Despite his government’s failure to anticipate Hamas’ deadly attack, don’t count Netanyahu out politically
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Since the brutal Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, news analysts and the public have focused on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his role in the intelligence failure that preceded the attack, in which 1,400 people were killed.
In other parliamentary democracies, a failure of this magnitude would normally cost leaders their jobs, or at least spark challenges to their leadership.
But a closer look at Netanyahu’s political history shows that he is not like other leaders.
Over the last 24 years, he has been able not only to survive the rough and hard-hitting Israeli political arena, but to stay on top of it. Despite numerous setbacks and challenges that might well have terminated the career of other leaders, Netanyahu has come back to lead his party and take the prime minister’s office, again and again. His first term, 1996 to 1999, ended in a humiliating defeat. But he returned to his party’s leadership at the end of 2005. Between 2009 and 2023, he was able to form a coalition government five times.
It is possible that this time might be different, and that the government’s failure has been so devastating for Israelis that Netanyahu will be unable to recover. A week after the Israel-Hamas war began, a small majority of Israelis wanted Netanyahu to resign.
But based on his history, he might survive this scandal.
Netanyahu won his first election in May 1996, beating Labor leader Shimon Peres by a narrow margin. It was the country’s first split-ticket vote, in which citizens voted for both a party to represent them in parliament and for an individual for prime minister. Netanyahu won by claiming he could better protect Israelis in the wake of a surge of terrorist attacks in February and March of that year that had killed over 50 citizens.
Since then, commentators, especially those abroad, have referred to him as something like a protector of Israel. In 2012, Time ran a cover story that called Netanyahu “King Bibi.” A post-Oct. 7 piece in Foreign Policy referred to him as “Mr. Security,” a name it was said that Israelis themselves used.
Netanyahu has never presided over any military or diplomatic process that strengthened Israeli security; quite the opposite. His tenures have been marked by several intelligence failures and miscalculations, by the Oct. 7 attack and an inconclusive war with Hamas in 2014. He was indicted on corruption charges in 2019, but his trial has yet to conclude.
It’s clear to me that his ability to win elections is rooted not in his own political foresight and reputation as a successful defender of Israel, but more a function of Israel’s political system and his ability to make wild promises to prospective coalition partners.
Route to power
Netanyahu’s political successes have often been the result of the public’s apparent decision that he is the best out of a set of poor choices.
The Israeli electoral system produces fragmented outcomes. It is common for dozens of parties to run in an election, and for 10 to win representation in the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body. A government is formed through bargaining between the parties, until a coalition obtains 61 votes – a simple majority – in the 120-seat Knesset.
The existence of so many parties, representing a range of views on religion in the public sphere, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zionism and the relationship between the Jewish state and its Arab citizens, gives the person who aims to be prime minister options when trying to cobble together a coalition.
Because all the parties know this, and they know they can threaten to join a government under someone else, promises must be made to these parties by would-be leaders to secure their place in the government and their support in the Knesset.
These promises can include offering ministerial posts to leaders of the parties or commitments to provide more government funding to certain religious communities.
The most egregious example occurred after the 2022 elections when Netanyahu formed a government with far-right and fascist parties. Some of his promises included creating a militia under the control of Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, widely known for its anti-Arab racism.
Another promise Netanyahu made to entice Knesset members to join him in a coalition was to overhaul the judiciary, reducing its independence and making it a tool of the government. This promise became legislation and sparked what has become weekly protests against the policy as a threat to Israeli democracy, drawing hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
Netanyahu’s increasingly extreme promises indicate a desperation born out of fear of losing power. This is not surprising, since in every election since 2009, his party barely got a plurality of votes. If he could not form a majority coalition, another party and its leader could.
The highest percentage of the popular vote his Likud party has ever won was 29%, in 2020. Even then, Likud’s main rival, the Blue and White Party, won 27% of the vote. In other elections since then, Likud has won around 24% or 25%.
Netanyahu himself is more popular than his party, but not by much. In most of the elections that Netanyahu competed in as head of Likud, results commonly showed that a little more than half of voters supported him over his closest rivals.
In part, this support stems from his long years in politics. Netanyahu is a well-established figure, so there is some comfort for voters in choosing a candidate who is well known.
As head of Likud, he has been leader of one of the country’s oldest major parties. And though its share of seats has dropped over the years, Likud remains firmly entrenched in Israel’s political constellation. It can be difficult for observers to disentangle support for Netanyahu from support for the party.
Finally, no Israel government has lasted its full four-year term since 1988, forcing new elections to be called. There is a constant fear among coalition partners that a new election will weaken them. Supporting Netanyahu and Likud has often been the best way to avoid another election.
It may be, then, that contrary to expectations, Netanyahu will be able to outlast disasters as he has before, and remain a player in Israeli politics.
Brent E Sasley has received funding from the University of Texas at Arlington.