The Prophet, the Magician, and the King

Benjamin Netanyahu
Photographer: Abir Sultan/AFP

In the wake of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s shocking annexation announcement, it is important to understand how this move fits into the broader context of Malchut Bibi, Bibi’s Kingdom. The announcement, in which Bibi states he plans on annexing large swaths of land in the Jordan Valley, comes just one week before Israeli elections: the second this year and possible Bibi’s most difficult challenge to his political hegemony. Should this plan come to fruition it would be a major turning point in Israeli and Palestinian history. But before discussing the possible ramifications of the plan, it is important to realize what Bibi’s announcement was at its core: a political bombshell aimed at winning over right-wing votes in a tightly contested election. But how can we be sure? Because he’s done it before.

Bibi the Doomsday Prophet

According to David M. Halbfinger of the New York times, “This was not the first time Mr. Netanyahu has promised annexation days before an election. Before the previous election, in April [2018], in which he was also fighting to shore up right-wing support, he announced his intention to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, but he gave no specifics and no timetable then.”  

As well, in 2015, one day before the election, Bibi announced, “We will continue to build in Jerusalem, we will add thousands of housing units, and in the face of all the (international) pressure, we will persist and continue to develop our eternal capital.”

But Bibi’s political approach is not limited to the “carrot” of annexation. He also has the “stick” of terrorism. In a June 1996 feature in Vanity Fair, David Margolick prophetically writes, “Netanyahu, now 46 years old, always has an ace up his sleeve against Shimon Peres and anybody on the Israeli left: terrorism. Israelis demand only two things of their leaders, said Tom Segev, a columnist for the newspaper Ha’aretz, and neither of them is honesty. “Israelis will take corruption, but not inflation or terrorism,” Segev said. “They want to know how much their shekel is worth, and that there’s no bomb under their car.” When the faces of the terror victims are lined up on the front pages of the Israeli newspapers, like head shots from some yearbook of the damned, most people can identify friends or friends of friends among them. The few who don’t share in the grief feel the fear.””

Reading Bibi’s speeches (or even his pre-election pop song) a single motif is repeated: only Bibi can make Israel economically strong and militarily secure. This pattern is even more poignant when viewed in the context of the conflict with Gaza. 

Gaza is the bell-weather for Israeli-Palestinian relationships. Rocket fire from Gaza or protests on the border is an indication of Palestinian dissatisfaction (both with their own governments and with Israel). Yet Bibi is exceptionally adept at manipulating these clashes to ensure Israelis sees his unique ability to protect them. In fact, Bibi has used the rhetoric of “terrorism,” the right’s ability to provide “security,” and the left’s “weakness” in every single election in which he has won. 

Bibi was first elected in 1996 running on a platform of security during a wave of Palestinian terrorism.

He returned to politics and won the premiership in February 2009 following Operation Cast Lead in December 2008/January 2009. 

He became Prime Minister again in January 2013 following Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

Again in March 2015 after Operation Protective Edge in July 2014.

He won the mandate to form a governing coalition in April 2018 amidst the “Great Return March.”

And now he is playing up the conflict with Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Bibi the Magician

Bibi is a magician of media: a skill fine-tuned through years of diplomatic practice. He is adept at spinning negative news coverage of his questionable behavior into an indictment of a media system designed to bring him down (something President Trump is equally adept at). 

One key example of his mastery sticks out. In 1993, rumors leaked that Bibi was engaged in an extramarital affair with Ruth Bar, a political consultant working for Bibi. According to David Margolick, “Sara, who is nine years Bibi’s junior, learned of the dalliance in January 1993, two months before the election for the Likud leadership, when an anonymous caller told her that her husband had “a thing” for Bar. Within 24 hours, Netanyahu was on prime time with three extraordinary announcements: he had been unfaithful to his wife; someone had supposedly videotaped him “in compromising romantic situations” with the other woman; and his opponents were threatening to release the tape unless he dropped out of the race. He called the threat “the worst political crime in Israeli history, perhaps in the history of democracy,””

When no footage ever surfaced (because there was none), Bibi claimed that the entire investigation was a smear campaign aimed at destroying his image. 

Bibi repeated those types of claims more recently in regards to his three pending corruption charges. 

Looking Forward

Bibi’s strategy of “left-bashing” and uplaying violence strategy shows no signs of stopping. It is a proven winner and if anything, he will use it more. According to the CIA World Factbook, the median age in Israel is about 30. A 30-year-old in Israel was born in 1989. Their childhood was marked by the decline of hope of Oslo to the horror of the Second Intifada. Their adolescence and army service were defined by three successive conflicts in Gaza and they entered the workforce during the 2008 recession. By the time they began raising children, Olso was a distant memory (one which officially died this month with the PA freeze of agreements with Israel and recognition of areas A, B, and C).

It would not be surprising for a 30-year-old in Israel to be attracted to a politician who preaches security and economic prosperity and blames the country’s woes on weak leftist governments. 

Whether Bibi follows through with his annexation plans will largely depend on the voter turnout and how much domestic support he senses. With President Trump’s opinion on the matter relatively set, a dominant Likud victory would likely lead to a partial annexation, thus securing Bibi as an almost divine figure for the Israeli right.

About the Author
Alex Harris is a senior at the University of Michigan studying Middle Eastern history and culture.
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