There are only second acts in Israeli politics. The irrepressible Ariel Sharon, whose conduct of the 1982 Lebanon invasion made him a pariah (and perhaps a war criminal), bounced all the way back up to the prime ministry. Shimon Peres, a living illustration of the mathematical concept of infinite repetition, has just resigned as foreign minister, the nth time he has left a top government job in his 197-year-long political career. The political lives of Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin would end over and over again, only to revive when the next government folded 15 minutes later. Israel’s political system is so volatile, its multiparty coalitions so unstable, and its pool of politicians so small, that recycling used leaders is a necessity.
Still, the recent resurrection of Benjamin Netanyahu is almost unfathomable. During his three-year stint as prime minister in the late ‘90s, Bibi managed to alienate most of Israel and almost all the rest of the world. His squalid personal behavior (and his wife’s) incensed Israelis. He was famously deceitful: Even his own cabinet ministers didn’t believe him. Netanyahu infuriated his right-wing supporters by (grudgingly) signing a pair of peace deals with the Palestinians. Then he infuriated left-wing Israelis by refusing to abide by them. After he was evicted from office, he just barely skirted indictment in a political favors scandal.
Netanyahu’s enemies call him “Nixonian” because of his sinister untrustworthiness. His comeback, too, is Nixonian in scale. Three years after Ehud Barak crushed him in the PM race, Netanyahu is favored to regain the top job. So influential is he that Sharon, whose tenuous coalition with the Labor Party just collapsed, begged Netanyahu to become his foreign minister. Sharon has called new elections for January, so in the next few weeks, he and Netanyahu will face off in the Likud party primary. The winner will run the party and be odds-on favorite for prime minister. (Barring some unforeseen outbreak of peace, the left-wing parties will crater on election day, while Likud will likely double its Knesset strength and anchor a mighty right-wing coalition government.)
The primary race between Netanyahu and Sharon remains too confusing to handicap: Sharon has the advantage of incumbency, Netanyahu the fervent support of Likud party activists, who think Sharon’s been too soft on the Palestinians.
How did Netanyahu shed his disgrace? Netanyahu is back because he is the politician who most appeals to the huge minority, even plurality, in Israeli society that doesn’t believe a genuine peace with Arabs is possible. (These are the Sephardic Jews, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the settlers who make up the right’s rank and file.)
Bibi has been preaching about Arab determination to eliminate Israel and the persistence of Arab terrorism for a generation. The formative event of his life was the death of his brother Jonathan, killed commanding the Entebbe raid against Arab hijackers. Raised in the ultra-Zionist, anti-Arab Jabotinskyite tradition, Netanyahu has never wavered from his beliefs that: 1) Yasser Arafat is a terrorist; and 2) you can’t negotiate successfully with the Palestinians unless you are pointing a gun at them. In Netanyahu’s view, it’s impossible to hope for peace with Palestinians. The best Israel can do is impose peace against Palestinians—a sullen peace made and kept by force of Israeli arms. Bibi has always insisted that the optimistic approach of the Israeli left would endanger national security when the Palestinians betrayed the peace.
Three years ago, most Israelis didn’t want to hear this. Progress in peace negotiations suggested that Israelis and Palestinians were not locked in eternal warfare and that two nations could comfortably coexist. But the Palestinian rejection of the Camp David proposals in 2000 and two years of Palestinian suicide bombings have vindicated Netanyahu’s pessimism. His personal failings are now seen as irrelevant. Who cares if he cheated on his wife? So he lies—what’s wrong with lying to Arafat? The Israeli right now looks to him as a rock. Netanyahu, an anti-terrorist commando who has written four books on the subject, is believed to understand this war better than anyone, and he is considered tough enough to fight it.
Netanyahu has cleverly positioned himself just far enough to the right of Sharon to win over hawkish Likudniks, but not so far right as to be a nutter. Sharon, who has been running a centrist coalition, has been more moderate than his Likud rank and file would like. He accepts the inevitability of a Palestinian state and has refused to expel Arafat from the West Bank. Netanyahu rejects the idea of a Palestinian state. He proposes to exile Arafat, disarm the Palestinian police, invade and occupy the major Palestinian towns to root out Hamas, and quickly complete a security fence around the West Bank. He doesn’t go as far as the ultra-rightists who would expel all Palestinians from the West Bank, but he has grabbed the heart of Likud.
Perhaps the most important reason for Netanyahu’s rehabilitation is that he’s always been Israel’s best talker. Israel is having a terrible time explaining itself to itself (and forget about explaining itself to the rest of the world!). Israelis are befuddled, paralyzed by doubt. But Netanyahu is sure. He speaks with certainty and offers concrete solutions (vicious, to be sure, but concrete). More importantly, he speaks with persuasive clarity. It’s no accident that Sharon designated Netanyahu as Israel’s unofficial global ambassador. He explains the Israeli crisis more effectively than anyone. Sharon, a mumbler, brings no certitude or eloquence to the stump. Netanyahu presents a coherent vision for Israel. It is not a pleasant one, and it probably isn’t right, but it makes sense for Israelis who are desperate for clear solutions. Israelis are very defensive about their current crisis, and they know that Sharon—whose English is bad—can’t make Israel’s case to Americans. Bibi’s brilliant English—better than his Hebrew actually—reassures Israelis that there is someone who can really speak on their behalf to the world.
It’s hard to know whether Americans should prefer Netanyahu or Sharon as the next prime minister. Netanyahu, driven as much by opportunism as ideology, is not likely to be as hardline in office as he is as a candidate. Last time he was prime minister, he caved to U.S. pressure and signed peace deals that his supporters opposed.
The old salt Sharon has proven deft at doing more or less what he wants. He doesn’t worry excessively about offending the United States. (He knows he has enough good friends in the White House to protect him if he really screws up.) Unlike Sharon, Netanyahu is oriented to the United States. (He almost became an American citizen in his youth.) He has spent lots of time here and he is obsessed with the American-Israeli alliance. And he is far more sensitive to public image than Sharon. These two qualities suggest that Netanyahu could be a more malleable PM. If the Bush administration wants to intervene in Israel—though it is not clear that it does—it would probably have an easier time with Prime Minister Netanyahu than Prime Minister Sharon. Netanyahu—deceitful, opportunistic, unapologetically ambitious, ideological—is a kind of politician that Americans understand very well.