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.
A Policy of Playing It Safe
Bachar was the one who surveyed positions until a majority could be found. As a result, Netanyahu became a prime minister who molded himself according to voter sentiment and remained finely tuned to public opinion, which can be summed up in this way: Two-thirds of all Israelis want an agreement with the Palestinians, but they fear the risk it involves. At the same time, most of them feel that the conflict cannot be resolved, but they also don't want to live with the cognitive dissonance of being both a democracy and an occupying power. Consequently, they prefer to ignore all conflict and criticism.
This explains why they embrace Netanyahu's policy of convenience, which doesn't believe in the chances of success and prefers to stress the risks. Under his leadership, the understandable desire for security has become a collective mantra -- and perhaps to some degree an excuse. His voters don't ask him why there is still no Palestinian state. It's enough to have offered negotiations -- and others are to blame for their failure.
This has led to the rise of this consensus prime minister who portrays himself as a hard-liner although he tends to be indecisive and to bow to public pressure. After once dedicating an entire book to the position that the state must never allow itself to be blackmailed, he released 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one abducted Israeli soldier. Although he formerly said he would never negotiate with terrorists, he agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas. He delivered a speech in which he endorsed a two-state solution, yet he has demonstratively continued to allow settlement construction. And when there was really no chance to reconcile ideology with the law, the homes of illegal settlers even had to be cut into segments so they could be reassembled elsewhere.
Of course, his caution also has its advantages. Despite all his saber-rattling, Netanyahu has never fought a war -- with the exception of the seven-day air offensive launched in the Gaza Strip last November. Likewise, he has pursued a relatively moderate settlement policy that has admittedly resulted in many new buildings in East Jerusalem, but not that much construction deep inside the West Bank.
Netanyahu boasts that he has succeeded in bringing peace and stability. But these are a legacy from his predecessors, an inheritance he has used up without making any contribution himself.
Instead, his maneuvering has strengthened reactionary elements in the country, isolated Israel and undermined the chances of reaching a compromise with the Palestinians. Tensions between rich and poor, between secular and religious, have grown. When his government joined forces with the moderate Kadima party in May, he gained the majority needed to enact wide-ranging reforms -- but he did nothing. Two months later, the coalition collapsed because it was more important to Netanyahu, the power tactician, to crush the opposition than to venture any changes.
"He will only seek a compromise with the Palestinians if our existence is at stake," says Bachar, his former chief strategist. Everything else, he adds, is just tactical maneuvering, including the speech in June 2009 in which he promised the existence of two states.
Controlling the Message and Image
Thanks to his painless policies, Netanyahu has achieved and retained a high standing in opinion polls for nearly three years -- an impressive accomplishment in a country that appears to take more delight in pulverizing its leaders than virtually any other nation. Indeed, that is why his popularity is not pure coincidence.
Netanyahu is the only prime minister to have his own newspaper: Israel Hayom, also known as "Bibiton," a play on Netanyahu's nickname "Bibi," for Benjamin, and the Hebrew word for newspaper, "iton." The free publication is a multimillion-dollar present from billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a prominent Jewish-American benefactor. What's more, the newspaper makes it difficult for other, more critical dailies to survive. Israel Hayom has been very important, Bachar, the adviser, says emphatically, adding that "Netanyahu wanted an organ that would proclaim his positions."
Furthermore, Netanyahu has put loyalists in key state-media positions, made the work of journalists more difficult with a new libel law, and thwarted independent organizations with new regulations on donations. This has allowed him to tame the media, weaken the opposition and turn Israel into a country whose leadership is less and less receptive to criticism.
The prime minister is convinced that, if his country is to be better understood, he merely has to put more focus on explaining it. This belief is widespread in Israel and even reflected in an official government organ, the Ministry for Public Diplomacy. Netanyahu acts as if he were the nation's top press spokesman, and one driven by a basic conviction: The entire world is against us, while Israel is a beacon of human rights surrounded by medieval societies. His speeches are like a fireplace at which the nation's citizens can warm themselves.
Indeed, the only thing that Netanyahu has mastered is pathos. When he visited a group of children with cancer, he said they should cling to hope because "that is the history of our people, that is what gives us strength." And after an entire family of settlers was brutally killed, he said: "They murder, and we build."
When it comes to human emotions, Netanyahu is a mechanic rather than a naturalist. "He's not a mensch," says a former adviser. The Yiddish word mensch means the kind of person one would like to be friends with. "Netanyahu has no sense of humor about himself. He never asks how you're doing," he says, "and he's very paranoid. He believes that everyone is against him." In fact, this is so extreme that Netanyahu has even used lie detectors in his own office.
Netanyahu is likewise a public prime minister simultaneously shut off from the rest of the world. His appearances are painstakingly choreographed. He doesn't allow questions. He prefers to convey his policies in video clips, and he rarely grants interviews.
"He thinks more about his image than about his strategic vision," says a former aide, "and that's an unhealthy balance." Early every morning, Netanyahu telephones his staff to ask what the Israeli media are saying about him. He personally prefers to read the US press, and criticism from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reportedly bothers him more than criticism from Israeli journalists.
Netanyahu is constantly thinking about US-Israeli relations. In fact, Netanyahu is so American that many Americans once mistook him for the US ambassador to the United Nations when he was working there as the Israeli representative. He grew up in Philadelphia, studied at Harvard and worked for the Boston Consulting Group. New York-based consultant Arthur Finkelstein still advises him on strategy, and 96.8 percent of his campaign donations are from abroad. According to the former aide, Netanyahu is "not interested in social affairs or education, but only in international diplomacy."
Imagining Himself as a Second Winston Churchill
Netanyahu sees it as his life's mission to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. "He literally believes what we Jews recite at Passover: In every generation, there is someone who wants to destroy the Jews," says another aide to the prime minister. He goes on to say that Netanyahu views Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as his generation's nemesis. What's more, he says the prime minister sees himself as the chosen one who will save his people -- a second Winston Churchill. Indeed, Netanyahu regards the man who foresaw Hitler's madness as his great role model.
Everyone who knows Netanyahu says the Holocaust influences his thinking more than anything else. That's hardly surprising, given that he is the son of a historian who devoted his life to studying the persecution of Jews under the Spanish Inquisition.
He has used his term in office to warn against Iran -- not softly, like other prime ministers before him, but as loudly as possible and with threats of a military strike. By frightening the world and convincing the international community to impose stricter sanctions, he has gotten what he wanted. But the price has been high. He has strained his relationship with US President Barack Obama and provoked worldwide criticism -- and the bomb still remains a potential threat.
Nevertheless, at least by Netanyahu's standards, his actions have succeeded. Indeed, as far as he is concerned, not only do words create deeds -- words are already deeds in their own right. Thus, he views drawing a red line on a cartoon bomb during a speech he delivered in September 2012 before the UN General Assembly as one of his greatest accomplishments.
Creating His Own Undoing
However, by believing in the power of speech, Netanyahu has forgotten to take action. And this, in turn, has created a domestic political vacuum that others are now filling.
By making concessions to settlers and religious groups in order to maintain peace and stability within his coalition, Netanyahu has strengthened the extremists. And now it looks as if he can no longer get rid of the right-wing forces he once welcomed to join him. In his own center-right Likud party, the tone is now set by people like right-wing nationalist Moshe Feiglin, who wants to pay Palestinian families to leave the West Bank. The settler and populist Avigdor Lieberman, with whom Netanyahu has forged a joint list for the elections, is already being treated as his likely successor one day. And then there's Naftali Bennett, his greatest rival in the upcoming election.
Bennett, 40, once served as Netanyahu's chief of staff, but they had a falling out after two years. Bennett has also led a high-tech software company, which he sold for $145 million (€109 million), and headed the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization representing Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Now, Bennett is pursuing a career in politics. It was only a few months ago that the energetic man took the helm of Jewish Home, a hard-line, nationalist party on the religious right that he has made into a mouthpiece for secular settlers and young people as well. Since then, opinion polls show that Netanyahu's election alliance has lost a quarter of its voters, and that Bennett could become the third-strongest political power in the country.
This political newcomer's meteoric rise in popularity has much to do with Netanyahu. Bennett studied Netanyahu's weaknesses while serving as his adviser. He knows that the prime minister expresses his policies as vaguely as possible so as to avoid losing centrist voters. These lessons have prompted Bennett to openly proclaim that the conflict with the Palestinians cannot be resolved. He wants to expand the settlements and has made public a plan that would have Israel annex 60 percent of the West Bank. But he also talks about justice and the country's social problems.
Bennett used to openly criticize the Netanyahu and ranks among the many who have become disillusioned with him. But, today, he no longer wants to publicly comment on his rival -- since they might soon be governing the country together.
Israel could then become a different country, less liberal and more engrossed with itself. One can already see what this might look like. Indeed, Netanyahu has to react to and trump Bennett's pithy slogans. Last week, he made his first visit to a settler outpost deep in the West Bank, something that he had steadfastly avoided doing during his term. "When the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu are strong, we will be able to maneuver, to navigate and to continue to take care of the future of the settlements," he said while surrounded by a group of settler leaders.
If Netanyahu were to rule with Naftali as part of a coalition government, he would hardly be able to maintain his carefully balanced stick-to-the-status-quo policies. Netanyahu would have to do what he has always avoided: He would have to commit himself to a clearly defined political course.