As Israel’s second election this year draws near, pundits in other countries once again struggle to understand why Benjamin Netanyahu has remained in power so long, with some pointing to a global “populist wave” (that began six years after Netanyahu took office) and others to laments over the supposed decline of Israeli democracy, while still others get caught up in the intricacies of Israeli politics. But, writes Matti Friedman, the real answer is straightforward:
[I]n the decade before Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied [Israelis] in public places. There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case. Next to that fact, all other issues pale. Whatever credit the prime minister really deserves for the change, for many voters it’s a good enough reason to keep him in power on September 17.
Given the centrality of those years, it’s striking how seldom they actually come up in conversation. Along Jaffa Road, the hardest-hit street, the traces have become nearly invisible. The Sbarro pizzeria where in 2001 a Palestinian suicide bomber killed fifteen people, including seven children and a pregnant woman, is now a bakery with a different name. It’s a few paces from where I’m writing these lines, and it’s full of customers, many of whom probably don’t know what happened there.
[This period of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks] isn’t officially considered a war, even though it killed more Israelis than the Six-Day War of 1967. And no one can say exactly when it began or ended. The attacks picked up in the mid-1990s, [not long after the signing of the Oslo Accords], as Israel pursued a peace deal and ceded land, but the worst came between 2000 and 2004. Though other forms of violence persist, the last Israeli fatality in a Palestinian suicide bombing was in 2008.
[W]hen Netanyahu declares in an election ad that “in the stormy Middle Eastern sea we’ve proved that we can keep Israel an island of stability and safety,” we [Israelis] all know what he means, even if we don’t vote for him. That’s his strongest card, and if he wins, that will be why. The scenario we’re afraid of is clear even if it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one.