Most Israelis went to sleep late on Tuesday night concluding from the TV exit polls and the subsequent party leaders’ speeches that Benjamin Netanyahu had narrowly won the elections, and would almost certainly head the next government. They woke up on Wednesday morning to discover that the supposedly ultra-sophisticated surveys had failed, and that Netanyahu, far from squeaking back into office, had defeated Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union by a margin of some six seats (with almost all votes counted), dramatically elevating Likud’s share of the 120-seat Knesset (from 18 in the outgoing parliament to 30 this time), and thus recording what by Israeli standards constitutes a crushing victory.
King Bibi had not merely managed to hold onto his crown. He had cemented his rule.
Unloved by the Obama administration, relentlessly criticized by ostensibly friendly European governments, attacked day after day by substantial sections of the Hebrew media (though not the Sheldon Adelson-owned free daily Israel Hayom), and opposed in these elections not only by the Israeli left but also by the centrist Yesh Atid (whose leader Yair Lapid vowed to “do everything in my power” to oust him), Netanyahu did not just scrape back into office. He swept his critics aside and he trounced his rivals.
Now he faces a whole other challenge.
We may never know whether Likud’s own internal polling had shown a different, far less worrying picture for Netanyahu than survey after survey had predicted in the final days of the campaign. But two weeks before the election, most published surveys put Likud and Zionist Union neck-and-neck. A week ago, they consensually had Isaac Herzog’s party three or four seats ahead of Netanyahu’s. And it was at this point that the prime minister unleashed what I called his “gevalt” gamble.
He embarked on an unprecedented round of media interviews focused on the right wing of the Israeli electorate. He warned of a “real danger” that he was going to lose power. He implored those Israelis who wanted him to stay on as prime minister to abandon the satellite right-ish parties — parties led by disgruntled men who used to work for him: Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu. If you want me as prime minister, he intoned on TV, on radio, to internet and print journalists, and via Facebook, then vote Likud, vote Likud, vote Likud.
On Monday, still apparently facing the prospect of defeat, he pushed still harder for those right-wing votes: He took the extreme step of reversing his previous support-in-principle for a Palestinian state, saying it just wouldn’t happen if he were re-elected.
On election day itself, he complained (inaccurately) about a high voter turnout in the Arab sector, then recalibrated that lament by saying his objection was not to the fact of Israeli citizens voting, but to the foreign funding that was purportedly transporting “anyone but Bibi” voters to the polling booths and so skewing the election outcome. Netanyahu even took on the (Arab) Supreme Court justice, Salim Joubran, who was overseeing the elections, claiming that while his rivals were being allowed to propagandize at will, only he, the prime minister, was being held to the outdated provisions of Israel’s electoral day campaigning laws. In fact, Joubran, an outspoken opponent of the legislation he was obligated to enforce, prevented the live broadcast of press conferences planned by both Netanyahu and Herzog.
In the past few days, Netanyahu proved himself a political tactician in a different league from his rivals. But will he take heed of the fact that a substantial proportion of the electorate is as shocked and horrified by Tuesday’s results as he and his supporters are shocked and delighted?
Would Netanyahu have so desperately cannibalized his right-wing allies/rivals had the polls been rosier for him? Would he have whipped up such internal friction over the Arab vote? Would he have taken so emphatic a stance against Palestinian statehood? Again, we may never know. But to judge by his own statements and actions in the days before Israel voted and on polling day itself, Netanyahu was anything but confident, anything but certain of re-election.
The question now is what Netanyahu will do with what he called this victory “against all odds.” And therein lies his new challenge.
The near-final arithmetic suggests that he can muster a majority coalition composed solely of ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties, including ex-Likud minister Kahlon’s Kulanu. The early indications are that he does not want Yesh Atid or Zionist Union in government with him, and that the feeling is mutual.
But will he now rule in the no-holds-barred spirit that carried him back into office? Will he, not without good reason, conclude that Tuesday’s vote was a firm mandate from the Israeli electorate to govern the country in the spirit of those frenzied last few days of the campaign?
Or will he seek to introduce nuance to those hardened positions, and tone down the sense of gevalt?
We’ll know soon enough.
We’ll see the specifics of his coalition. We’ll note who he chooses as his defense minister, his foreign minister, his justice minister — outspoken hawks or gentler figures? Will he push legislation that highlights the Jewish character of the state and subtly relegates its democratic nature? Will he employ healing rhetoric as regards those ostensibly over-voting Israeli Arabs? Will he address widespread domestic concerns about the high cost of living, soaring housing prices and the growing inequalities between Israel’s haves and have-nots? Will he find a path through the conflict over ultra-Orthodox military service? Will he shift to a less dogmatic position on the two-state solution, stressing that he cannot envisage Palestinian statehood in the current Middle East reality but allowing for the possibility of change? Will he move to seize the opportunities he has frequently cited to build alliances with those Arab states that share Israel’s profound concerns about Iran’s nuclear drive and the imminent US-led deal with Tehran? Will he seek to ease the strains with an Obama administration that, he believes, wanted to see the back of him?
In the past few days, Netanyahu proved himself a political tactician in a different league from his rivals. But amid the euphoria of victory, and the majority’s reaffirmation of faith in his leadership, will he take heed of the fact that a substantial proportion of the electorate is as shocked and horrified by Tuesday’s results as he and his supporters are shocked and delighted?
Will Netanyahu seek to reposition himself, in short, from defiantly victorious leader of the Israeli right to prime minister of our riven, multi-challenged Israel?