website in February. He pointed to the most recent Israel Democracy Institute report, prepared by Tamar Hermann: Hermann “consulted 13 international democracy indexes and found that Israel held up quite well against other liberal democracies. ‘Compared to 2010, we have starkly improved on LGBT rights, and also on rights for women,’ she points out. Since Netanyahu took office, Israel has moved up seven places in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ranking of democracies.”
What about the other complaint, that Netanyahu’s Israel is “isolated” on the global stage? There were hints of this during the Obama administration, which was trying to bring about that isolation. Netanyahu did not help himself in this regard: His decision to accept an invitation to address a joint session of Congress to denounce the sitting president’s own signature foreign-policy goal was a tactical mistake. But such flops are the exceptions. In October, Netanyahu accepted an invitation to visit Oman; in February, he met with Oman’s foreign minister in Warsaw. Netanyahu has also reportedly secretly met with Morocco’s foreign minister. His bromance with Indian Premier Narendra Modi, his deepening ties with China, and his more controversial alliances with nationalist leaders in Hungary, Poland, and Brazil—to say nothing of his relationship-of-necessity with Vladimir Putin—have all served to debunk the idea that he is isolating his country. And in the long run, the secret Israeli-Saudi cooperation spilling into the public sphere might be the most significant of these achievements.
“Has Mr. Netanyahu ever been wrong when it comes to security?” asked Shmuel Rosner in the New York Times after the election. “The truth is, many Israelis will find it hard to think of an example.” Netanyahu’s rejection of the “assumptions underlying the peace process” is now “considered common sense in Israel, including by Mr. Netanyahu’s political rivals.” Rosner also credits Netanyahu with sounding the alarm over the Iranian nuclear threat, putting it on the world’s radar, and galvanizing a global response—something even supporters of the nuclear deal admit.
Rosner’s list doesn’t go far enough. When Netanyahu was a Foreign Ministry official in Washington during the Reagan administration, he helped influence Secretary of State George Shultz’s hawkish turn on combating international terrorism, a crucial plank of which was holding terror-sponsoring regimes accountable. Nearly two decades before 9/11, America’s first modern war on terror was partly shaped by Benjamin Netanyahu. His initial foray into global politics came with a massive terrorism conference in Jerusalem in 1979 sponsored by the Jonathan Institute, the group he founded in the wake of his brother Yoni’s death during the heroic raid on Entebbe in 1976.
Netanyahu’s recent embrace of populist strongmen in Eastern and Central Europe is far more difficult to navigate and fraught with risk, but it, too, represents the culmination of a trend Bibi anticipated. His notion was that a peaceful Middle East would be modeled on post–Cold War Europe. “We will take our cue from the peace process between East and West in Europe,” Netanyahu told a December 1996 conference of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, still in his first year of his first premiership. The Helsinki process had three lessons for the Middle East. First: “Diplomacy must be based on agreed fundamental norms.” Second: “The broader the peace, the broader the security achieved. For peace and security to become a fact in Europe it had to reach from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains.” And third: Leaders of the East and West may have “sharply disagreed,” but they “did not place any conditions on maintaining their dialogue.”
This was a preview of Netanyahu’s approach to negotiations, but it was also something else: a demonstration of the holistic ambitions of his dream for Israel. A rapprochement with the Saudis was just as critical to the ideal end state of the Arab–Israeli conflict as what was happening on Israel’s borders. And that meant Netanyahu would have to turn himself into something of a foreign-policy polymath. After all, if you wanted peace from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Oman, you had to understand the politics and culture in between. And if this plan was to be based on a program that brought peace to Europe, you had better brush up on everything between Lisbon and Moscow.
It’s a mistake to put Netanyahu in the same category as the strongmen riding Europe’s rightist wave. But it is not a mistake to say he learned their language and cultivated ties with them, some of whom represent the vanguard of a dangerous 21st-century blood-and-soil nationalism. “Only watching from Jerusalem, keeping a tab on his visits and his visitors, can you see just how successful Bibi has been,” Ben Judah observed at the Atlantic. “Never before have the leaders of Russia, Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and now Italy had such strong ties with Israel. Never before have they seen the leader that sits in Jerusalem as indispensable to their objectives.”
Netanyahu has been training for this. Have those who wish to replace him? That is the question that makes Israelis who disagree with Netanyahu think twice about voting against him. You might tell the guy juggling flaming chainsaws that this was a dangerous path, but you aren’t crazy about the idea of him walking away while they’re still in the air.
This is the balance Netanyahu strikes at home as well. He has always been something of an outsider to the ideological right. A pragmatist, not an ideologue, Bibi had from 2009 to 2014 slowed the pace of settlement growth to a 20-year low. He is cautious about sending troops into battle. He is risk-averse, which is what drives the peace-processers crazy. Above all, Bibi prizes stability. He has no true ideological home, so he has made his home the Prime Minister’s Office. When Netanyahu finally leaves office, he will feel adrift, and many on the left, let alone the right, fret that they will feel “orphaned.” Netanyahu’s critics and opponents, sensing the bond this creates between voter and prime minister, insist that Bibi isn’t his country’s “indispensable man.” That’s probably true. Just not quite as true as it used to be.