Magician or con artist: Why does Netanyahu keep winning?

The Israeli prime minister has managed to deploy the same old tricks every time his re-election has been threatened.

Netanyahu op-ed photo Reuters
Polls indicate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is neck-deep in corruption charges, is likely to continue leading Israel after the September 17 general election [Reuters]

The disgust with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally crossed political party lines and convinced even some Likud heavyweights to not vote for him in the September 17 snap general election.

“It seems Likud leadership is doing everything to ensure I will not vote for them,” former minister and Likud member of the Knesset Benny Begin said earlier this week. Referring to a draft legislation backed by Netanyahu to place cameras at polling stations, he added, “There’s a price and there should be a price for such arrogant, crude and blunt behaviour.”

Former Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon, a Likud veteran, also said on Monday that he would not vote Likud in the upcoming election.

“Democracy is under harsh attack and must be defended, the sooner the better,” he explained.

Former Likud minister and member of Knesset Michael Eitan also announced in an open letter that he is planning not to vote Likud for the first time in his life. In the letter published on Facebook, Eitan also described some of the damage he believes Netanyahu has inflicted on Israeli society.

“Values like public probity and personal modesty, once considered natural, have now become ‘obsolete’,” he wrote. “The system of rule of law faces repeated attacks aimed at clarifying suspicions against the prime minister.” He also accused Netanyahu of inciting against Arab citizens of Israel and Jewish leftists and using racist tropes to score political points.

“The election process according to Netanyahu is not a process to determine who will work for the good of the state,” Eitan went on, “but who will work to grant immunity to Netanyahu.”

Despite growing criticism and even condemnation of the prime minister, there is still a possibility he may survive yet another election. Opinion polls give his Likud party no less than 31 Knesset seats – neck-and-neck with its main Blue and White rival. It seems a significant percentage of Israelis still want Netanyahu, known as the “magician” for his skill at winning national votes even when he seems politically vulnerable, to continue leading them.

What has made this dogmatic, braggart politician so invincible? How has he managed to break the incumbency record of the country’s mythological first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion? How, despite the clouds of corruption hanging over his head, does Netanyahu still stand a good chance of remaining in power after next week’s elections?

Perhaps a resident of the staunchly pro-Likud Jordan-border town of Beit She’an unintentionally provided the most accurate answer to this question when he tried to explain why he would vote Likud despite his admiration for the city’s homegrown political star, former Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, now among the leaders of the Labor Party.

The man, interviewed on television, shrugged his shoulders and said without a hint of a smile, “I need a psychologist to rid myself of Bibi”, using Netanyahu’s ubiquitous nickname.

The man’s claim that he is somehow addicted to Netanyahu can be explained with the Prospect Theory of behavioural economics propounded by Israeli psychology professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

According to the theory, which earned Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics, the Beit Sh’ean voter’s seemingly illogical insistence on supporting “Bibi” is motivated by his fear of the unknown. Their research found that the desire to avoid a loss overcomes hopes of a gain. People would rather cash in on a smaller, sure bet than gamble on a less certain but bigger gain. A change of regime holds hope for improving the man’s life, but fear of losing what he has now overcomes this prospect.

It is not by chance that Netanyahu is the politician that benefits the most from the public’s fear of loss. Had there been a Nobel Prize for spreading fear, he would have been one of the leading contenders.

Professor Shaul Kimhi of the Psychology Department at Tel-Hai College, formerly a special adviser to the Research Division of Israel’s Military Intelligence on compiling psychological profiles of leaders, has been following Netanyahu for years, documenting his moves and remarks.

His latest study, in collaboration with Dr Sagit Yehoshua of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and King’s College London and Yarden Oliel of the Psychology Department at Tel Hai College, underscores Netanyahu’s amazing ability to mobilise public opinion with frequent scare tactics (characteristic also of US President Donald Trump and several other incumbent leaders of the day).

Netanyahu has managed to convince Israelis of the existence of a dangerous leftist-Arab-liberal alliance, claiming he is the only force stopping it from annihilating the State of Israel. In recent years, Netanyahu inflated the monster to include the media, using an “us versus them” rhetoric which his voters lap up.

Although right-wing figures have obtained prominent media positions in recent years, the right persists in portraying itself as a deprived, inferior minority compared with the “real elite” that continues to rule the media and the establishment. At the same time, Netanyahu makes wide use of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to convey his messages directly to the public without the need for traditional media outlets.

He has been blessed with traits that make him a television star. He is a man of words. He is presentable, self-confident, possesses excellent rhetorical ability and fluent English skills. He is also highly intelligent and has advanced logical abilities.

Netanyahu uses issues over which it is easy to obtain consensus, such as the scourge of terrorism and the Holocaust, to form simple, catchy and often false talking points, and uses them repeatedly to scare the Israeli public into believing that he is their only protector. 

Many conversations with Likud voters end with the question, “but do you have anyone better?” For the past decade, Netanyahu has become an integral part of Israeli reality, a member of everyone’s family, a piece of the household furniture, a watchdog. New voters, who have just turned 18, were only children when he was elected for the second time to the premiership in 2009.

In all his years at the head of the pyramid, Netanyahu did all he could to distance any politician who even hinted at an intention to contend at some point for the Likud leadership. Opposition parties failed to sprout a leader with manipulative rhetorical media skills anywhere close to those Netanyahu possesses.

But there are still some, who have hope against hope that the so-called “magician” can be defeated at the polls.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, running on the list of the Democratic Union (formerly Meretz), said recently that Netanyahu “is no more of a magician than the magicians you bring to your son’s birthday party. He does not possess superhuman skills – he is just a con artist”. 

Barak’s 2000 declaration that Israel does not have a Palestinian partner with whom to make peace helped (together with terrorism and internal Palestinian strife) pave the way for the Likud’s return to power.

“If I managed to defeat Netanyahu in 1999, he can be defeated today, too,” he said.

Blessed be the believers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.