This is how he did it.
Blamed for anti-Rabin incitement, yet thrives
In the prelude to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultranationalist Israeli settler, many blamed then-opposition leader Netanyahu for contributing to — or at least failing to quell — violence and hate among his right-wing base.
Weeks before the killing, Netanyahu stood on a balcony above Jerusalem’s Zion Square, where thousands of right-wing protesters vowed to “get rid of” Rabin, whom they called a “traitor” and a “Nazi” for signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians earlier that year.
In 1996, as the country still reeled from Rabin’s death and a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings ripped through Israel, Netanyahu won the general elections by a razor-thin majority in what was seen by many as a referendum on the very idea of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Netanyahu served a single term before being defeated in 1999 by Ehud Barak’s One Israel Party. After his return to premiership in 2009, he would usher in a reality in which the Palestinian issue was no longer considered relevant.
Clashes with Sharon, wins out
In 2005, Netanyahu quit Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s cabinet in protest of his decision to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, after publicly announcing he would not have. The move was seen as a bid to reposition himself as Likud leader after, as predicted, Sharon would step down to form a new centrist party known as Kadima.
Although Likud finished second in the 2009 vote, Netanyahu managed to create a coalition with other right-wing parties and was sworn in, for the second time, as prime minister.
Instead of addressing peace with the Palestinians, when Netanyahu returned to power, he focused the discourse inward: to the decades-old domestic conflict between Ashkenazim (Jews who had originally arrived to Israel from Europe) and Mizrahim (from Arab countries and historically subject to state discrimination).
Though Netanyahu was himself the picture of Ashkenazi elite, he fashioned himself a warrior for the Mizrahi working class and championed its goals of promoting Israel’s Jewish character and preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“From 2009 until now, Netanyahu’s ‘deep state’ argument is that the elites, the Ashkenazis, are still the strongholds of power, and that ‘we’ are the ‘real’ Jewish people, and ‘we’ need to defend the Jewish state,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who noted that the approach has featured prominently in Netanyahu’s current reelection campaign.
A video posted to Netanyahu’s Facebook page on Sunday called on Likud supporters “to get out to vote Likud, against their racism, against their arrogance.”
Scandals dismissed as conspiracies
As early as the 1993 “Bibi-gate,” a sex, lies and videotape scandal in which Netanyahu confessed to an extramarital affair, the Israeli leader has maintained that his rivals are committed to toppling him from power with trumped-up scandals.
Throughout a decade and a half in the premiership, the Netanyahu family has been repeatedly under investigation as their domestic finances increasingly became public: $1,600 for Netanyahu’s hairstyling, $1,750 for makeup on a 2015 New York trip, $127,000 for a bed installed on an El Al plane for a five-hour flight to London; a $2,700 ice cream budget. Last year, Netanyahu took advantage of a rarely used perk available to foreign diplomats and repeatedly hauled suitcases of dirty laundry to Washington for free cleaning.
Many Israelis view the spending as indicative of a more fundamental culture of shameless corruption in the prime minister’s residence.
In his most recent corruption probe, in which Netanyahu is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he has accused the courts of participating in a “witch hunt” against him.
Hugging his opponents to death
Whenever faced with rivals, Netanyahu has offered them jobs, alliances and support, which they mostly don’t survive. In the meantime, he pulls off another escape.
In 2013, a weakened Netanyahu begrudgingly joined a coalition government with his centrist rival, Yair Lapid, who delivered him the more than 61-seat majority he needed to rule the Knesset.
Netanyahu assigned Lapid the role of finance minister, a role that Lapid himself said he did not want, and gave another competitor, Tzipi Livni, the role of justice minister. Netanyahu fired them both in 2014, claiming he would “no longer tolerate opposition within the government.” He called for a dissolution of the Knesset and new elections.
In 2020, as the coronavirus crisis raged and no party was able to cobble together a coalition, Netanyahu once again recruited his competitors before quickly bringing about their demise. Netanyahu convinced Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, which had received more votes than Netanyahu in all three past elections, to join forces in a “national unity government.” The agreement was that Netanyahu would hand over his position as prime minister to Gantz after 18 months.
Netanyahu ultimately refused to step aside, spurring a dizzying series of events that led to the dissolution of the government, the eventual call for fourth elections and, to many political observers, further proof that Netanyahu was destined to come out on top, no matter what the circumstances.
“Gantz was outmaneuvered by an old political fox like Bibi, so he burned his political capital,” said Emmanuel Navon, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s political science department. “But now, the big question is again: Will Netanyahu have the 61?”