How Benjamin Netanyahu wins: The Israeli prime minister’s tactics for winning against the odds.

Inside Bibi’s Playbook for Winning Against the Odds

Inside Bibi’s Playbook for Winning Against the Odds

Events beyond our borders.
March 18 2015 10:22 AM

Bibi’s Playbook

This wasn’t the first time Netanyahu won against long odds. Here’s how he does it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 18, 2015.

Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

On May 29, 1996, Israelis went to bed believing Shimon Peres was the next prime minister. The next morning the country awoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the 2009 election, Likud received one less seat than the ruling Kadima party, yet Netanyahu formed the new government instead of Kadima’s leader Tzipi Livni, who couldn’t cobble together enough support to rule. Now, Netanyahu has staged a come-from-behind victory and embarrassed all of the pundits and commentators who prematurely wrote his political obituary. With Likud having won 30 seats—a quarter of the Knesset—Netanyahu will form the next government. A national unity coalition that includes Labor is a remote possibility. But Netanyahu has a clear path to a majority without Labor. The most likely scenario will be the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

The closeness of Israeli elections in recent years highlights the country’s deep political split between left and right. The outcomes have also proven there isn’t a more skilled politician in Israel than Netanyahu. Not quite a “magician” as one stunned commentator put it on Israeli television late Tuesday night, but a survivor who understands the instincts of Israeli voters. Indeed, he has shaped much of the electorate in his own right-wing image by playing to people’s fears and convincing them he is the only one who can protect them.

Netanyahu has controlled the political narrative in Israel for much of the past two decades. Put simply, it is this: The whole world is against us. (He expressed this paranoia during the election when he claimed that international players were trying to oust him.) By focusing on Israel’s enemies and sometimes unabashedly exaggerating the threats to Israel’s existence, while also antagonizing Israel’s only true friend, the United States, he has compounded Israel’s international isolation and Israelis’ sense of victimhood. What is left is a deep need to be protected by a strong leader—something he claims only he can provide.

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In this climate, Netanyahu had a very simple objective in this campaign: to appear tough. No one expected him to articulate anything he would actually do if he were re-elected. Personality was supposed to trump policy. In fact, he forbade members of Likud from issuing a platform. Instead, Netanyahu issued some humorous campaign ads that portrayed him as the “Bibisitter”—the only person in Israel you can trust to take care of your kids.

Welcome to the new Israel, where you can have an unbelievable 70 percent voter turnout and no one demands a serious discussion of anything—domestic or foreign—at a time when the window for a two-state solution is closing, Israel’s international isolation is growing, and the Middle East is in tatters. Netanyahu understood that a vapid election was the one that would favor him most; he didn't want to muddle it with distracting questions like how Israel will deal with the occupation or what that deadly war in Gaza was all about or the soaring cost of living that’s got a lot of people down.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton—who initiated the now infamous letter to Iran’s hardliners—and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer talked more about Iran than either Netanyahu or any Israeli news anchor during this campaign. Palestinians who? Only when Netanyahu felt he could lose did he appeal to the most hawkish wing of his party by pledging not to accept a Palestinian state or give up more West Bank territory. His rivals’ answer to this astounding admission: practically nothing, since they themselves hadn’t campaigned on the Palestinian issue, either.

Nor did anyone in Israel expect them to. The large majority of Jewish Israelis have been post-Palestinian for at least a decade. Even the recent terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and the predictions of a possible third Intifada haven’t revived the issue in the public discourse.

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The whole election was reduced to one question: Do you trust Netanyahu with his deep voice, his charisma, and his swagger, or do you trust the diminutive Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, who speaks in soft, measured tones? Israel’s Michael Dukakis, as a friend of mine noted.

A gifted politician knows how to turn criticism to his advantage, and here is where Netanyahu excels. The New York Times editorializing “Mr. Netanyahu’s Unconvincing Speech to Congress” was red meat for him to take to his base. Israeli reporters blasting him for not giving interviews? Netanyahu just spoke to the media he knew wouldn’t challenge him or posted his thoughts directly on Twitter. And the Israeli media’s absurd focus on the alleged shenanigans in the prime minister’s residence—how much it spent on wine or how many shekels Sara Netanyahu redeemed in bottle returns—actually played to Netanyahu’s advantage by crowding out any discussion of more consequential matters. 

This time, the Netanyahus fired back with a video—this election will be remembered as the snarky viral video election if nothing else—in which Sara Netanyahu took an Israeli interior designer on a tour of the prime minister’s official residence. It did look shockingly dilapidated and dated. But it wasn’t a completely honest portrayal. In quintessential Netanyahu, rooms that had been updated weren’t shown. It’s the part of his playbook that keeps getting him re-elected: Focus on the worst. Don’t be completely truthful. Keep people guessing.

The most consequential outcome of this election may be that, in the campaign’s waning days, Netanyahu was forced to abandon that script and reveal his true beliefs on the most important issue—the Palestinians. There can be no more delusions that Netanyahu believes in a two-state solution. With that admission, he has at least saved the Obama administration—and perhaps its successor—some time. Netanyahu’s coalition partners will demand settlement expansion or at least a preservation of the status quo. The Palestinians will take more unilateral steps to win recognition as a state. Netanyahu hasn’t demonstrated any ability to air his concerns about Iran in private, creating a host of world leaders who’d prefer not to have to deal with him at all. It’s hard to see how Israel doesn’t face more international isolation in the coming years under his rule. All of Netanyahu’s gambits—taking on Obama, his divisive speech to Congress, his promise to resist Palestinian statehood—proved again he’s a political winner. But when it comes to Israel’s future, that victory is far more costly.

Janine Zacharia, formerly the Jerusalem bureau chief of the Washington Post, is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford University.