Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party held on to 30 of its 31 seats in the government after last week’s close election in Israel. The Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s main rival, garnered only 24 seats, and the Joint List came in third, with 14 seats. The victory could extend Likud’s mandate into 2019 and make Netanyahu Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
His brazen last-minute maneuvers to energize his right-wing base have garnered a lot of media attention. In a controversial speech before a joint meeting of Congress on March 2, Netanyahu attempted to circumvent Israeli campaign laws to trumpet Iran’s supposed nuclear threat. In the days before the polls, he clarified his position on Palestine, promising there will not be a Palestinian state as long as he remains in power. On Election Day, he resorted to race-baiting pleas, urging Jews go to the polls to prevent Arabs from having a meaningful voice in the elections.
But none of this should come as a surprise. Netanyahu built his entire political career on portraying Iran and Palestine as existential threats to the Jewish people. Likud’s performance at the polls and the opposition’s likely inability to form a government shows that a plurality of Israeli electorate has bought into years of Netanyahu’s gospel of xenophobia and confrontation.
Likud was founded as a secular centrist party in 1973. It won the first premiership in 1977 and subsequently formed a coalition government, unseating the Labor Party for the first time since Israel’s establishment. In 1979, Likud’s founder and first prime minister, Menachem Begin, signed the landmark Camp David Accords, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. The party shifted to the right after Begin’s resignation from politics in 1983. But Likud maintained its prominence through the ’80’s by forming a national unity government.
Netanyahu sought to consolidate power in his party and for his party through fearmongering after Likud’s 1992 electoral loss. His portrayal of the existential threats that surround Israel overruled all domestic concerns. He maintained that the enormous security challenges demanded a show of strength, requiring Israelis to stand united and rendering dissent close to treason.
It was in 1992 that he began insisting that Iran is “three to five years” away from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He called for an international coalition, led by the United States, to intervene and halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He failed to provoke regime change in Iran, but by 1995 the Israel lobby persuaded Washington to declare that "Iran is a threat to its neighbors, is developing weapons of mass destruction, sponsors international terrorism and opposes the Arab-Israeli peace process" — largely on the basis of unverified intelligence provided by Israel.
Palestine was another major component of Netanyahu’s politics of fear. He accused Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of compromising Israeli security and sovereignty by negotiating with the Palestinians during the Oslo Accord in 1993. Netanyahu and his party were so effective at stoking fear among Israelis that they helped engineer Rabin’s demise. Right-wing Zionist extremists assassinated him in 1995.
Rabin’s assassin was reportedly propelled to action out of a conviction that the Oslo Accord represented an existential threat to Israel — repeating Netanyahu’s propaganda nearly verbatim. Despite the widespread belief that his irresponsible rhetoric contributed to Rabin’s untimely death, Netanyahu narrowly won the 1996 election, Israel’s first direct election for the premier post.
Bibi’s re-election demonstrates that his tactics have polarized the Israeli public, highlighting widespread frustration with his potent formula of fear and diversion from real issues.
Netanyahu’s initial reign was short. His coalition collapsed because many in Likud wanted more sincere negotiations with the Palestinians. As Likud continued to drift to the right, some members broke off and formed the Kadima party. Others viewed Netanyahu’s limited concessions, intended to appease the United States, as a betrayal of his campaign commitments to resist the Palestinian cause. Israel’s 17-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which Netanyahu propagated over his term, increasingly became a quagmire. Meanwhile, he and his wife faced multiple corruption charges.
After his defeat in 1999, he withdrew from politics, refusing to stand as Likud’s candidate in 2001. He returned to the political scene after 9/11, which he saw as an enormous opportunity for the Israeli right to advance its agenda in the United States.
Testifying before Congress in 2002, Netanyahu claimed that Iraq would “imminently” obtain a nuclear weapon, calling for Saddam Hussein’s ouster. He urged the U.S. government to make overthrowing “rogue states” a priority over attempts to contain or dismantle terrorist networks. He justified the interventions using the notion of pre-emptive defense because these states allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction. He argued that overthrowing Saddam would result in the proliferation of liberalism across the Middle East, including in Iran.
Despite the insistence of Israeli intelligence, which played an important role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Baghdad did not have an active chemical or nuclear weapon program. Overthrowing Saddam did not reduce the threat of terrorism, instead causing widespread chaos, including the proliferation of terrorist networks. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran empowered Iranian conservatives, pushing the Islamic Republic toward a more confrontational posture against Israel and the West.
In short, every component of Netanyahu’s logic has proved false. But fear is a powerful motivator. And far from being discredited by the political outcomes in Iraq and Iran, Netanyahu managed to capitalize on the resulting chaos to seize the premiership again.
He returned to the forefront of Israeli politics in 2008 by again stoking existential fears in Israel. He disparaged the 2006 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the 2008 Israeli cease-fire with Hamas. He criticized Barack Obama's administration for its commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state and for holding talks with Iran without conditions, comparing those who want to negotiate with Iran to Nazi appeasers.
In 2012, Netanyahu conveniently launched Operation Pillar of Defense, an eight-day military offensive against Hamas in Gaza, at the height of an election campaign. International outrage and condemnation of Israel’s offensive and the subsequent recognition of Palestine by the United Nations reinforced the siege mentality he sought to create, allowing him to narrowly win the 2013 election. He has since maintained this climate of fear.
Netanyahu has gone out of his way to provoke conflict with Hamas, dismantle the Palestinian unity government and undermine negotiations for Palestinian statehood. He has put forward a nationality law, which defines Israel as a Jewish state at the expense of its Arab and Muslim citizens.
He has also attempted to sabotage the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran by misrepresenting Iranian society and culture, the intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and the science regarding breakout times.
The latest election demonstrates that Bibi’s tactics have polarized the Israeli public, highlighting widespread frustration with his potent formula of “fear and diversion from real issues,” as Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog put it in an interview with Der Spiegel. The Jewish opposition galvanized behind the Zionist Union, and the Arabs turned out for the Joint List, but they could not overcome the larger share of Israeli voters driven by fear of Iran and disdain for the Palestinian cause. This is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.