Unbeatable Bibi

Benjamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu’s approval rating is more than twice that of his closest opponent. Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images

For decades Israeli elections were often cliffhangers, a reflection of the balance between those who wanted to cede land to the Palestinians and those who wanted to seize more territory. So close in size were the two camps that balloting often resulted in wafer-thin majorities—or awkward power-sharing arrangements between them. But the trend seems to have receded in recent years. So much so that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called for a snap election last week, is expected to win by a large margin. Polls conducted since the announcement put his approval rating at above 50 percent–more than twice that of his closest opponent. They also showed the right-wing and religious parties in his coalition gaining ground, a more important index given Israel’s parliamentary-based electoral system. “The math is very clear,” wrote the political analyst Noam Sheizaf on the left-wing Web magazine +972. He predicted that the Jan. 22 ballot would herald the “total collapse of the center-left, both as a political power and as an ideologically coherent idea.”

Netanyahu can certainly take some credit for the right’s dominance. Under his leadership, terrorist attacks have fallen over the past four years and the economy has remained stable, even as much of the world has struggled to lift itself from a protracted recession. Both issues are supremely important to Israeli voters. But longer-term trends are also a factor. The fastest-growing populations in Israel are the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, and both groups lean heavily to the right. Though the data are scant, a large majority of Orthodox voters is believed to have cast ballots for parties that make up Netanyahu’s hardline coalition. Among the ultra-Orthodox, the figure is even higher. The two groups together now make up about 25 percent of Israel’s population. According to some projections, the number could rise to 40 percent within two decades. Since the core motivation for their political hawkishness is largely unchanging—a biblical injunction to maintain Israeli control over Judea and Samaria (their term for the West Bank)—it’s hard to imagine them ever shifting alliances. The upshot: with each passing year, the Israeli right grows stronger.

Of course, demographics can change over time, and permanent majorities are never truly permanent. But it usually takes a significant upheaval—a war or economic turmoil—to loosen the grip of an entrenched faction. The surprise Arab attack on Israel in 1973 helped eventually topple the Labor Party, which had run the country almost unchallenged for nearly three decades. Fifteen years later a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank helped return Labor to office, after a stretch of right-wing dominance. What turmoil might undermine Netanyahu’s standing after his reelection? A badly executed war with Iran over its nuclear program could certainly turn Israelis against him. He has referred vaguely to next spring as the time frame for such a war. So could a third Palestinian intifada—not implausible, given the restlessness Palestinians have exhibited in the West Bank lately and Netanyahu’s inability (or unwillingness, depending on your perspective) to restart a genuine peace process with President Mahmoud Abbas. In that case, the heady days of electoral cliffhangers could return. Netanyahu knows something about those days. He won his first prime-ministerial race in 1996 by fewer than 30,000 votes, a margin of less than a percentage point.