The World

Netanyahu’s Gambits Worked

Facing political peril, Bibi relied on every stunt he could pull—including calling on Trump—to eke out a victory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with arms raised
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters on Tuesday at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Photo-illustration by Slate. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images.

Never bet against Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister was facing a daunting set of political circumstances, with indictments on corruption charges pending and a stronger-than-expected opponent in Benny Gantz, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. But as the dust settled Wednesday morning, he appears almost guaranteed to return for a fifth term, yet more confirmation of the country’s drift toward the hard right and a setback for fleeting hopes of a two-state solution.

With around 95 percent of the vote counted, Netanyahu’s Likud party is actually tied with Gantz’s Blue and White alliance, with each poised to control 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. But while the final shape of the government will take days or weeks of negotiation to form, Netanyahu has a much clearer path to victory, with right-wing parties controlling around 65 seats compared with the center-left’s 55. Just as in 2015, the early exit polls on Tuesday undercounted support for the right and predicted a much closer race than it ultimately was. At this point, the Bradley effect should probably be renamed the Bibi effect.

It was a very good night for the ultra-Orthodox religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which will control a combined 16 seats in the new Knesset (an increase of three) and most likely continue to play a key role in Netanyahu’s government. It was a horrendous night for the left, particularly the once-dominant Israeli Labor Party that governed Israel for its first three decades but is now down to just six seats. With low turnout, Arab parties lost three seats amid revelations that Likud activists had hidden cameras in Arab towns’ polling places. A few high-profile politicians failed to make it into the Knesset at all. The pro-settler New Right party led by two right-wing rising stars, former Education Minister Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (who trolled her opponents with a mock perfume ad in which she spritzed herself from a bottle marked “fascism”), failed to cross the 3.25 percent vote threshold. So did Moshe Feiglin, who got some buzz for a heterodox platform of far-right Jewish supremacy and marijuana legalization.

But ultimately, the election was a referendum on Bibi. The majority of voters either backed him or a candidate, Gantz, who shared most of his key national security views but touted a cleaner record, free of personal corruption and links to religious and racist extremists.

Netanyahu’s most controversial move of the election, arranging a merger between the racist, terrorist-linked Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party and two other small right-wing parties, worked out perfectly: The combined United Right won enough votes to enter the Knesset and shore up Netanyahu’s coalition, but not enough that any members of Jewish Power will actually be seated.

Netanyahu also got help down the stretch from the Trump administration. Ahead of the prime minister’s visit to Washington last month, President Donald Trump announced U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a long-running Israeli request. Last weekend, Trump followed up by designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, a decision Netanyahu took partial credit for. Trump has already congratulated Netanyahu, describing him as a “great ally” and “friend” Wednesday morning.

Netanyahu’s final gambit was his pledge in the closing days of the campaign to annex Jewish settlements on the West Bank, thus preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state. It’s tempting to see this as empty electioneering: Netanyahu may not have any real intention of working toward a two-state solution but probably prefers the status quo to a full annexation of the West Bank. He similarly promised in the closing days of the 2015 campaign to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state, only to walk it back right after the vote.

The difference this time, though, is that Trump is president of the United States, and he has shown no inclination to push back on anything Netanyahu does. The logic the White House used in its decisions to recognize Jerusalem and the Golan—that Israel already exercises de facto sovereignty over these areas, so it might as well be made official—could just as easily be applied to the settlements. In congressional testimony Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say what the United States would do if Israel tried to annex the West Bank. When Barack Obama or even George W. Bush was president, Netanyahu could use the U.S. stance as an excuse to resist pressure from the right to annex the settlements. With Trump in the White House, Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners may start to wonder what’s taking so long.

Despite all the Trump-Bibi love on display, none of it bodes particularly well for the long-awaited peace plan that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, has been planning to roll out sometime after the Israeli election. Not that its prospects were particularly promising to begin with: The plan was almost certain to be rejected by the Palestinians, who have mostly refused to engage with the Trump administration since the Jerusalem announcement. With a hard-right coalition in power, the Israeli government is also unlikely to see why it should compromise on anything resembling a Palestinian state, no matter how compromised.

Paradoxically, Netanyahu’s victory may end up being good news for the Democrats vying to challenge Trump. The party is currently contending with both an activist left wing (including a few vocal newly elected members of Congress), which is critical of Israel no matter who is in power, and an establishment core (including a few senior members of Congress) that is broadly supportive of Israel no matter who is in power. Netanyahu has become so objectionable to a wide swath of American Democrats—Jewish and gentile—that he opens up a safe middle-ground position for candidates: broadly “pro-Israel” while highly critical of the Israeli government. Beto O’Rourke exemplified this position recently when he described Netanyahu as a “racist” while also calling the U.S.-Israeli dynamic “one of the most important relationships that we have on the planet.” What this will mean for the U.S.-Israel relationship if and when a Democrat ever takes back the White House is a bridge Netanyahu is probably happy to cross when he gets to it.

Netanyahu is now on course to surpass Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as the country’s longest-serving leader this summer, but his work is not done. His task now is to attempt to pass a law that would shield him from prosecution. Otherwise, charges may come as soon as this July. Legally, there’s nothing preventing him from staying in office while his trial and appeals process drags on, but politically it could prove untenable.

But for now, anyone who was hoping to see Bibi out of the picture will have to put up with him for a while longer.