Regular readers aren’t going to be surprised by the headline on this piece: I’ve long criticized Benjamin Netanyahu, though I’ve also sought to accurately explain his worldview, and to correct misleading claims made about him. I also haven’t let my distaste for his policies at Israel’s helm prevent me from calling out unfair and often bigoted attacks against Israel itself.
But we are on the eve of an election, and many of you in Israel are still pondering your options, while many supporters of Israel outside it are wondering what the best course is for the country. And there are things you ought to know that Bibi isn’t telling you.
Now, there is a well-worn left-wing critique of Netanyahu, which takes aim at his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not that critique, because anyone who agrees with it doesn’t need me to tell it to them, and wasn’t going to vote for the man in the first place. Instead, I am going to take Netanyahu’s own case for his reelection seriously—and explain how it fails on its own terms.
That case goes as follows: Knowing that many Israelis are upset about his double-talk, corruption, and subservience to narrow ultra-Orthodox and settler interests, Netanyahu has sought to cast himself these last two elections as Israel’s “indispensable man.” On the surface, it’s a compelling case. In the last ten years under Netanyahu’s premiership, numerous countries from Latin America to Africa have forged closer relations with Israel. Leaders ranging from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to India’s Narendra Modi have flocked to Jerusalem. Even Sunni Arab states have drawn closer to Israel. Bolstered by its vaunted high-tech industry, the Jewish state’s economy has boomed, and weathered even the financial crisis that crippled America and Europe. And of course, Netanyahu has forged a close partnership with the Trump administration, which has granted Israel significant foreign policy dividends. In light of all this, Bibi, claims his campaign literature, is in “another league.” Without him and his statesmanship—whatever his other faults—none of this would be possible or sustainable.
There’s only one flaw in this logic: Netanyahu didn’t cause any of these developments. He’s just taking credit for them.
This point is crucial for dispelling Bibi’s illusion of indispensability. Let’s take India as a representative example. Most people don’t know very much about the India-Israel relationship, which suits Netanyahu just fine, as it allows him to take personal credit for it. But having been to India and reported on the subject for some time, I can tell you that Bibi has very little to do with the flowering of the country’s ties with Israel.
When Indian prime minister Modi visited Israel in 2017, Netanyahu rolled out the red carpet and shared a stream of photos of them palling around on his social media feeds. Last election, Modi appeared in Netanyahu’s closing campaign ad. This time around, Bibi upped the ante. He festooned banners of himself and Modi across Israel, and even tried to schedule a flash visit to India just 10 days before the election.
As the leader of a country of 1.3 billion people, and the first Indian premier to visit Israel, Modi is quite the feather in Netanyahu’s cap. Or is he?
In April 2009, just days after Netanyahu officially formed the first governing coalition of his current tenure, the Israeli Foreign Ministry released the results of a survey it had conducted to gauge Israel’s image around the world. In it, India ranked as the country most friendly toward the Jewish state, at 58% favorability. (The U.S. came in at 56%.) In other words, India was the most pro-Israel country in the world before Netanyahu even took office. This grassroots sentiment did not square with the country’s foreign policy, however. For many years, India maintained strong ties with Israel in private—with the Jewish state serving as a chief weapons supplier—but publicly excoriated Israel over the Palestinian conflict and regularly voted against it at the United Nations.
Netanyahu assuming office in 2009 did not change this policy. Instead, the Indian people did. In 2014, they elected Modi, a leader who better represented the electorate’s views on Israel and who slowly began aligning governmental policy with them. He signed arms and trade agreements with Israel, visited the country, and began scaling back India’s once-reflexive criticism of it at the United Nations. Like any other politician, Modi did this not because of Netanyahu, but because it was immensely popular with his base, and because it was good for India’s economic and security interests.
Close observers had been predicting this convergence for years. Back in 2010, Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote of a forthcoming “Zionist-Hindu-Crusader alliance” between Israel, India, and the United States. He explained:
Israel isn’t just popular in India. It is India’s largest supplier of high-tech weapons and the growing cooperation between the two countries is spreading into both economic and political fields. There is a strategic compatibility in their interests. Economically, the marriage of Indian and Israeli high-tech know how with India’s enormous force of educated, English-speaking labor, its vast internal market, and Israel’s marketing experience and connections with the advanced industrial economies make for a natural complementarity. Israel welcomes the rise of Indian economic and political influence in the Middle East and East Africa. Both countries view the activities of radicals in Pakistan and their use of Pakistan and Afghanistan for wider regional ambitions with deep concern.
In other words, Indian support for Israel—like American support for Israel—stems not from some top-down influence campaign by Netanyahu or any Israel lobby, but from bottom-up democratic sentiment among the population. It’s a marriage of shared interests and values. Netanyahu didn’t make India take a pro-Israel turn; he is merely the happy beneficiary of it, as any other Israeli prime minister would have been in his place.
When one examines many of Netanyahu’s other alleged accomplishments, this dynamic emerges again and again. The Israeli leader repeatedly takes credit for global trends that he did not create, and even some which he actively worked against. Take, for instance, Israel’s growing ties with the Sunni Arab states. To the extent that anyone can be credited with that rapprochement, it’s Barack Obama, whose nuclear deal with Shi’ite Iran sent shockwaves through Arab capitals and left them looking for alternative allies in the region beyond America.
The fundamentals behind this shift, too, predated Netanyahu. Back in April 2008—when Ehud Olmert was still Israel’s prime minister—King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” by bombing Iran and its nuclear facilities. (This remarkable secret meeting was exposed by Wikileaks.) Instead, Obama would later opt to strike a landmark accord with Iran, sending the Sunni states into a panic. In their eyes, their former Western benefactor had cozied up to their arch-nemesis.
The Sunni-Shia conflict runs far deeper and longer than the Israeli-Palestinian one, and unlike the Palestinian issue, it directly impacts the security of the Sunni states. So it should not surprise that the Sunni response to the nuclear deal was to forge a tacit regional alliance with Israel against their shared enemy. The increasing Arab willingness to cooperate with the Jewish state, in other words, had little to do with Bibi’s brilliance, and everything to do with Iran and Barack Obama.
Netanyahu, of course, vehemently opposed the Iran deal in 2015, but is happy to take credit for its geopolitical consequences in 2019.
A few more examples of this pattern should suffice:
• Two weeks before last April’s election, Netanyahu played host to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, making repeated public appearances with him to drive the point home for Israeli voters. Setting aside Bolsonaro’s strident homophobia and other disquieting qualities that might militate against such a fulsome welcome, this rendezvous was also not Netanyahu’s doing. 1 in 4 voters in Brazil are evangelical Christians and staunchly pro-Israel, as are 20% of the country’s federal lawmakers. This is why Bolsonaro, a Catholic, was nonetheless baptized by an evangelical pastor in 2016 before he ran for president—and he did it in Israel. Again, Netanyahu conveniently took credit for another country’s domestic pro-Israel sentiment.
• The same holds true for perhaps Netanyahu’s most trumpeted international ally: Donald Trump. From the start, Trump’s support for right-wing Israeli policy has stemmed more from a desire to appease his domestic evangelical supporters than any Netanyahu entreaty. As The New Yorker reported, “In late September, 2016, seven weeks before the election… [Jared] Kushner proposed to Dermer that Netanyahu meet with Trump during his visit, in the belief that such a visible event would help to energize evangelical-Christian voters.” Trump would no more betray his evangelical base on Jerusalem than he would on Supreme Court judges, no matter who was running Israel, especially given how astronomically popular the Jewish state is among Republican voters, with 76% sympathizing with Israelis over the Palestinians.
Netanyahu may deserve credit for capitalizing on these geostrategic opportunities. But he is not running today as the capable shepherd of Israeli good fortune. He is running as the originator of it. And that self-aggrandizing claim does not remotely stand up to scrutiny.
The brilliance of Netanyahu’s indispensibility argument is that it effectively supersedes any criticism of his conduct. It casts Netanyahu’s indictment for corruption, his alliance with Israel’s racist Jewish Power party, and his constant capitulation to settlers and the ultra-Orthodox, as the price for his geostrategic genius. “You may not like me,” Bibi argues, “but you need me.” It’s a contention that has previously persuaded many Israeli voters to choose him as the lesser evil.
But once Netanyahu’s aura of accomplishment falls away, one is left solely with all the reasons he is unsuited for office and why only 34% of Israelis say they want him to be the next prime minister. This is the man who alienated Diaspora Jewry by reneging on a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, installed a homophobe as interim education minister, preserved the prerogative of a retrograde Chief Rabbinate, and attacked Israel’s police for having the temerity to investigate him.
In the past, Bibi has countered his own unpopularity by running down his rivals, casting them as lightweights unfit to shoulder the burdens of state. That argument is harder to credit now that he is running against a party headed by three former heads of the Israeli armed forces—Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi—whom he previously praised profusely before they challenged his position. But in any case, this obsessive emphasis on the individual qualities of a prospective prime minister is itself misguided.
In reality, Israel has long thrived not due to its exceptional leaders, but its exceptional people. Levi Eshkol, Israel’s prime minister during the fateful Six Day War in 1967, was no military mastermind, but a bureaucrat and agricultural enthusiast. Golda Meir was famously caught flat-footed by the Yom Kippur War and resigned in its wake. The country has persevered just as much in spite of its premiers as because of them.
Today, to the extent that Israel is economically successful, militarily strong, and attractive to foreigners, it’s because the Israeli people are successful, strong, and innovative, not because of the machinations of any one man. Netanyahu, however, has invested heavily in obscuring this fact. He has taken credit for non-Israeli developments that he did not create and infantilized Israelis into thinking that he is responsible for their own accomplishments.
In other words, Netanyahu isn’t a strategic genius who remade Israel’s position in the world. He’s a communications genius who was in the right place at the right time and expertly recast that coincidence into a campaign credo. The reality is that he needs Israelis far more than they need him.
The question is: do enough of them realize it? They have a chance to show him on September 17.