Yes, Netanyahu is facing corruption probes and is practically annexing the West Bank. But for many Jewish Israelis, he has also provided relative security, a better economy, and growing international legitimacy — which makes the unknown alternative much worse.
Benjamin Netanyahu won his fifth election campaign Tuesday, making him Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Most Israeli citizens, and an overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis, prefer to continue with the exact same policies that the Likud has put forward over the past decade. These voters rejected most of the far-right, fundamentalist parties that call for formal annexation, turned the Zionist left into an insignificant minority in the Knesset, and kept Netanyahu in power, despite the several political corruption charges he is facing.
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Why did they do that? Why do people vote for someone who proudly stands for hatred and racism? For a leader who proliferates apartheid policies and occupation as he moves forward with partial annexation, and repeatedly attacks democratic institutions such as the courts, the free press and civil society? Why condone political corruption?
In fact, there are quite a few good reasons why. This is not an attempt to justify Netanyahu’s victory or policies, but rather to offer an analysis of the considerations Jewish Israelis are likely taking into account when they interpret their political realities and perceive the risks they face.
1. Security: The numbers tell the entire story. According to B’Tselem, between the start of the Second Intifada in late 2000 and the end of the 2009 war in Gaza, 1,072 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, while 6,303 Palestinians were killed by Israelis. Shortly after the 2009 Gaza War ended, Netanyahu took office. In the ten years since, 195 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, and 3,485 Palestinians were killed by Israelis, predominantly during Israel’s 2014 assault on in Gaza.
Over the past decade, there were no wars with Lebanon, the Syrian civil war did not filter through the Israeli border, and Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria went generally unanswered. Netanyahu has been able to manage the occupation and the siege in Gaza, as well as the Syrian-Iranian front, in a way that costs far less Israeli lives than in the previous decade, which Israelis remember well. In the early 2000s, Israeli civilians were confronted with the consequences of occupation inside Israel, through suicide attacks and rocket fire. Under Netanyahu, the occupation goes mostly unnoticed by Jewish Israelis, and whatever toll is takes is mainly on settlers in the occupied territories. Israelis are well aware of that, and they appreciate this relatively increased sense of security.
2. Economy: Again, let’s talk numbers. Over the past 10 years of Likud rule, the basic minimum wage in Israel has gone up by more than 45 percent. True, this is thanks to unions and pressure from the left, rather than Netanyahu’s overall neo-liberal economic policies. But from the perspective of an average Israeli earning minimum pay, it’s easy to attribute this change to Netanyahu. Meanwhile, unemployment is at its lowest point in decades, inequality has been declining for two years in a row, and GDP growth is almost 30 percent higher than the OECD average.
Yes, there are still many downsides. As housing prices soar, it is becoming nearly impossible to buy an apartment in Israel, which also has the highest poverty rate and among the widest social gaps of any OECD country. The percentage of workers living in poverty, unable to make ends meet, is on the rise, and civilian spending and investment in services is at a ridiculous low. What more, public transportation, the education system and healthcare are in crisis.
But people also see economic crises and austerity in other countries, and they feel a sense of relief that Israel has been spared these hardships. In addition, the two communities most severely affected by poverty are Palestinian citizens of Israel (Palestinians in the occupied territories aren’t even counted in official statistics), and the ultra-Orthodox. Both communities vote for their own sectorial parties (the latter consistently vow their support for Netanyahu), and are often ignored by the rest of Israeli society. As Netanyahu once put it, “not considering the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox – we’re doing great.” Israel also scores extremely high on the World Happiness Index, year after year.
3. Foreign relations: Probably Netanyahu’s favorite claim to fame is the global network of alliances he has developed; his strong ties with leaders from India’s Modi to Brazil’s Bolsonaro, his ability to disrupt the EU from within and cripple its stance on the occupation by enlisting Eastern European authoritarian rulers like Hungary’s Orban, the gradual normalization with Arab states, from Oman to Saudi Arabia, and of course – his close friendship with Putin and Trump. In the lead up to Election Day, both leaders bestowed Netanyahu with long-awaited “gifts,” as statements of support for his fifth bid for office.
Add to that Netanyahu’s role in the destruction of the Iran nuclear deal, in embassies moving to Jerusalem, in a growing legitimacy around the world for Netanyahu’s quasi-authoritarian style of government, and the Eurovision contest coming to Tel Aviv after a record 4.1 million tourist count in 2018, and you can really start to get the picture. Israelis are surely impressed.
It’s important to stress that all of this comes at a time when Israel continues to commit war crimes in the occupied territories, kills hundreds of unarmed protestors in Gaza, prolongs the brutal siege there, moves ahead with gradual annexation in the West Bank, passes the Jewish Nation-State Law and discriminates against its own Palestinian citizens, and makes no effort whatsoever to move toward peace. The old argument, according to which only peace will offer security and international legitimacy, has gone with the wind.
4. Fear: One might argue that fear has no room in a list of rational reasons to support Netanyahu, but fear is a powerful sentiment, and a serious impetus for political decision-making. In the local context, some of it is irrational. For example, Netanyahu’s constant demonizing of Palestinian citizens in Israel, his delegitimization of the left, the media and the criminal justice system, and his depiction of Iran and the Iran deal as imminent, existential threats to Israel are based on lies. They propagate racism, local and global anti-Muslim sentiment, and fear-mongering.
However, there is merit to Netanyahu identifying the dangers that Israel faces — whether real or imagined — in a region that has been severely destabilized since 2011. Even more so, the fear among Jewish Israelis, that either a two-state or one-state solution (or anything in between) would mean relinquishing at least some degree of Jewish power, privilege and supremacy is quite justified. True equality for everyone living between the Jordan River and the sea would probably involve a complete overhaul of the current regime, which would elicit deep divisions among Jewish Israelis. Peace would require that Israel pay a price. The status quo, however, does not. Sticking with what we have out of fear of the unknown is, therefore, a rational choice.
5. Lack of an alternative: Looking at the recent elections, very few parties offered anything significantly different from Netanyahu on the issues mentioned above. Except for Meretz, Hadash and the Arab parties (which were all demonized by Netanyahu and not defended by his challenger, Gantz), nobody was talking about sustainable peace, or any sort of resolution to “the conflict,” namely the occupation, apartheid and siege. Very little was proposed in terms of an alternative financial, social, or diplomatic vision.
So when people enjoy relative security, a booming economy, international legitimacy — and all at no cost — who cares if the prime minister allegedly received illegal gifts from a friend, or is slightly rewriting the history of the Holocaust?