Is Netanyahu finished? His American political style likely isn’t.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes political style can affect its substance. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu turned ideological politics more personal, and attacked democratic institutions while fighting to stay in power.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu take part in a protest supporting the Israeli prime minister after he was charged in corruption cases, in Tel Aviv, Nov. 26, 2019. The words in Hebrew on the flag behind his picture read, "Only Bibi."

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Benjamin Netanyahu first gained exposure and experience as a diplomat at the United Nations. When he was ready to launch his political career, he brought an American style of politics home with him, transforming the Israeli political landscape and its values.

Today Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is embattled and may be facing his political exit, having failed to form a new government and having been indicted on charges of corruption. But his political legacy, which most recently includes the import to Israel of Trumpian populism, is likely to live on.

Israel’s political parties were always intensely ideological. But in taking the helm of the right-wing Likud party, Mr. Netanyahu, informally known as “Bibi,” cultivated it increasingly as a personal platform for himself as its leader. The evolution can be seen in the progression of Likud campaign slogans from “Only the Likud can” in 1984 to, popularly but unofficially in 2019, “Only Bibi.”

Under him, the office of prime minister also became more personality-driven in the American style of a presidency. Says Gayil Talshir, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: “The changes Netanyahu drove were to the rules of the game, so his influence will not end should he leave the system – they are here to stay.”

When CNN was still something of a start-up in the mid-1980s and Benjamin Netanyahu was a young Israeli diplomat at the United Nations, he made it a point to fly to Atlanta to get to know the workings of this new creature called 24-hour cable news.

Back then Mr. Netanyahu was appearing regularly on American television, having broken out of the pack of other silver-tongued foreign diplomats to craft himself as an expert in counter-terrorism just as Americans were coming to grips with a new age of terror.

“He really played the game – he totally understood how to make himself a star,” says Anshel Pfeffer, author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

During his diplomatic sojourn, Mr. Netanyahu, who had been raised in part in a Philadelphia suburb and had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sailed between network and cable television studio appearances. He made connections with U.S. politicians – already back then focusing on Republicans – and wooed American Jews with his charm and fluent, American-accented English.

By the late 1980s Mr. Netanyahu was ready to return to Israel and launch his own political career. He brought an American style of politics home with him – one that has transformed the Israeli political landscape and its values.

Today Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is embattled and may be facing his political exit, having failed to form a new government and been indicted on charges of corruption. But his political legacy, which most recently includes the import to Israel of Trumpian populism, is likely to live on.

“You never had an Israeli leader before who had such a gut feeling for American politics,” says Doug Bloomfield, a columnist and former lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, its many political parties have represented very distinctive ideologies. But in taking leadership of the right-wing Likud party in the early 1990s, Mr. Netanyahu cultivated it less as a grassroots organization and more as a personal platform for himself as its leader.

The evolution can be seen in the progression of Likud campaign slogans from “Only the Likud can” in 1984 and “The people want Likud” in 1988 to, in 2019, “Netanyahu, proven leadership,” or, popularly but unofficially, “Only Bibi.”

Richard Drew/AP/File
Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council in February 1986, at a time when the U.S.-educated future prime minister was a regular guest expert on American television.

Under Mr. Netanyahu, the office of prime minister also became more personality-driven in the American style of a presidency, both in the way he campaigns and the way he governs.

Israel’s parliamentary system does not have the same system of checks and balances that the United States does, and Mr. Netanyahu tried to consolidate as much power as he could in the office of the prime minister – while attempting to weaken the public’s brakes on power like the media and the justice system, says Gayil Talshir, a political science lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“The changes Netanyahu drove were to the rules of the game, so his influence will not end should he leave the system – they are here to stay,” says Dr. Talshir, who is writing a book on structural changes to Israeli political ideology.

His attack on the institutions that checked the prime minister’s power did more than just make the office more presidential. Some argue he compromised democracy by trampling on those institutions and, at least implicitly, the principles they were created to embody.

“He did not achieve all he tried, but he did succeed in concentrating informal power,” says Mr. Pfeffer.

Master communicator

Israel did not know what hit it when Mr. Netanyahu imported the role of television in politics. Color TV had only been around for a decade, and the only channel to watch was state television.

“He was surrounded then by politicians who did not care about television, and television did not care about them,” says Chemi Shalev, a columnist for Haaretz and former U.S. correspondent for the Israeli daily.

Today American political consultants are ubiquitous worldwide, but when Mr. Netanyahu first brought over conservative strategist Arthur Finkelstein in his successful 1996 campaign, the hardball tactics and slogans like “Netanyahu is good for the Jews” and “Peres will divide Jerusalem” (referring to then Prime Minister Shimon Peres) were totally new. So was extensive polling. Both became Netanyahu hallmarks and made a lasting mark on campaigning.

More recently Mr. Netanyahu was the first Israeli politician to seize the potential of directly communicating with the public, first through his own website and then on social media.

On election day 2015, for example, with Likud trailing in polls to the Labor party, he posted what became an infamous video on his Facebook page. In somber tones he warned that Arab citizens of Israel were turning out in “droves” – bused in by left-wing groups – and that his right-wing government was in danger.

Israel recoiled at the overt racism by a mainstream politician, forcing a Netanyahu apology, but the tactic worked. And he did it without relying on the traditional media, which he has repeatedly excoriated as disloyal and out to get him and his family.

Wedge politics, and values

Israeli politics has always had its divides, but Mr. Netanyahu is the leader who arguably made wedge politics his most effective cudgel against rivals. He built a cult of personality around the perception that he is the champion of the downtrodden, the indispensable hero of right-wing values – safeguarding settlement in the West Bank and acting as a foil against two groups he cast as disloyal: Jewish leftists and Arab citizens.

Perhaps most significantly in his march against traditional Israeli values, Mr. Netanyahu lobbed a hand grenade into the nation’s identity as being both Jewish and democratic. This was seen most boldly in 2018 when he helped enshrine Israel as an exclusively Jewish national project in what is called the nation-state law.

Once again communicating through social media, Mr. Netanyahu last March responded to a popular Israeli actress who posted an angry missive on Instagram asking for the government to remember the concept of equality and that Arabs “are also human beings.”

He wrote: “Israel is not a country of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law that we passed, Israel is the state of the Jewish people – and belongs to them alone. There is no problem with Arab citizens – they have equal rights like everybody.”

The Trump factor

Long before Donald Trump became president and employed similar tactics, Mr. Netanyahu claimed a vast conspiracy against him by the elites in Israel’s media and justice system. This includes painting civil servants as traitors who have betrayed him personally.

“Netanyahu has equated both personal loyalty and public interest with what is good for Netanyahu instead of what is good for the country,” says Hebrew University’s Dr. Talshir. “This sense of personal loyalty has weakened Israel’s ideological side.”

“What Trump did was turbo-charge Bibi, he showed him how far he can go,” says Mr. Shalev at Haaretz.

After Israel’s attorney general, whom he had hand-picked, announced the indictments against him Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu went on television, painting himself as a victim and vowing to fight. He compared the indictments to a coup and called for an investigation into the investigators.

Some Netanyahu associates even called it a “Deep State” coup, similar to the wording Republicans in Congress have used to describe the impeachment hearings against Mr. Trump.

It’s not the first time Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters have used Trumpian vocabulary. The U.S. president may have introduced the term “fake news,” but it’s a concept Mr. Netanyahu, a staunch Trump supporter, had been selling already and quickly adopted as a slur against the Israeli media.

If in the past Mr. Netanyahu was the odd man out in international settings as a populist, says Mr. Shalev, President Trump helped him feel more comfortable on the world stage, and radicalized his tactics.

“Trump inspired him to be sharper, to pay no attention to the truth. This whole thing of telling lies was something he did throughout his career, but before, the lies were the kind of things he told foreign leaders. … Only recently did he start saying things [publicly] that were obviously not true,” says Mr. Shalev. “If Trump taught him anything, it’s that a lie is just as good as truth and sometimes better.”

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