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The Final Comeback of Benjamin Netanyahu

Bibi has pulled off the sort of comeback Boris Johnson already failed.

Donald Trump Holds Joint Press Conference With Israeli PM Netanyahu
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint news conference at the East Room of the White House, February 15, 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

An old friend tells a perhaps apocryphal story. Years back, three decades, a young up-and-coming Israeli politician phoned a journalist canceling lunch: “Turn on the TV.” The rest is surely the case. 

It was 1993, and Benjamin Netanyahu cut an arguably desperate figure even amidst ascent (he was soon to be leader of Likud and national opposition leader). Live on television, Netanyahu was confessing to an extramarital affair, not his first, after a shadowy figure phoned and blackmailed his wife (also not his first). “Bibi,” as the world would come to know him, assailed "someone very high up" in Likud as behind the subterfuge. Netanyahu was adamant, and fair enough, that it all was a personal matter. But like something out of the playbook of the gentleman of the Cali Cartel, Netanyahu’s rivals said they had video and that they weren’t exactly the tenderhearted types. Indeed, Netanyahu bemoaned the “Mafia-like tactics.”

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Bibi suffered that humiliation, and then suffered others, most recently a defrocking in 2021.  

But all that humiliation was not without the interruptions of astonishing political successes. Netanyahu was triumphant in becoming leader of the opposition later in ’93, then prime minister from 1996-1999, later finance minister, then there was an era-spanning second run in power, from 2009 through last year. Netanyahu has been chairman of the conservative Likud (now the de facto party of governance of Israel after the passing of Israel’s founding socialist generation) for 23 years. 

Netanyahu has the pure survivor’s cunning: few figures championed George W. Bush’s Iraq War, were close to inner circle with Mitt Romney, and then best of friends with Donald Trump, and now plausibly set up to outlast them all—a Barnumian feat. But perhaps a recrudescence is in order, as Trump says he’s in next week for president.

But he’ll have to wait his turn for a lunge toward the spotlight. Because as of last week, Netanyahu would appear to have pulled it off.

With a potential 65-seat majority in the Knesset, the nation’s legislature, it’s an Israeli return to form. And, frankly, it is auspicious of a crimson autumn in the States. As baby boomers in the 2000s were fond of saying, but it’s legitimately true now: Israel is a center-right country. Again, this stands contra the founding socialist generation, and has some implications for the relationship with American Jews, who are often revolted by the country’s nerve. Not that the original set wasn’t nervy—they fought and died for the place. But Israel’s new power elite seem committed to, and proud of, of the nation’s existence, its reason for rule. And that would seem a welcome contrast with the rest of the present Western high command, where the anti-national left has been the default power for at least 15 years. 

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Even the Israel-Palestine fights seem old hat now, the latter mired in terminal loserdom, with even their historical patron abandoning them. When 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas—the lo-fi but in many ways indispensable successor to Yasser Arafat—at last shuffles off, the situation will get worse, and more pointless. Compared to uprisings past, the long-heralded Third Intifada seems the most inevitable, but also the least interesting. Even to longtime haters, the scale of Israeli’s victory, and security for its people, is the stuff of the rawest of envy. As the resplendent Michel Houellebecq wrote in Submission, when his neo-autobiographical protagonist is abandoned by his Jewish lover, who fleas East: “There is no Israel for me.”

American liberals, and the remaining five Bush Republicans, have Ukraine to identify with (in the place of, you know, enjoying one’s own country). And for a long time, even recently, it would seem the British occupied a kindred simulative role for the American right. Boris Johnson was the latest instantiation of Margaret Thatcher, and even I gave Liz Truss a chance. But somewhere along the line after James Baker lost the war (then quasi-denied its excesses), Israel, not Britain, became America’s special relationship. At least for Republicans and friends. 

After all, Johnson can’t even come back properly. Contra Bibi, and Trump, he governed for less than a U.S. presidential term. Some avatar of national fantasies this is. Even Netanyahu’s infidelities have a mark of comic reliability: he’s been with that third wife, whatever else, for thirty years. Johnson married a millennial in office. Shorting loyalty has a price, and in the end, Johnson couldn’t find a cabinet to staff his government. Netanyahu just showed a little more than half the country was willing to rally to have his back, even as Netanyahu wars with the establishment: the courts, and perhaps even cadres in the Mossad

Not Johnson. As Conservative bigwig Michael Heseltine diagnosed, Johnson “is a man who waits to see which way the crowd is running, then dashes in front and says ‘follow me.’” This has, as the kids say, consequences. Britain, under Johnson, locked down probably more severely than the United States; and then sported an even more hypocritical elite. Finally, Johnson appears to care more about Ukraine than Ulster, to the potential propagation of the war, or the extinction of the species. In contrast, Netanyahu’s and Israel’s tact throughout the war, at least by comparison, has been a weirdly Metternichian tour de force. As the Netanyahu era parties on, into a second encore, Netanyahu has become democracy’s most bankable star.

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