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For Israel’s underdogs, Netanyahu remains king

As Israel's Sept. 17 parliamentary election approaches, a settler, a former ambassador, journalists and a kibbutz member help explain how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been able to retain his support despite his legal and other problems.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem February 17, 2019. Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via REUTERS *** Local Caption *** - RC1F7CF03220

ARIEL, West Bank — On a recent morning in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, Batel Benjamin, a 29-year-old law graduate with a disarming smile, explained her unstinting passion for the country’s longest reigning prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting to retain his post in the Sept. 17 parliamentary election.

“Ten years ago when we spoke about peace, it meant giving back big chunks of Israel,” she told Al-Monitor during an interview in the single-family home she shares with her husband, parents and four sons. “Under Bibi it is no longer so,” Benjamin said, using the universal nickname for Netanyahu. “For as long as he is the prime minister, I don’t fear that I will be expelled from our land.” 

Benjamin, an Israeli of Iraqi and Yemeni descent, embodies Netanyahu’s core base, which has helped him enjoy uninterrupted rule since 2009. She’s Mizrahi — Jewish with Middle Eastern roots — upwardly mobile, muscularly religious and unabashedly opposed to a Palestinian state. Yet she claims to have Palestinian friends who “like living here in Israel.” Benjamin’s husband hails from India’s Bnei Menashe, thought to be among the Lost Tribes of Israel, and works at one of Israel’s thriving high-tech start ups. The couple is trying for a fifth child they hope will be a girl, amid nationwide worries that Israel’s Arabs, currently 20% of the population, will outnumber Jews someday.

Netanyahu’s left-wing critics might sneeringly cast the young woman as a hapless bumpkin duped by a ruthless and increasingly authoritarian Netanyahu clinging to power at any cost. But she is clever and articulate. Benjamin picked up her near-perfect English watching Netflix. She says her life has improved dramatically since the Likud leader, now 69, came to power for the second time after a prior stint as the country’s youngest ever prime minister in the late 1990s. 

And she lauds him for his diplomatic flair, for forging closer ties with previously hostile Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in a common front against Iran. “Discovering my roots in Iraq and Yemen are no longer just a dream,” she said.

Batel Benjamin, an ardent Netanyahu supporter, sits in her home in Ariel, a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, on Aug. 5, 2019 (photo by Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Dore Gold, a prominent former ambassador to the United Nations and longtime adviser to Netanyahu who runs the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, echoes her views. “Netanyahu is a man of extraordinary capabilities. He needs to steer the ship while Israel faces so many strategic challenges, not least from Iran,” he told Al-Monitor.

Gold said Netanyahu is a political realist who understands the region "and not just in terms of military jockeying. He also has the canny ability to scent diplomatic opportunities. Thanks to the prime minister, Israel and the Sunni Arabs have become allies. His relationship with Trump is a bonus.”

So is Netanhyau’s economic record. Israel 's gross domestic product has been growing at an average 3.3% since 2000. Netanyahu, who became finance minister in 2003, is credited with the hard-nosed reforms that lifted it from the doldrums. Unemployment and inflation are low. Standard and Poor’s, the global rating agency, has Israel at investment grade rating. The discovery of giant gas fields off the country’s Mediterranean coast starting in 2009 has injected further confidence. “The last 10 years have been good and have been the backdrop of Likud’s success,” said a London-based investment banker, speaking not for attribution. 

Even so, many Israelis fume at the high cost of living. Secular urbanites blame this on the state subsidies being showered on Orthodox Jews, the Haredim.Yet prosperous Israeli tourists throng Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Tattooed hipsters line up outside North Abraxas, a trendy eatery on Tel Aviv’s Lilienblum street where a baked sweet potato can cost almost much as a ribeye steak in Manhattan.

There are other abiding gripes such as the paucity of hospitals, particularly in the north and south. Citizens complain that it takes months to schedule a scan at one of the country’s woefully inadequate number of MRI machines. “I was finally given an appointment at 3 a.m. in [the port city of] Ashdod, three months after I asked for one, can you believe it?” groused Steve, a stylist at the Roy and Daniel hair studio in Tel Aviv who only used his first name. Ashdod is about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Tel Aviv.

Benjamin, however, has no complaints. Her eldest son, who has cerebral palsy, receives “excellent medical care” and it is all paid for by the state. “Of course I will vote for Netanyahu again,” she said.

With opinion polls showing that the Sept. 17 re-do election will deliver a similar result as the one in April — Likud and its right-wing allies look set to have a plurality of seats — the question weighing on Israelis is not whether Netanyahu will win, but whether he will succeed in setting up a government this time. 

Many in the country have been speculating about the potential configurations among Israel’s dizzying array of parties that would either deny or grant Netanyahu continued power. Will Avigdor Liberman, his former lieutenant from the secular right, again torpedo Netanyahu’s efforts to cobble together a governing alliance? And what of the three separate corruption investigations of the prime minister? An indictment hearing is scheduled for October. Might Netanyahu end up behind bars? The chatter was interrupted last week by the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Dvir Sorek, an Israeli soldier and yeshiva student, as he was returning to Migdal Oz, a Jewish settlement near Hebron where he was studying.

Two Palestinians were arrested in connection with the murder. Four others said to be armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and hand grenades were shot dead by Israeli forces over the weekend as they allegedly sought to infiltrate southern Israel from Gaza. But such incidents have grown rarer under Netanyahu, who is broadly credited not only with making Israel richer, but a lot safer, too. But for how long and at what price?

For many Israelis Sorek’s death raises an existential question, whether security should come at the expense of the country’s vibrant and cherished democracy — some would say of its collective conscience. Critics charge that Netanyahu’s incendiary rhetoric, projecting himself as the sole protector of the Israeli nation and his opponents as effete traitors, is part of a coolly cynical calculation to leverage fears into more votes. 

“You cannot understand the left and right in Israel without understanding our history,” said a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity to Al-Monitor in order to comment freely. “They take their cues from the Holocaust. The right says, ‘We can never again allow anything even remotely close to what the Nazis did to us to be repeated again.’ The left says, ‘We can never even come remotely close to doing to others what the Nazis did to us.’ That’s the dialectic,” the official observed.

Esther Solomon, opinion editor for the English-language edition of the liberal daily Haaretz, said the left-wing camp “has lost the country.”

Like numerous commentators interviewed by Al-Monitor, Solomon reckons that the wave of suicide bombs and rocket attacks that engulfed Israel during the second intifada, which erupted in 2000, was a turning point. At least 1,000 Israelis — and three times as many Palestinians — were killed. A growing number of Israelis came to believe peace with the Palestinians was unachievable. Few if any of the contenders in the election campaign bother to bring it up.

Survival is the default mode in Sderot, a nondescript town lying in the so-called “Gaza envelope” within striking range of the low-precision rockets fired by Hamas. 

Dome-shaped migunits or bomb shelters squat alongside bus stops, a bleak reminder that despite the sharp drop in rocket attacks since 2009 when Israel unleashed the undiscriminating might of its military against Gaza, the projectiles sporadically land — and kill. 

A rocket “museum” composed of racks lined with the twisted remains of exploded rockets can be viewed outside the local police station.

Josef Timsit, an Israeli veteran who was wounded in Lebanon, is seen in his shop in Sderot, Israel, July 30, 2019 (photo by Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Josef Timsit, a former Israeli soldier who was wounded in Lebanon, ekes out a living selling knickknacks in a small shop in the center of town. He points at a gas station across the road. “A rocket landed there just a few weeks ago,” he said. Timsit’s home was struck four times by rockets. In 2007, one landed in the bathroom as his wife was taking a shower. “At first we thought she was dead. She was bleeding like a slaughtered sheep,” he told Al-Monitor. She remained in a coma for a year and a half and is paralyzed from the waist down.” Timsit, who is of Moroccan descent, lost a 6-month-old granddaughter in a separate attack in 2006. Yet while many in the Gaza envelope support Netanyahu, Timsit doesn’t hide his intense anger at what he sees as the state’s failure to compensate him for his losses.

Selwyn Rose, 83, has lived in the nearby Bror Hayil kibbutz since 1965. He was shopping for air-conditioners with his wife, Elizabeth, at Sderot’s main strip mall when he paused to chat with Al-Monitor. Rose said: “I am a socialist in outlook but feel safer under Bibi. Whenever we make concessions, we get rockets in return. Elizabeth and I will be voting for Bibi. But the slightest hint of appeasement and I am out.”

In Leshem, one of the newest settlements in the West Bank to have been built in a further violation of UN resolutions terming the activity illegal, a man who would only identify himself as a government employee said he didn’t think Netanyahu was tough enough. “Palestinians build whenever they want,” he said gesturing toward a Palestinian village across the valley from Leshem. “We aren’t allowed to; of course I will vote for a religious party," he huffed. Row upon row of shiny new houses built above the valley belie his claim. An unfinished road suggests construction is continuing.

A collection of the twisted remains of exploded rockets outside the local police station in Sderot, Israel, July 30, 2019 (photo by Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

“Israelis have grown too comfortable not thinking about the Palestinians on the other side as normal people living their daily lives,” said Michael Tanchum, a Jerusalem-based senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. “And this plays straight into Netanyahu’s hands,” he told Al-Monitor. In a further gesture to right-wing settlers, Netanyahu has vowed to annex the West Bank.

“Right-wing religious extremism has laundered its way back into mainstream politics,” Solomon said. She cited as an example how nongovernmental organizations “that are boosters for Netanyahu target left-wing NGOs calling them unpatriotic fifth columnists.” Take Peace Now, a liberal advocacy group that promotes a two-state solution and catalogs the construction of Israeli settlements in breach of UN resolutions, it “is serially graffitied and demonized,” Solomon said. On July 31, Amnesty International’s Tel Aviv office said it had received anonymous death threats and its walls were sprayed with hateful slogans. The Elifelet Children’s Activity Center for refugees was delivered a box filled with similar invective — and a dead mouse.

The lack of a credible left-wing leader hasn’t helped. Polls suggest Labor, once the largest political force, is not too far above the 3.25% minimum of the national vote needed to win seats in the Knesset. And while secular left-wingers and liberals rail at Netanyahu’s talk about annexing the West Bank, many acknowledged in private conversations with Al-Monitor that they have no Palestinian friends. 

Anshel Pfeffer is a columnist for Haaretz and the author of the recently published “Bibi, The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu,” a page-turning biography that meticulously charts the Israeli leader’s ascent.

Netanyahu is from a well-to-do family of Polish and Lithuanian Jews who were drawn by the teachings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of Israel’s right. Jabotinksy, who died in 1940, advocated a brand of Zionism fusing religious traditionalism with Jewish nationalism. 

Jabotinsky’s “revisionist” disciples, among them Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, a brilliant academic, were marginalized — and belittled — by the secular and largely Ashkenazi Zionists when they still held sway.

Netanyahu’s background propelled him to identify with Mizrahis, Orthodox Jews and marginalized groups striving to erect a life around and outside the main cities. His courage while serving in high-risk operations as part the Israeli Defense Forces' elite Sayeret Matkal unit is well documented. Netanyahu was wounded in action, he still bears the scars. His elder brother and fellow officer, Jonathan, died during the Entebbe raid. 

Pfeffer told Al-Monitor, “I think the two main reasons that Netanyahu is still popular with a lot of his supporters is that he continues to embody for them the hostility towards an almost mythical 'leftist' elite which they feel — with some justification— looks down upon them.” 

Pfeffer continued, “Netanyahu remains their champion against this elite, and as much as the media derides him and the legal system investigates and indicts him, they support him even more.”

Many seem unfazed by Netanyahu’s taste for expensive cigars, chauffeured limousines and alleged graft. One of the probes contends that he accepted bottles of sparkling wine, among other luxury items, from an Israeli film producer and an Australian tycoon in return for political favors. The others are linked to claims that he tweaked government policies to give the leg up to business cronies who in turn engineered positive media coverage on his behalf. Netanyahu dismissed the allegations as part of a political witch hunt. The base has dutifully lapped this up. But then Netanyahu backed a controversial bill that would have helped him secure immunity from prosecution, though he later denied it. 

Even for some of his staunchest supporters it felt like a step too far. A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute indicated that over half of his base is opposed to an immunity law, though around as many believe he should remain in office even if indicted.

In Alei Zahav, another West Bank settlement, Moshe Kadosh, a Likud official since 1972, struggles to conceal his unease. He says that he has known Netanyahu since 1996 when he became Israel’s youngest ever prime minister and the first to be born after the Jewish state’s independence in 1948. Pressed for his views of Netanyahu, Kadosh responds with a question of his own: “Do you mean Bibi with Sara or without Sara.”

Moshe Kadosh, a Likud official, stands outside his home in Alei Zahav, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, on Aug. 5 ,2019 (photo by Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Kadosh was referring to Netanyahu’s third and current wife. Israel’s “Marie Antoinette,” as Haaretz labeled her, was convicted in June by a Jerusalem court of spending public funds on lavish suppers in breach of the law.

Kadosh seems eager to pin all of Netanyahu’s alleged misdemeanors on his notoriously volatile wife. “I don’t think Netanyahu is corrupt, he is not taking money for himself,” Kadosh told Al-Monitor. “He will probably strike a deal with the court and serve only half his term. He will want to clear his name.” (Under Israeli law, prime ministers are elected for a maximum of four years.) Yet Kadosh acknowledged that there is “pressure for new blood” in the party, a burgeoning feeling that Netanyahu has served his country ably and honorably but that it might be time to pass the torch. 

Back in Sderot, Timsit the war veteran doesn't hold back his anger about his family's suffering; he wants sweeping changes. “I always voted for Likud but no more because Bibi is associated with corruption. Israel is now run by thieves who don’t care about us.… If these rockets landed in Tel Aviv they would be turn the world upside down.” Convulsed by rage, Timsit gropes for his portable respirator. He removes the mask briefly, saying “fuck Israel,” then slaps it back on.

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