NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with Gayil Talshir, professor of political science at Hebrew University, about how Benjamin Netanyahu’s been able to stay in power longer than any other Israeli prime minister.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is a survivor. He first became prime minister more than 20 years ago in 1996. This time around, he has been prime minister for a decade, surviving two national elections in the last year alone with a third coming up. Yesterday, he defeated a leadership challenge from within his own party – all of this while he is under indictment for corruption.
Gayil Talshir is an Israeli political analyst who is writing a book on Netanyahu, and she is here to talk about his staying power. Welcome.
GAYIL TALSHIR: Thank you.
A SHAPIRO: When I was a teenager, a camp counselor – an Israeli camper told me a joke about Netanyahu’s ruthlessness. I am now more than 40 years old, and we are still talking about Netanyahu. So…
TALSHIR: But we’re not joking.
A SHAPIRO: But we’re not joking. How has he hung on for so long?
TALSHIR: Look; Netanyahu is known as the magician. He has a great nose for politics, and he knows how to maneuver both his ideology and his political partners and also how to read the global map of developments. Netanyahu thinks himself as the great figure without which Israel would not be able to survive as a Jewish state.
A SHAPIRO: You say he has been able to shift his ideology to respond to the times. You mean his position has not always been what it is today?
TALSHIR: Absolutely. Netanyahu started as a neoliberal with very stern economic perspectives. He was very harsh on the ultra-Orthadox, but he realized that he has to change his ideology in accordance with the political scene. And he made them what he calls his natural partners. And even during this last year, which was two sets of elections in one year – it’s unheard of – he managed to survive based on this alliance with the religious and ultra-religious parties. That’s his power, his ability to change the ideology in accordance with his own political needs.
A SHAPIRO: You say he’s been good at reading the international sentiment and responding to it. Of course, Israel’s most important international ally is the United States. And he’s had a very complicated dynamic, first having a difficult relationship with Obama. And now Trump makes Israel’s closeness to the U.S. a central part of Trump’s platform. How has he managed to navigate this?
TALSHIR: I think he takes his rough relationships with Obama as his own winning point because he thinks that Obama had a very mistaken way of understanding foreign policy in general and especially the Middle East and, of course, the issue of Iran. Now he thinks that he was very great influence on Trump’s policy towards the Middle East, and especially toward Iran. And this gives Netanyahu his aura as Mr. Security, both in his eyes and in the public eye. And he is the only state person in Israel, if you want to see that way.
A SHAPIRO: Do you think that after this long history of Netanyahu’s hold on power in Israel, that we are watching what may be close to the last chapter?
TALSHIR: Definitely, yes. You know, even if Netanyahu does get the majority in the March elections, what we saw yesterday in the primaries is deep, deep disdain with Netanyahu, even on the right. And I’ll give you it in ideological terms. Netanyahu used to be the prime minister who was both liberal-democratic and for a Jewish state. But Netanyahu made his choice, and he is for a Jewish state, even if it is on the expense of being a democracy. And I think the majority of Israelis cannot actually accept that. And I think this struggle is actually going to lose in the end.
A SHAPIRO: Gayil Talshir is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University. Thank you for speaking with us.
TALSHIR: Thank you.