Few had seen or heard from Benjamin Netanyahu for much of the week following election day. Barring a few prepared statements about his fight with Benny Gantz over this week’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said little and went nowhere publicly. After a frenetic three-month campaign, the prime minister spent the week cloistered at home.
Then he emerged back into the public eye on Wednesday evening with what Likud billed as a dramatic televised announcement in prime time.
The right, he declared, had “clearly” won the election.
“After three elections in which no side prevailed, this time the people delivered a clear choice. The public gave right-wing parties a clear majority of 65 seats. That allows us to establish a stable right-wing government, a government Israel needs like air to breathe as we leave the coronavirus behind,” he said.
Any other government “would be an unstable left-wing government that would be established in clear and unambiguous defiance of the enormous majority that voted for Likud and the other right-wing parties.”
He ended the short address by urging Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and New Hope head Gideon Sa’ar to get behind him for a right-wing government.
“That’s what the enormous public that supported us in Likud and in the right-wing parties expects us to do,” he said. “Return home to your natural place, to the right.”
It was a strange statement, made as if old left-right divisions were still the central point of dispute in the election, and not his own continued rule.
It’s one thing to suggest that Sa’ar betray his central promise to his voters (that he would not serve under Netanyahu) for the arguably greater good of political stability in uncertain times. It’s a valid argument given a ballot-box result that offers no clear outcome.
But Netanyahu took a different tack, a demonstrably false one: insisting that Sa’ar’s and Bennett’s voters wanted them to support a Netanyahu-led government.
As far as we can tell, that’s not true. And Netanyahu knows it.
Was the call for Sa’ar and Bennett to return to their “natural home” an authentic attempt at right-wing unity? Or was Netanyahu laying the groundwork for blaming the two for the slide toward yet another election, at once jump-starting his campaign and placing pressure on them to compromise or risk the voters’ wrath?
That Netanyahu’s comments neither addressed nor even half-heartedly acknowledged the concerns expressed by Yamina and New Hope about him suggests the answer is the latter. So does his seemingly willful misreading of what voters say they want.
So, what do the voters want?
A March 14 poll (Hebrew link) by the Israel Democracy Institute is the most detailed publicly available poll that asked these questions point-blank.
It asked Israeli voters, for example, if they “want Netanyahu to be the next prime minister.”
Sa’ar voters said no by a margin of 86 percent to 8%. In fact, Sa’ar voters were more likely to oppose another Netanyahu term than voters for Blue and White (77%), Labor (78.5%), or the Joint List (75%).
Netanyahu is wrong about Bennett’s voters too. Yamina voters said they want Netanyahu out of office by a two-to-one margin, 62.5% to 32%.
In all, 53% of Israelis want him out of office, the poll found, compared to 41% who do not. It’s a figure similar to other polls, including by Kan and Channel 12, that asked the same question over the past two weeks.
On election day, over 46% of voters cast ballots for parties that were committed to replacing Netanyahu, and another 10% voted for parties that were open to it.
The sad fact from Netanyahu’s perspective, the fact that may explain his sudden disappearance from public view for the week that followed the election, is that on March 23 most Israelis reiterated their view that they want him replaced.
Those right-wing parties he now insists owe their allegiance to his next government were elected by voters who mostly (and in Sa’ar’s case, almost entirely) stand opposed to him leading the next government.
Netanyahu’s frustration is palpable and understandable. On paper, he should be a shoo-in. As prime minister, he just delivered a near-miraculous world-leading vaccination drive to his people, as well as four peace treaties with Arab-world countries. The old Blue and White alliance has shattered into pieces. Arab turnout dropped dramatically. How could such seemingly ideal conditions end with the same failure, the same deadlock? How could the voters be unmoved by his efforts and achievements?
The fifth stage: Acceptance
And so a despondency has set in.
“His appearance tonight,” wrote Ariel Kahana of the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily of Wednesday’s broadcast, “shows in my view the start of Netanyahu’s acceptance of the election results. After many years in which he grew used to a one-man rule in which he’s the final arbiter, Netanyahu understands that in the near future he’ll be dependent on others – and not just others, but those he hates most, Bennett and Sa’ar, against whom he has waged all-out war since 2013.”
Netanyahu urged Sa’ar and Bennett to put the past behind them, but no one, not Sa’ar, not Bennett, not even Kahana, seemed to believe him.
“No one believes Netanyahu is honest when he calls for ‘putting the past behind us,’” wrote Kahana. “After all, a long, broad wake of broken promises trails behind him, including his trampling of a signed agreement with Benny Gantz anchored in a Basic Law. But who knows, maybe in a month or two, when the threat of a fifth election is closer, and other processes have proven futile, Sa’ar may soften slightly.”
Things may yet work out, of course. In a month or so, faced with a fifth election, Sa’ar may indeed buckle. So might Betzalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism, whose refusal to sit in a coalition dependent on the Muslim party Ra’am has Netanyahu in just as much of a bind as Sa’ar’s and Bennett’s intransigence. There may be defectors who agree to cross the aisle over the next few weeks, or someone may convince Netanyahu to leave the Prime Minister’s Office in favor of the President’s House. A fifth election isn’t inevitable.
But as things stand, after a week of quiet cogitation Netanyahu appears to have decided a fifth election is the least costly path for him – or at least that it’s the most likely outcome regardless of what he does.
It seems likely that Netanyahu’s sudden conciliatory tone has little to do with the next government and everything to do with shifting blame for the next election onto someone else.
If that’s true, if a fifth election is all but assured, then Netanyahu just kicked off his campaign.
“Any other government that might be established other than this right-wing government would be an unstable left-wing government,” he said Wednesday. “And I’m telling you, it will fall quickly, very quickly…. At this time, when we’re the first in the world to be leaving the coronavirus behind, that would be an enormous disaster for the country, an enormous disaster for the Israeli economy.”
If the vaccines and peace treaties and breakup of Blue and White didn’t deliver a different result, what might? Netanyahu new campaign seems to have hit on an answer. Its message goes something like this: “You may not like me personally, but my voters are the most stable thing in our politics right now. So you’re not going to get stability without me. If you want to finally end the deadlock, if you want stability, I’m the only one who can give it to you.”
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