The disappointment was palpable. The Guardian said Israel was moving “further down the wrong road”; the Financial Times said Netanyahu’s re-election “spells trouble for Israel.” The Independent described Netanyahu as “arguably the worst leader Israel has ever had the misfortune to be lumbered with”, suggesting that “Israelis must feel very insecure to fall for Likud’s solutions, which have not, in recent times, made Israel safer”. Channel 4’s lead package portrayed an Israel being sucked into a far-right abyss.
For those in the political centre and left, like much of the media, Bibi is considered as another right-wing, populist strongman with authoritarian tendencies.
There are strong arguments against another term in office for Benjamin Netanyahu. He is likely to be formally indicted later this year for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He may use his position to pursue changes to the law to provide him immunity as long as he’s in office. He has a record of going to great lengths to preserve his premiership and resorting to unsavoury populism. His warning that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves” in 2015, and his midwifing of the Jewish Home-Jewish Power merger, are just the worst examples.
But the disappointment with Israel’s election result needs to be married with an understanding of the reasons behind Bibi’s victory. Because Bibi’s governing record is impressive. In a country with free and fair elections, and a powerful independent press, he has won four successive elections, and is set to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister.
The problem is, that Netanyahu is often viewed solely through the lens of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and that is a distorted picture. For Israelis it is a second order issue at best. Israelis largely believe that they have no partner for peace. That previous concessions, like leaving Gaza, have just led to more conflict. Any movement to give more land to the Palestinians in the West Bank is countered by the fear of another Hamas takeover and more missiles fired into Israel. Bibi put the peace process on ice a long time ago. There are no talks about setting up a Palestinian State and the Palestinians are engaged in a high octane diplomatic offensive against Israel, but at the same time engaged in intensive security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority to tackle Hamas terrorism. But many in Britain judge Israeli prime ministers almost entirely by their degree of action in preserving or promoting a two-state solution, everything else is left out, and the success of Netanyahu becomes inexplicable
Yet Bibi can boast of a decade of strong economic growth, the emergence of Israel as a tech superpower, the development of unprecedently good relations with countries across the globe, and a security situation often described as the best it has ever been in a region so much of which is in flames. Much of this is down to Bibi. His clear rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin has allowed him the freedom to counter Iran in Syria, while his caution in dealing with Hamas has prevented a major escalation.
Israel for a long time suffered from a tertiary boycott imposed by the twenty-two nation Arab League (not just a boycott on Israeli companies, not just a boycott on companies that traded with Israel, but even a boycott on companies that traded with companies that traded with Israel). Yet in the past 12 months, Netanyahu has visited Oman, and Gulf countries including Bahrain and the UAE have spoken optimistically about relations with Israel. Israelis can now fly direct to India through Saudi airspace.
Speaking on that very issue of Israel’s foreign relations, Rachel Broyde explained in Fathom Journal why she was voting Likud: “These diplomatic ties aren’t just good press. Rather, they result in military, diplomatic and economic developments such as the relocation of embassies and diplomatic offices to our united capital Jerusalem and bilateral economic cooperation agreements with dozens of countries.” As Broyde says, “Netanyahu has made Israel unprecedently strong and immensely stable”.
We might disagree with Broyde. But unless we try to understand and sympathise with her perspective, Bibi’s success will continue to remain a mystery.