In the spring of 1996, with Israelis still mourning the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres locked in a tough race for prime minister with Benjamin Netanyahu, I quipped to my friend and colleague Dennis Ross in one of the worst political predictions of the modern era: There's no way Bibi can win this thing. He can't be prime minister of the state of Israel.
Seventeen years later, Netanyahu has now served for more years as Israeli prime minister than anyone other than David Ben Gurion, and though much weakened by this week's elections, is about to begin coalition negotiations toward an unprecedented third term.
But looking at the Israeli press this morning, you'd think that he's already toast. "'King Bibi,'" writes columnist Bradley Burston, "has managed to plummet to victory in a technical triumph that has every appearance of a debacle." Bibi's campaign failed, the inestimable Aluf Benn writes in Haaretz, because he had nothing much to say.
They're both right, of course. The election results in Israel were a clear defeat for the right, a non-victory for the left, a clear affirmation that there is a center in Israel, and an indication that many Israelis are indeed looking past Netanyahu for something new.
But it would be a mistake in 2013 -- just as it was in 1996 -- to write off Bibi or to conclude that Israeli politics are somehow on the verge of transformation. Remember: This is the topsy-turvy, volatile world of Israeli politics, where since independence there have been 32 governments, each lasting roughly 1.8 years. And this is a place where principles compete with the rough trade of street politics, coalition horse-trading, and downright meanness. And that is squarely in Netanyahu's wheelhouse. He knows how to survive in the shark-infested waters of Israeli politics. Indeed, in the curious interaction of domestic politics, national security, and, most importantly, the absence of charismatic leadership, there's still life left in King Bibi. And here's why.
1. The Arabs and Iran are still Bibi's best talking points
This wasn't an election about the peace process or Iran, which is why Bibi flopped, the rightist annexationist Naftali Bennett failed to meet the sky-high expectations placed on him, and why Yair Lapid, who focused on social and economic issues, fared so well.
But the security issue -- the matzav ("the situation" in Hebrew) -- is omnipresent. It's in that world where Netanyahu flourishes. And you can always count on the Arabs to offer up a lifeline.
Sure, Israeli behavior toward Palestinians on the West Bank is bad -- but compared to what? Israel's neighbors always seem to find a way to rescue the right these days. Take a look around. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad murders his own people; in Gaza, Hamas talks of pushing the Jews into the sea; in Egypt, President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood espouse the worst kind of anti-Semitic tropes; and in Iran, the mullahs can't seem to open their mouths these days without muttering something about the evil Zionists.
Nowhere is there an Arab or Muslim leader who is attractive or powerful enough to challenge the Israelis, gain a constituency among the Israeli public, or give the Obama administration enough leverage to present Israelis with a real choice on peace. And in this world, Netanyahu understandably thrives.