Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. (Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg)

How Netanyahu ‘The Magician’ Makes Political Threats Disappear

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Benjamin Netanyahu knew while he was dining with world leaders at the Elysée Palace on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I that an Israeli commando team was in position for a top-secret mission in the Gaza Strip. What he couldn’t have known was that all hell would soon break loose. Within hours, the undercover unit was unmasked, and its commander was killed. Cutting short his trip, Netanyahu rushed home from Paris to face the worst spasm of fighting in Gaza since the 2014 war and a clutch of cabinet ministers with knives aimed at his back.

In the days that followed, he managed to defuse the violence—despite popular pressure to hit harder—then outmaneuver two rivals who tried to exploit the situation to topple his government. When all was said and done, his coalition was on life support but still alive.

This has become a pattern for the Israeli leader, known by friend and foe as “the magician.” The four-term prime minister will soon surpass Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, as its longest-serving premier. His party’s coalition has a single-vote majority in parliament following the Nov. 15 resignation of hawkish Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who quit over Netanyahu’s handling of the latest Gaza crisis. Even if the coalition were to collapse, polls show Netanyahu would win the next election, despite the scandals and infighting that have dogged his government of late. “He loves the high-wire act,” says Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist and pollster in Tel Aviv. “Israelis see him as the only one who is skilled and cunning enough to manage the political circus.”

Netanyahu was initially dismissed when he took office in 1996 as a nationalist ideologue bent on cementing Israel’s hold over occupied territory at the expense of developing relationships with its Arab neighbors. He was defeated in 1999 by Ehud Barak of the Labor Party and took a three-year break from politics before slowly working his way back into government, first as foreign minister in 2002, then as finance minister two years later. In 2009, his conservative Likud party won back control. Even his opponents today grudgingly admire Netanyahu’s ability to defy political dogma, notably the notion that Israel must achieve peace with the Palestinians for the rest of the Arab world to come around.

In this, the Israeli premier received an assist from President Donald Trump. When the U.S. moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—a change Netanyahu cheered—the Palestinians cut off peace negotiations. Simultaneously, Trump adviser Jared Kushner was working to build a coalition of Middle Eastern leaders to act as a bulwark against Iran, which the administration views as a major security threat. It presented a rare opportunity for Israel and its regional neighbors to stand on common ground, and the Israeli prime minister seized it.

“The fact is that our relations with the Arab states, countries in the Muslim world, are renewed,” he said in a Nov. 27 speech to the Knesset, adding pointedly that “there is no peace process with the Palestinians.” Although there are as yet no official diplomatic ties, Israel has had unofficial friendly dealings with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Indonesia, and Chad.

In other ways, the deterioration of Israeli-Palestinian talks shows the limits of Netanyahu’s political abilities. European allies have condemned the Israeli army’s tactics at the border fence with Gaza, where military snipers have killed more than 225 Palestinians. Iran and its proxies have set up shop in Syria, on Israel’s northern doorstep. Netanyahu’s tottering coalition is finding it tough to push through major bills on the military draft and cultural funding. And though he faced down one mutiny attempt, observers say his government is unlikely to last to the end of its term in November 2019.

Even if Netanyahu’s political luck holds, he may yet be felled by one of the many legal scandals swirling around him. His wife, Sara, faces fraud charges for allegedly billing the government for close to $100,000 in takeout from Jerusalem’s most expensive restaurants. Police have recommended charges against Netanyahu himself for allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from a Hollywood producer, and for pushing regulatory changes that favored a leading telecommunications company, which also operated a popular news website. On Dec. 2, the police recommended the prime minister be charged in a third case, in which he allegedly offered to alter legislation to favor a powerful newspaper publisher in exchange for sympathetic coverage. Both Netanyahus have denied all accusations of wrongdoing.

Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, told a group of Bar-Ilan University students on Nov. 26 that the two-year-old graft probe is almost finished. Even if it leads to an indictment, the ensuing legal battle could stretch for years, if history is any guide: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned in 2008 to fight multiple corruption charges, only to land in prison in 2014. Should he be indicted, Netanyahu could use the time to rally his base, which believes he’s being persecuted by leftists in the government and media.

“Netanyahu has talent, he has a worldview, and he can do great things,” says Stav Shaffir, a member of parliament from the opposition Labor Party. “The thing he’s lacking is real political courage. He cares more about his own political survival than about trying to create a real strategy that will solve our security problems, and that makes the whole thing just a show.”

If Netanyahu wins the next elections, whenever they occur, he’ll continue pressing for an open alliance with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. His recent clandestine trip to the Gulf state of Oman, where Sultan Qaboos bin Said agreed to the broadcast of video from his meeting with Netanyahu, showed that the Israeli leader is not alone in nursing a vision to transform the Middle East.

Win or lose, Netanyahu may yet end up at Ma’asiyahu Prison near Tel Aviv, in a cellblock where security arrangements were custom-tailored to house a disgraced prime minister. Its last inmate was Olmert.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at jgoodman74@bloomberg.net, Amy Teibel

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