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The moment Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called early elections last December, Israel’s political parties sprang into action, reshuffling themselves at a pace that was frenzied even by Israeli standards. All of them hope to be next in line; after a decade of practically unrivalled leadership, Netanyahu may finally be vulnerable.
The long-serving prime minister faces a thicket of corruption investigations. New political forces are challenging one of his core claims to power, that he is the exclusive defender of Israel’s security. A recent poll showed that nearly half of Israelis do not want him to serve another term, and just over one-third do. Netanyahu will still be hard to beat, but he is clearly rattled. In addition to wily campaign tactics, he is using his stature as Israel's top statesman to boost his popularity. He is aggressively marketing his foreign policy achievements, and may be planning new ones before the election.
The most immediate threat to Netanyahu’s future comes from a set of corruption investigations. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has indicated that he might decide whether to indict the prime minister even before the election. An indictment would not legally obligate Netanyahu to resign, but it could lead voters finally to sour on him. Corruption, moreover, isn’t his only problem. Many Israelis are disturbed by his longevity in office. Others are fed up with his divisive populist governing style.
Soon after Netanyahu announced that elections would be held in April, Benny Gantz, a former chief of the general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, founded the Israeli Resilience Party, which quickly climbed in the polls. Some surveys now show Israeli Resilience winning around 22 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset, second only to the ruling Likud (which currently holds 30). If Gantz’s party were to merge with another centrist party led by Yair Lapid, the new block could pull ahead of Likud, according to some polls.
So far, Netanyahu’s support remains solid. Since the prime minister’s fourth electoral victory in 2015, Likud has consistently polled at or close to its current Knesset strength. In February 2018, when the police first recommended that the Attorney General indict Netanyahu in connection with two corruption cases (they added a third recommendation in December), his numbers actually rose slightly.
Likud voters are known for their party loyalty, which is often passed down through families. And Netanyahu has attracted a faithful constituency through his brand of populist, personality-based leadership, which he has honed over two and a half decades. But the prime minister is not complacent about his political standing. Over the last decade, he has pursued a bold foreign policy vision that has proved controversial to outsiders, but which is vaunted at home. Now he is hoping to cash in politically. In a recent poll, fully 60 percent of Israelis said Netanyahu was the best choice on foreign relations, three times more than the proportion that chose Gantz and far above the number who actually plan on voting for him (about 25 percent). By contrast, the same poll shows the Netanyahu and Gantz tied on security.
Hardly a week has gone by in the last four years without a highly publicized foreign policy achievement attributable to Netanyahu’s government. In recent months alone, Netanyahu, who serves as foreign minister as well as prime minister, has visited Chad, attended the inauguration of the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, hosted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the Italian foreign minister in Jerusalem, and staged a surprise visit to Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said in Muscat.
Foreign policy may seem an unlikely campaign weapon. Most voters pay little attention to it, and in Israel, security from regional conflicts and terrorism ranks far higher than other foreign relations issues on the agenda, often topping even economic concerns. Indeed, Netanyahu draws much of his support from his image as “Mr. Security.” But Gantz’s military background makes Netanyahu’s security image less distinctive. The former IDF Chief has already absorbed another ex-general into his party—former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon—and might add more. Some have nicknamed Israel Resilience “the junta.”
With Gantz and his party encroaching on the prime minister’s security territory, Netanyahu has shrewdly exploited his energetic global efforts. Israelis were once skeptical of Netanyahu’s overly American background, but now they compliment his superb English and diplomatic acumen. By holding the premiership and the foreign ministry for the last four years, he towers above all other Israeli politicians in foreign affairs. And while his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains murky—he rarely names an endgame—Netanyahu loves to discuss his foreign policy goals and achievements.
One of the most prominent of these has been convincing the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Netanyahu expresses open contempt for the Obama administration and lavishes praise on the current U.S. president, Donald Trump. In February, Netanyahu’s campaign posted giant billboards along with ads on Instagram and Facebook, showing him shaking hands with Trump and bearing the slogan “a different league.” The Israeli media was thrilled to report that Trump posted a photo of one of these billboards on his Instagram account.
Netanyahu regularly drives home the idea that western European governments’ focus on human rights and criticism of Israeli settlements and occupation policy makes them anti-Israel. He tends to ignore the EU’s status as Israel’s top trading partner, and instead, bitterly protested its requirement that manufacturers label products made in Israeli settlements. (The labels are a political irritant in Israel, but they have no real economic consequences.) His message is that Israel will not countenance outside criticism of its policy toward the Palestinians.
But Netanyahu’s dismissive attitude toward western Europe and his renewed intimacy with the United States look like fine tuning compared to another of his major foreign policy initiatives: shifting Israel’s diplomatic center of gravity away from other democracies and toward more illiberal leaders and countries. In addition to attending Bolsonaro’s inauguration, he has maintained a complex but largely cooperative relationship with Russia and plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin again later in February. He warmly hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, turned China into a major trade partner, visited authoritarian Azerbaijan to strike lucrative arms deals.
Netanyahu has even been willing to set aside core Israeli commitments to win friends. He is famously warm toward Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, despite Orban’s disturbing anti-Semitic rhetoric. In 2018, in order to maintain strong relations with Poland, Netanyahu expressed approval of a new Polish law, which stifles the history of Polish collaboration in the Holocaust and has left historians aghast. In February, Israel will host the Visegrád group, which is made up of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. Netanyahu has been working to strengthen relations with the Gulf States, and there are even rumors of an impending breakthrough with Saudi Arabia.
Befriending unsavory regimes is nothing new for Israel. The country kept close ties with Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu, helped Idi Amin plot and execute his coup in Uganda (before he later turned against Israel), and gave military and economic support to South Africa’s apartheid regime. Generally, the Israeli governments deemed these relationships necessary but kept ties quiet.
Netanyahu, by contrast, openly uses his new foreign friendships to burnish his domestic political image and advance his strategy for Israel. He tells close associates that he is determined to reduce Israel’s international isolation. And he regularly tells the public that Israel need not move on the Palestinian issue in order to maintain, or even improve, its international standing.
His strategy seems to be working. In a 2018 survey for Mitvim, an Israeli foreign policy think tank, nearly 60 percent of respondents believed that Israel’s standing the world was good or excellent and fully 86 percent said the same about U.S.-Israeli relations; both figures have improved steadily over the last three years. Russia ranked as the most important country for Israel after the United States, according to the survey, and a slight plurality (42 percent) said Israel should not consider the nature of a country’s government when cultivating allies, while 40 percent preferred democratic allies.
Netanyahu’s skillful global navigation may help him maintain the public attitude expressed in voters’ oft-repeated phrase: “there’s no one else.” Despite his controversial leadership, Netanyahu stands a good chance of winning a fifth term. If he does, he is sure to move ahead with his brand of foreign relations. That will be bad for Israel. Netanyahu’s friendships with the current right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland could legitimize anti-Semitism and Holocaust-revisionism in those countries. Elsewhere, if authoritarian regimes are overthrown, their successors may not look kindly on Israel’s past role. Today, South Africa is one of Israel’s harshest critics; it regularly votes against Israel at the UN and recalled its ambassador for several months in 2018 after Israel killed scores of protesters in Gaza last May. Even the United States could pose problems. Support for Israel is already becoming a partisan issue. Once Trump is gone, the new generation of left-wing Democrats may not easily forget Israel’s coziness with his administration.
Netanyahu’s attempts to rebuff international pressure on the Palestinian issue might work in the short term, as his new friends are mostly uninterested in either peace or Palestinian rights. But it’s hard to see how failure to resolve the conflict is good for Israel. Without a solution, Israel is heading towards becoming an openly unequal single state or a land of permanent conflict.
By befriending a group of illiberal, semi-democratic, and authoritarian countries, Israel also raises the question of how its own democracy is likely to change. People are known by the company they keep. The same may go for states. Dore Gold, a stalwart Netanyahu ally and former Israeli ambassador to the UN told the Hudson Institute in November that in forging diplomatic relations, “it’s important to give people an ideological basis for talking to you, for building a new relationship.”
With Israel’s new eastern European allies, Netanyahu has done just that. He and Orban share some uncanny similarities, both in their populist rhetoric—the late Arthur Finkelstein, a controversial political consultant, advised both men—and in their policies, including their tough anti-migrant measures. In Poland, the government has sought to exercise political control over the justice system, something Netanyahu’s government has also attempted, although with more restraint. And like its counterparts in Poland and Hungary, Netanyahu’s government has targeted civil society, passing laws that constrain and demonize groups that support civil liberties and human rights.
Whether Netanyahu learns from foreign autocrats or inspires them is not immediately clear. Either way, Israel’s new friends aren’t likely to encourage the country’s progressive, cosmopolitan elements. Rather, such alliances will encourage a less liberal and, ultimately, less democratic Israel. Netanyahu’s foreign policy may win votes, but it did not start as an electoral ploy. If he wins, he will continue apace. If he loses, his successor should change course.