Who is Bibi Netanyahu, a musician of politics? Revisiting the 1996 election may give us a clue.

The Knesset building, home to Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem.

After winning his fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister of Israel, and his fifth one overall, the question which is being asked both domestically and internationally is who is the man now being the longest serving Israeli leader? What is the secret of his success? Not only for his supporters, but his detractors alike,

Benjamin Netanyahu

has become the face of Israeli politics, and it seems at times that even his most hardened opponents find it difficult to imagine a future without him. Many call him a ‘musician of politics’ and imply that his rise was inevitable.

As Israeli journalist

Anshel Pfeffer

who writes for the daily


and is the author of the much acclaimed book

Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu explains in this


neither is true. His rise was not at all inevitable. Netanyahu is no political genius, and he is no political musician either. In the main, he is the product of circumstance, and operating politically in a strongly militarised and tribal society has allowed him to remain true to himself, fear-mongering his way into office many times and playing various political forces off against each other; it is the classic political art-form of divide and rule. Without a doubt, Netanyahu is good at his game, but he is in no way the only politician currently playing this game with great success.

Plaque commemorating the victims of the No. 18 bus bombing on March 3d, 1996 on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem.

Revisiting the 1996

general election

can perhaps help understand the general dynamics and the way they are playing themselves out in Israeli politics, revealing the way in which Bibi has consistently campaigned and won popular approval. The 1996 election was seen to be the election the then Prime Minister

Shimon Peres

just couldn’t lose, having succeeded his slain predecessor

Yitzhak Rabin

in November 1995. While Peres started the campaign with a 20 point lead in most opinion polls, Netanyahu was vilified as at least partly an accomplice to Rabin’s murder. But a string of suicide attacks in March and April 1996 changed the political calculus in Israel, and Peres contributed to his own political demise by making serious mistakes during his short tenure; perhaps the most profound one was not to call an early election, something most of his colleagues had strongly advised him to do. But, probably due to his own vanity, he refused and paid the ultimate price for it. What the 1996 election shows is that Netanyahu has never changed his modus operandi in politics, and, as far as Israeli society is concerned, he never had to. Netanyahu represents the views currently enjoying broad support in Jewish Israeli circles, but this does not make him a master politician. He just happens to be the man who manages best to articulate and represent these views at the moment, and there can be no doubt that other leaders will in all likelihood build on his legacy when the day comes; With his indictment looming, this day will come soon enough.

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