A few days ago, Haaretz’s West Bank correspondence Chaim Levinson used his Facebook page to ask about the reasons for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s success. Here is an excerpt from Levinson’s post:
What is in this man that Israelis cannot imagine life without him? […] In my opinion, [Netanyahu] does nothing. A coward pretending to be a leader […] he isn’t even trying to turn Israel into a better place. He doesn’t want to change a thing. He is the middle class of politics: trying to survive, day by day.
If we can divide leaders into activists and those who refrain from action, then Netanyahu – together with another Likud PM, Yitzhak Shamir – is a clearly a prototype of the latter. Levinson is right: Netanyahu’s term has largely been defined by what he isn’t doing: he is not trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he is not starting wars, and he is not initiating major reforms. Even on his landmark issue, Iran, Netanyahu either did not succeed or didn’t try to mobilize the security establishment to military action.
There are many reasons for Netanyahu’s ability to hold on to power, but the heart of the matter lies is his tendency to avoid taking major action. The fact that it makes people like Levinson doubt the prime minister is actually the secret of his success. Netanyahu is a leader of the status quo, and the majority of the Israeli public prefers the status quo to all available alternatives.
Israelis don’t think that the status quo is perfect – far from it – they just prefer it to the alternatives. Even if they state in the polls from time to time that they support the two state solution, they don’t want to pay the prices or take the risk involved in a withdrawal. Israelis also reject the idea of annexing the West Bank. Faced with concrete alternatives, they would rather keep things as they are.
Netanyahu is rightly regarded as a man who won’t do much – that’s enough for voters. His tendency to avoid action also helps him bridge gaps between coalition partners, a very important quality in the Israeli multi-party system.
Netanyhu is more vulnerable on topics in which large number of voters are not happy with the status quo: the relations between secular and religious Jews, along with several economic trends. Like many leaders in the West, he is having hard time responding to populist demands. As for the Palestinian issue, the problem is not Bibi but the public, which recognizes the current status quo is the best of all available alternatives. Those who focus on the personality of the prime minister tend to miss that.