Upcoming Israeli Elections Netanyahu Veers Right on Path to Nowhere

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is popular because he doesn't want to change the status quo. Like the majority of Israelis, he's finished with compromising and fed-up with foreign criticism. But, if re-elected, he might be forced further to the right.


By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to explain what his country is all about, he talks about a golden signet ring displayed in a glass case in his office. The ring was discovered near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It is believed to be 2,800 years old and to have originally belonged to a Jewish official, and it has the name "Netanyahu" inscribed on it.

"That's my family name," the 63-year-old says. His first name, he then always adds, is 1,000 years older: Benjamin, the son of Jacob. "Nearly 4,000 years ago, this Benjamin roamed the hills of Judea," Netanyahu says. "This connection between the Jewish people and Israel cannot be denied." The signet ring is Netanyahu's justification for why Jerusalem cannot be divided and why Israel has a right to this land, no matter what its borders are.

Netanyahu uses virtually the same choice of words when he speaks to members the US Congress, at the United Nations and with journalists.

But his father was actually born in Warsaw as Benzion Mileikowsky, and it wasn't until the family moved to Israel that it adopted the family name Netanyahu. And a modest choice it wasn't, as the word means "God-given."

But for Benjamin Netanyahu, a ring becomes a right, and a Biblical claim becomes a modern-day political policy. That's the kind of reasoning that he often uses when he speaks. Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit calls him a "mythomaniac," or someone driven by a feeling of being on a historic mission.

In one of his campaign commercials, Netanyahu stands in front of the Western Wall wearing a kippah, the skullcap worn by Jewish males to show respect for God. He uses the word "Jewish" so often that one can hardly keep count. In another video, two speeches are spliced together -- one delivered before the US Congress, the other before the UN General Assembly. "Three thousand years ago, King David reigned over the Jewish state in our eternal capital, Jerusalem," the prime minister says. "The Jewish people have come home. We will never be uprooted again." Indeed, all of his campaign advertising is like that. There is no agenda; there are no plans. It is all emotion.

Enslaved to Opinion Polls

This is yet another reason why Netanyahu has an excellent chance of being re-elected next week for a third term as prime minister, a feat that has only been accomplished once before, by David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel.

Opinion polls show that 81 percent of Israelis believe that Netanyahu will be re-elected, while 64 percent see him as the best candidate. The Middle East is in turmoil, Iran is most likely continuing its efforts to build a nuclear bomb, and Hamas is even growing stronger in the West Bank. Nevertheless, Israelis might re-elect a man who promises the past rather than the future for another four years.

Netanyahu's success says a great deal about the current emotional state of Israel. Indeed, the prime minister is the lowest common denominator of this belated nation, addicted to constant self-affirmation and tired of incessant criticism from abroad.

In fact, it's nearly impossible to speak with Netanyahu. Anyone who wants to learn more about him has to talk with his advisers and staff members, whether current or former. There's especially a lot in the second category -- and it's no coincidence that some of them are now his rivals.

Israel Bachar was one of them. For four years, he was Netanyahu's chief strategist, a reserved man of facts and figures who organized Netanyahu's political resurrection. Now he advises the Shas party, Netanyahu's ultra-orthodox competition.

Over a decade ago, following his first disastrous term in office and his election defeat in 1999, it was generally agreed that Netanyahu was finished -- too loathed and despised to ever become prime minister again. But after the second intifada and the 2006 Lebanon War, Israelis yearned for the return of "Mister Security," and Netanyahu managed to stage one of those comebacks that are so typical of this country.

Before the 2009 election, Netanyahu and his strategist forged a right-wing alliance with populist Avigdor Lieberman's ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home") party and the religious Shas party, which have since dominated Israeli politics. Although Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party came out of the elections with the most votes, she didn't have enough coalition partners to govern, so Netanyahu became prime minister.

His election victory also marked the beginning of a period of political stagnation. Since the last election, Netanyahu has lived in constant fear of seeing his coalition collapse and usher in a defeat like the one in 1999. No step is taken without first checking to see what the opinion polls say. "Netanyahu will do nothing that goes against public opinion," says Bachar. Very often, the prime minister tells his staff to "check that," meaning to "check that" with the opinion polls.

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