Has Israel got the six-year itch with Netanyahu?

Has Israel got the six-year itch with Netanyahu?

Op-ed: Why you should watch Moshe Kahlon, why you shouldn’t believe the polls, and four other tips as a bitter Israeli election campaign moves into its final week

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin at a state memorial service for former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi, October 23, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin at a state memorial service for former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi, October 23, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

A week away from Israel’s elections, and only a fool would predict the outcome. So here goes.

No, just kidding. Only a fool would predict the outcome, but here are a few insights.

1. The campaign has not panned out as Netanyahu would have hoped.

Would the prime minister have fired his finance and justice ministers and called elections two years early if he’d known what the polls would be showing a week before election day? I rather doubt it.

Allied with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu’s Likud won 31 seats in the 2013 elections to ensure he retained the premiership. An i24 poll on Sunday gave Likud 26 and Yisrael Beytenu 7 for a total of 33 — two more than last time — but almost all other surveys suggest poorer results, with Likud averaging 23 seats and Yisrael Beytenu 6.

What’s made life more difficult for Netanyahu, but shouldn’t have surprised him, is the rise of Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu — heading for eight seats, at least some of which might otherwise have gone to Likud. Kahlon is a former Likud minister who, you might reasonably assume, could therefore be relied upon ideologically to throw in his lot with Netanyahu when it comes to coalition-building the morning after. On the other hand, Kahlon is a former Likud minister who bolted the party, set up his own, and resisted Netanyahu’s pleas to merge. Evidently, he is not in Netanyahu’s pocket. Kahlon, whose campaign is focused on his aim to become finance minister and heal Israel’s have/have-not economy, said over the weekend that he could guarantee himself the finance minister’s job “within 10 minutes” by agreeing to a political alliance, but he’s refusing to do so, which underlines that, while the electorate that votes on March 17 are important, it is the “second electorate” that may prove decisive. By which I mean…

2. Remember the second electorate

Once the votes are counted, the leaders and other senior members of the parties that have made it into the Knesset will troop off to see President Reuven Rivlin, to tell him who they think he should charge with the task of building the next coalition. If the first Israeli electorate, in its infinite wisdom, has contrived on March 17 to elect a Knesset so divided as to leave us all scratching our heads over who actually won, those presidential visits by the second electorate will take on decisive significance.

(From left front row) Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Peres, Knesset 'elder' Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and the new Knesset's party leaders, pictured at the Knesset, February 5 (photo credit: Knesset spokesman/GPO)
(From left front row) Prime Minister Netanyahu, then-president Peres, Knesset ‘elder’ Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and the incoming Knesset’s party leaders, pictured at the Knesset, February 5, 2013 (photo credit: Knesset spokesman/GPO)

And here’s where things could get trickier still for Netanyahu. Much of the Israeli electorate doesn’t particularly like him, but much of the Israeli electorate still seems to prefer the flawed prime minister it knows to the various untried alternatives. Poll after poll after poll has shown Netanyahu 8 percent, 10 percent and more ahead of Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog as Israelis’ preferred prime minister, with all other pretenders still further back. Within the political system, by contrast, the animus engendered by Netanyahu should not be underestimated. Zionist Union’s Herzog and Tzipi Livni, along with Meretz and the Joint Arab List, needless to say, are dedicated to ousting him. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, who has generally steered clear of negative campaigning, reiterated in a TV interview on Monday that he is doing everything in his power to ensure that Netanyahu not head the next government. Kahlon, as mentioned, would self-evidently rather run alone and hope to become finance minister than throw in his lot with Netanyahu and guarantee himself that same job. Liberman tore up his alliance with Netanyahu last year, and criticizes the hesitancy and indecisiveness of Israel’s current leadership at every opportunity. Oh, and President Rivlin isn’t too fond of him either.

All of which means that, if the first electorate opens the door even partway, much of the second electorate will do its level best to consign Netanyahu to political history. His only dependable allies are Eli Yishai’s radically right-wing Yachad and Naftali Bennett’s Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home — while Bennett gathers the momentum that he hopes will carry him into the Prime Minister’s Office one day. United Torah Judaism would rather sit in a Likud-led government, but has no particular fealty to Netanyahu. As for Shas, Aryeh Deri says he’ll recommend Netanyahu as prime minister to Rivlin, but Deri’s an unreliable ally; it was only a few months ago that he was happily joining the likes of Herzog and Livni on the front lines of the Israeli opposition.

3. Sticking with the Bibi-Sitter?

Israel faces no end of challenges that require astute leadership and smart policies. Internally, the transition of the Israeli economy from labor-intensive agriculture and manufacturing to high-tech, while enabling admirable sustained growth overall, has exacerbated widening inequalities. Combine that with the alarming cost of housing, and you find an increasing proportion of Israelis, including families with two hard-working breadwinners, who can’t get on the housing ladder and who can’t make it through the month. Externally, in case you hadn’t noticed, Iran is closing in on the bomb, and the free world seems staggeringly disinclined to stop it. In Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are gearing up for the next round of conflict. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has ten times Hamas’s firepower, ready to launch when Iran gives the signal, and Iran-Hezbollah are now overtly gearing up to fight Israel from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights as well. Across the region, Islamic extremist terror groups seek to fill every possible vacuum. As regards the West Bank and East Jerusalem, we sit at a perilous moment, with the diplomatic process deadlocked, and the potential escalation of terrorism an ever-present danger.

Benjamin Netanyahu in his 'Bibi-sitter' ad uploaded to YouTube on January 31, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube/Benjamin Netanyahu)
Benjamin Netanyahu in his ‘Bibi-Sitter’ ad uploaded to YouTube on January 31, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube/Benjamin Netanyahu)

In such a climate, you’d think the Israeli electorate would be scrutinizing the platforms of its competing would-be leaders, to try to gauge which of them have the strategies to best ensure Israel’s ongoing well-being. Instead, however, these elections largely amount to a referendum on Netanyahu: Do we or do we not want more of the man who, after a first stint in 1996-9, has now governed us for six more years since 2009, and is thus already our longest-serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion? Are we sticking with the Bibi-Sitter (a campaign ad so resonant because it depicts Netanyahu as the responsible adult keeping Israelis tucked-in, safe and warm)? Or have we got the Six-Year Itch?

It has been a problematic last few campaign weeks from Netanyahu’s point of view. There’s a consensus in Israel that Barack Obama is doing a lousy job of ensuring Iran not get the bomb, but there’s emphatically no comparable consensus that Netanyahu was right to lobby America against its president with his speech to Congress last week, and there’s been no clear bounce for him in the polls. The sight of an emotional ex-Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, warning Israelis against re-electing him hasn’t helped either. And years of debilitating internal Likud warfare have left the party faithful under-motivated as election day draws near, which could have implications for turnout.

Israelis might like a PM who combines Netanyahu’s experience, Herzog’s decency, Lapid’s energy, and Kahlon’s charm. Given half the chance, President Rivlin would impose a coalition that features all of them

Helping Netanyahu hugely, however, is the sense — borne out by those surveys on who Israelis want as prime minister — that Herzog has not managed to convince a constituency beyond the center-left that he’s the man to lead Israel. The Labor-Hatnua merger into the Zionist Union has only added two or three seats to their combined force — hardly a dramatic rise, and hardly the upsurge they would have wanted against a long-serving, not particularly popular prime minister.

Netanyahu is a divisive politician, who stirs up sections of the electorate against each other. He is a patronizing politician, who sneers at his rivals. He’s widely regarded as a little too fond of the good life. Lots of Israelis worry deeply that he’s too closed-minded when it comes to nurturing fragile opportunities to create a better future here — too deaf to those faint Arab initiatives, too certain that everybody around us not only hates us today but can be relied upon, come what may, to hate us tomorrow. Constantly highlighting both regional dangers and the ongoing global history of hostility to Jews, he paints a bleak picture. But Herzog has not managed to paint a sufficiently compelling and credible alternative.

Israelis might like a prime minister who combines Netanyahu’s experience, Herzog’s decency, Lapid’s energy, and Kahlon’s optimism and charm. Given half the chance, President Rivlin would impose a coalition that features all of them. But what Israelis need most is a leader who is capable, first, of keeping the country safe and thriving amid the current regional threats, and, second, of utilizing every opportunity to help create a less threatening future. They may see Netanyahu as the least bad of the candidates to achieve the first of those goals; I’m not sure they are convinced that any of the candidates would be particularly effective when it comes to the second. And so we head to bitterly contested elections, with a bunch of squabbling leaders of medium-sized parties, with (scandalously) no debate pitting Netanyahu against Herzog, and with a largely disaffected public.

4. The Adelson-Mozes media wars

Electoral coverage in the Hebrew media — and most especially the tabloid press — is proving unprecedentedly partisan and shrill.

Yisrael Hayom, the free daily funded by Netanyahu’s deep-pocketed ally Sheldon Adelson, is the most-read newspaper in Israel. And for Yisrael Hayom, Netanyahu can do little or no wrong.

Publisher and owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Arnon 'Noni' Mozes in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2014. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Publisher and owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2014. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Yedioth Ahronoth, whose owner Noni Mozes heads Israel’s biggest media conglomerate, with stakes in Channel 2 and cable TV, is the biggest-selling newspaper in Israel. And for Yedioth, Netanyahu can do little or no right. Strikingly, Yedioth goes after the prime minister from left and from right. It has filled its pages in recent days with articles lambasting him, on the basis of leaked documents, for his purported willingness to agree to a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines and other dovish positions. It has also long attacked him for being too unwilling to compromise with the Palestinians, for having ostensibly doomed the peace process. It has castigated him for destroying ties with the US, for failing to thwart Iran, for mishandling the Gaza war, for alleged abuse of public funds, for the high turnover of staff at his office, for his wife’s alleged abuse of public funds… You name it, Yedioth has bashed him for it.

While it is blindingly clear from each day’s paper that Yedioth wants to see the back of Netanyahu, it is far less obvious whom Yedioth would like to see replace him.

It used to champion Ehud Olmert…

5. The kingmakers

Moshe Kahlon has not run a particularly effective campaign. He presented a key candidate — Tsega Melaku, named to the third slot on his list — who turned out to be ineligible to run because she had not quit her Israel Broadcasting Authority job early enough before election day. He scrambled to fill other slots on the Kulanu slate. It turned out that prize recruit Yoav Galant, the former general who quit the IDF when denied the chief of staff’s job because of a minor planning violation at his home, only got to Kulanu after being rejected by squeaky clean Yesh Atid. He’s not always been on exactly the same page, when it comes to policy on the Palestinians, with his party colleague, ex-ambassador to the US Michael Oren. Indeed, he’s wiggled around on the Palestinian front — a former outspoken opponent of Palestinian statehood and the dismantling of settlements who has shifted toward the center and is ready to entertain both.

Kahlon is the party leader least offensive to the largest number of the other party leaders

And yet Kahlon is polling at around eight seats, as the fresh centrist face of these elections — 2015’s Yair Lapid.

This doubtless stems in part from the fact that Kahlon has a modicum of credibility on the socioeconomic issues that so many Israelis again rank as their key election concern — as the politician who reformed the cellphone industry and consequently saved all Israelis actual money. It is also surely not unrelated to the fact that he’s a self-made man of impoverished Sephardi origin — precisely the kind of candidate Bennett was looking to add to his Jewish Home list when he lost his marbles and reached out damagingly to Eli Ohana, an inspirational figure on the soccer field but a man with no political experience and a record of political utterances anathema to the Orthodox-nationalist camp.

Moshe Kahlon announces Tzaga Malko's joining Kahlon's Kulanu party in Tel Aviv on January 11, 2015. The election committee disqualified Malko for not leaving her government job in time. (Photo credit: Flash90)
Moshe Kahlon announces Tzega Melaku’s joining Kahlon’s Kulanu party in Tel Aviv on January 11, 2015. The election committee disqualified Melaku for not leaving her government job in time. (Photo credit: Flash90)

Most of all, Kahlon’s appeal lies in the simple fact that he’s not Netanyahu. And that appeal is strongest among the second electorate. Kahlon, I would argue, is the party leader least offensive to the largest number of the other party leaders. (Where Lapid is anathema to the ultra-Orthodox, for instance, really most everybody could live with Kahlon.) And Kahlon, I would also argue, is the party leader least offensive to the voters of the largest number of other parties. (In part, this is because he’s a relatively unknown quantity. The more he speaks, of course, the more people he’ll alienate, in the fine tradition of Israeli politics.)

Had Lapid and Kahlon merged their lists and run together, they might even have emerged as the biggest party, as Lapid acknowledged in my interview with him this week. As things stand, they have the potential to play kingmakers. It could just be, amid certain arithmetical circumstances and given certain political rivalries and intransigencies, that they could play a still more leading role. Wouldn’t it be ironic were the one mainstream party leader who has stressed that he is not seeking to become prime minister to emerge as the consensual candidate of a riven second electorate? Highly unlikely, I should stress. Fanciful, really. But a curiously appropriate result: an election few people wanted ends up being won by a man who didn’t want the top job.

Having said all of which…

6. Don’t believe the polls

Why not?

a) Because minor discrepancies can remake the electoral constellation, and the polls just aren’t good enough to avoid minor discrepancies. Nate Silver they ain’t. i24 on Sunday gave Likud 26 and Zionist Union 21; The Knesset Channel on Tuesday gave Likud 21 and Zionist Union 24. Minor differences with major potential implications.

b) Because the pollsters are facing a combined Arab list for the first time, and there’s simply no way of knowing how high turnout will be in the Arab sector. Will the Joint Arab List win 11 seats or 15? Nobody knows.

c) Because the raised electoral threshold — you now need 3.25% of the vote nationwide to get seats in parliament, compared to just 2% last time — could also remake the coalition arithmetic. There can be no parties with fewer than four seats anymore. Thus the consequences of narrowly falling below the threshold are now far more dramatic. If, say, Eli Yishai’s Yachad, or Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, or Meretz — all of which have hovered in one poll or another at or below the 3.25% mark — fail to clear the threshold, that’ll be four seats that disappear, with dramatic potential implications for the relative strengths of the right-wing and left-wing blocs.

d) Because lots of Israelis haven’t made up their minds yet.

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