Why nobody likes Bibi (except the voters)

In a shock result, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu has won last night’s general election. His Likud party gained 6 more seats than his leftist rivals, who had been predicted to win. In the end though, Netanyahu’s appeal to the nationalist right seems to have swung the vote in his favour. He should now be able to form a ruling coalition with other rightist and centrist parties. It’s a result that will frustrate many – including the unlikely combination of the Palestinians and US government. So why is Netanyahu so disliked by his strongest ally? And more importantly, what will this victory mean for the conflict with Palestine? 

Smile for the camera…

It’s no secret that President Obama doesn’t like the combative Netanyahu, and White House officials seem to hate his guts. When Nicolas Sarkozy called Netanyahu a liar, Obama responded by saying “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you”. Unfortunately for the President, the Republicans in Congress don’t share that dislike. They see Netanyahu as a man who will stand up for Israel, and believe Obama doesn’t support him enough. The White House was infuriated this month when Congress invited the PM to give a speech, going against all protocol. It was seen as a political move, designed to undermine the President, and boost Netanyahu’s image back home.

Looking at it from the outside, it certainly seems like Netanyahu is getting away with a lot. His policies towards the Palestinians (more on that later) go against America’s repeated recommendations to their closest ally in the Middle East. It seems like the US is getting the short end of this relationship – giving billions in aid, receiving nothing in return. This isn’t a new trend. During Netanyahu’s first term as PM in the 90s, Bill Clinton said after a meeting with him “Who the f*** does he think he is? Who’s the f***ing superpower here?” The Israeli politician has thoroughly grasped a key point of US politics – the relationship with Israel is sacred. As much as Obama may dislike him, there’s no way around Congress or the powerful Israeli lobby.

The Palestinians and the wider Middle East have gone to much less trouble to hide their dismay. They’re right to do so, there’s no doubt that Netanyahu’s re-election is a disaster for the prospect of peace. This summer saw the worst violence in Gaza since the Intifada, and it only raised Netanyahu’s standing in Israel. Some may compare him to Ariel Sharon, another hardliner who did end up withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005. However, this PM’s intentions are clear. He has promised to build more settlements in the occupied West Bank, and most importantly he has said that he will not allow a Palestinian state. The occupation of the West Bank, with all the misery that brings, is set to continue.

This re-election also means that tensions between Iran and Israel will continue at a high pitch. As his speech to the US Congress showed, Netanyahu is obsessed with Iran and its nuclear program. While there’s no doubt Iran looks at Israel with a very unfriendly gaze, Netanyahu doesn’t want to give any concessions, and seems to somehow expect that negotiations should end with Iran agreeing to give up on absolutely everything. He also avoids the awkward point that Israel itself is still the only nuclear power in the Middle East, despite refusing to confirm this or allow inspections. This unrealistic stance means his attempts to undermine the current talks on Iran’s nuclear program seem likely to continue.

In the end though, despite all this dislike from the US government and the wider Arab world, despite the distain for talks with the Palestinians or Iran, Israelis turned out to vote for him. With 72% turnout, the 30 seats that Likud won are a cause for confidence on their part. Netanyahu has profited from the turmoil in the Middle East and the most recent war with Gaza, coming across as a strong man who will stand up for Israel against the outside world. The coming years will show whether this ‘strong man’ can truly bring genuine security.

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