How He Became the Unbeatable Bibi Netanyahu

PM Netanyahu oppose. Photo courtesy of Haim Zach (GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—known also by his nickname “Bibi”—is expected to be named as Israel’s leader for the fifth time, extending his record-setting run as prime minister to well into it’s eighth straight year. It will also give him a chance to catch Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, for the longest total time serving as Israel’s leader at a little over 13 years, thanks to Netanyahu’s earlier 3-year run in the 1990s. But how did he do it? How did Netanyahu not only manage to return to power, but stay there longer than anyone else in Israeli history?

Perfect Place

The roots of Netanyahu’s reign actually came due to arguably the riskiest—and initially most damaging—political decision of his life. In 2005, Netanyahu served as the Finance Minister for then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was tremendously popular and politically powerful enough to conduct the disengagement from Gaza. Shortly before the Israelis withdrew from Gaza, however, Netanyahu resigned from the government in protest of the withdrawal. His acting on the belief the disengagement was a mistake worked—eventually.

At first, it seemed a disaster. Sharon left the center-right Likud party later that year and took colleagues with him to form the centrist Kadima party. While Sharon had a stroke before the election, his new party crushed all challengers in the January 2006 election, winning 29 of the 120 seat Israeli parliament, also known as the Knesset. Netanyahu, who had recovered slightly to become the head of what was left of the Likud party, watched the stalwart party collapse to just 12 seats.

Yet out of the ashes, Netanyahu’s phoenix-like political bird arose. Following Sharon’s stroke, Ehud Olmert took power as the new Prime Minister and Netanyahu acted as a forceful member of the opposition. When Olmert’s political scandals drove him to resign and led to new elections in 2009, Netanyahu was effectively the new face of the center-right faction. It was he who had opposed the Gaza disengagement—which the Israeli right wing had also opposed—and it was he who was the head of the strongest center-right party, Likud.

Netanyahu technically didn’t win the most seats in 2009’s election, but the right-wing parties won more overall, and that proved to be enough to put him back in the premiership for the first time in over a decade. It also proved to be a trend.

Perfect Time

The right wing in Israel has tipped the electorate’s scales in their favor in the last decade. Right-leaning or religious parties have won the majority of Knesset seats in every election since 2009, and only once did Netanyahu choose to bring in a powerful center-left party to join him—the Yesh Atid party in 2013, a partnership which lasted only two years.

This has proven a huge advantage to Netanyahu. Under the Israeli parliamentary system, the prime minister is the leader who can form a government with the strongest coalition of parties. Since no party wins enough seats to claim a majority on their own, the game of partnering in a coalition ultimately determines who wins. The right-wing parties and the religious, despite working with the Kadima party under Olmert in the 2000s, have so far not been inclined to work with any of the center-left parties since then. The two-state solution land-for-peace withdrawal doctrine of the Israeli left, along with its largely secular nature, are key impediments toward their forming a government with the right-leaning or religious parties.

In fact, the fit with Netanyahu and these smaller parties is so obvious, Israeli media has referred to these parties as Netanyahu’s “natural partners.”

What’s Next

Netanyahu may have a greater challenge from the courtroom than the ballot box, as he is facing his own corruption investigations. He has denied the accusations. If the legal matters don’t remove him from office, however, it’s unclear when or who might someday force him out—or when the 69-year-old Netanyahu will retire.

For now, it seems he has good odds to have his choice of when and how he wants to exit public life. After losing one election as prime minister in the 1990s and then resigning the government to take over a middling opposition party, Benjamin Netanyahu has become the unbeatable Bibi.


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