“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” said Michael B. Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “Our economy is excellent, our foreign relations were never better, and we’re secure. We’ve got a guy in politics for 40 years: We know him, the world knows him — even our enemies know him.”
Not everyone is so enamoured of him.
Netanyahu’s coalition appears to have won 65 of the 120 seats in Parliament. But his positions on the issues differed little from those of his main challenger, Benny Gantz, suggesting that close to half of the electorate would have simply preferred someone else in the job.
As he assembles a new coalition, how Netanyahu manages that divide will be his first test. With a new term and an expanded Likud party, he could form an even larger right-wing coalition of secular, ultra-Orthodox and even some extremist lawmakers — or, if he chooses, he could to try to forge a national unity government that brings in centrists.
Whatever he decides, Netanyahu has been afforded the opportunity to lead Israel through a serious turning point in its history as both a Jewish and a democratic state, if his legal troubles do not topple him first.
An election that was all about personality and character — whether Netanyahu’s likely indictment on corruption charges made him unfit to continue in the job, or whether Benny Gantz, was up to it — left little room for issues of policy.
To his credit, Gantz, who conceded on Wednesday, won a record number of Parliament seats for a new party. But Netanyahu proved once again that his talents, stamina and willingness to do what it takes to win are all unmatched in Israeli politics.
But serious concerns for Israel that were essentially set aside in the campaign are fast approaching. As he surpasses David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader, as its longest-serving prime minister this summer, Netanyahu will be unable to ignore any of them for long.
Peace with the Palestinians remains as unlikely as ever, despite the possible wild card of a long-awaited proposal from the Trump administration. Netanyahu’s right-wing allies, to whom he may be even more beholden under his next coalition, are champing at the bit to pursue annexation of the occupied West Bank.
In desperation to rally the pro-settler base, Netanyahu said publicly three days before the election that he would begin applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank that the Palestinians demand for their future state. Opponents believe this would set off a new Palestinian uprising, bring to fruition the apartheid regime the Israeli left has long warned against, or both.
Even without annexation in the mix, Netanyahu’s settler- and ultra-Orthodox-dominated government, and his effusive embrace of President Donald Trump, have rapidly alienated Israel from predominantly liberal and less-observant American Jews, the largest diaspora community and a pillar of Israel’s security since its founding.
While conservatives have been working to curtail the Supreme Court’s power through legislation, the court itself has been laying the groundwork to assert judicial review over even the so-called basic laws that Parliament considers the building blocks of an eventual constitution, which Israel now lacks.
“Imagine the American Supreme Court judging the constitutionality of part of the Constitution itself,” said Gadi Taub, a historian and Hebrew University professor who opposes settlements and annexation but supports a rollback of judicial authority.
Netanyahu has not led the effort to rein in the Supreme Court, but he has railed against the legal system as a whole, over the long-running police corruption investigations that have led to his expected indictment on bribery and fraud charges.
That campaign, too, is expected to present a challenge for Israel’s democratic system: Netanyahu is now almost certain to try to extract a deal from his coalition partners to pass a law retroactively granting him immunity from prosecution.
Israelis have grown accustomed to Netanyahu’s bullish PowerPoint assessments of the country’s condition: 10 years of uninterrupted economic growth, its best-ever credit rating, and diplomatic openings and new trading partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America. During the campaign, they also got used to clips showing Trump granting recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, both coveted national goals.
Dorit Rabinyan, an author who calls herself left-wing, said Israelis feared Netanyahu’s exit as if they would be “orphaned.” And she confessed to having a tinge of the same feeling herself. “I’m anxious about it at the very same time that I’m hopeful about it,” she said.
Critics point to a yawning income gap between those prospering in Israel’s high-tech industry and those in the middle class or living outside the major cities. A housing crunch, overcrowded hospitals, clogged highways and a crushing cost of living are keeping many young adults in their parents’ homes and driving others to emigrate.
That gave Netanyahu’s opponents on the left and even the centre-right ample ammunition.
“He’s provided short-term profits at a very high long-term price,” said Ari Shavit, a Jerusalem-born journalist who has followed Netanyahu throughout his career. “Netanyahu’s Israel is mortgaged. And we are going to pay dearly.”
Shavit said the same could be said for Netanyahu’s failure to use Israel’s position of strength and strategic comfort — “this golden moment” — to take on its single most existential issue, the Palestinian conflict; and for his exploitation of Trump’s largess at the cost of “endangering the relationship with Democratic America, younger America and the next administration in Washington.”
Taub said he expected Netanyahu to continue his decade-long practice of slow-walking settlement expansion, as the right complains, and sabotaging peace talks, as the left complains.
“Gantz, with his high talk of values, optimism, change, sounded like Obama in 2008,” Taub said. “But no one in Israel thinks there’s really an option to annex the West Bank or make peace. So it will be the triumph of the status quo.”
But Oren said he believed that a Trump peace plan was forthcoming, and that Netanyahu was best suited to reach a deal, at last, no matter how much his coalition partners fought it.
“It’s the old adage: The left makes war, the right makes peace,” Oren said. “Netanyahu will be extremely loath to say no to Trump, which could prove to be the success of that program.”
On the West Bank, however, few share that view.
Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Bir Zeit University and former spokesman for the Palestinian government, said Netanyahu’s long tenure had already left behind two devastating casualties: any hope for a two-state solution and any support for moderate Palestinian leadership, whose investment in a diplomatic solution to the conflict Netanyahu has discredited.
Khatib said that Netanyahu, by politically empowering the extreme right wing in recent years, had contributed to a radialisation that has made Israelis averse to peacemaking. “The Israel that we talk about now is not the Israel we negotiated with 25 years ago,” he said. “I think that Netanyahu’s taking us into some kind of apartheid reality.”
The New York Times