In call for elections, Netanyahu gets personal

The prime minister understands better than most that Israelis no longer vote for ideology, but for the candidate

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces he's fired Ministers Lapid and Livni and is calling new elections, in a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 2, 2014. (Photo credit: Emil Salman/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces he's fired Ministers Lapid and Livni and is calling new elections, in a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 2, 2014. (Photo credit: Emil Salman/POOL)

In formally announcing his decision to go to elections on Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out his case to the electorate.

It was a case that speaks volumes about his experience of the last 20 months of sharing a coalition with Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

“I believe that you, the citizens of Israel, deserve a new, better, more stable government, a broad-based government that can govern,” he said.

And in order to give Israelis that “unified and strong” government, Netanyahu said, “one needs a strong ruling party.”

His appearance was both the unmistakeable first speech of the new campaign, complete with its sensationalist accusation that his erstwhile partners Lapid and Livni had attempted a “putsch” to oust him, and a cry of frustration at the indecisive results of the previous election in January 2013, which left Netanyahu the indisputable premier, but without the legislative votes to govern effectively.

In part, those election results demonstrated what was then a huge gap, and is still a wide one, between Netanyahu’s personal popularity and that of his party. Polls that ask Israelis to rank party leaders’ fitness for the premiership have consistently shown Netanyahu ahead of all likely competitors, although not as far ahead lately as in times past. And they have reflected the decade-long decline in the large ruling parties of yesteryear. The relatively popular prime minister’s own party controls just 18 seats of 120 in the current parliament, one fewer than its “junior” (now ex-)coalition partner Yesh Atid.

So Netanyahu’s appeal was personal. You want me to run the country? he was saying to voters. Then give me the power to do so.

Or, as he actually put it, “Those of you listening to me now who want a prime minister from the left can vote for a fitting candidate from the parties of the left. Anyone who wants a strong prime minister from the national camp, in other words center-right and right, I ask you to vote for the ruling party under my leadership, the Likud, in order to give me a real mandate to lead the people and the country.”

Israeli politics have fractured from the former Likud-Labor dichotomy into a multitude of small and medium parties, a reality that polls suggest may grow worse in the next Knesset — and that bodes ill for the stability of the next government. In response, Netanyahu hopes to capitalize on his own personal lead in the prime ministerial polls to help drive voters to his party and prevent a recurrence of the parliamentary stalemate that led to the fall of the outgoing coalition.

And one of the ways in which Netanyahu appears to be planning to do that is by appealing to the center, in effect challenging Lapid and Livni for their own electorate.

In suggesting that the alternative to voting for him was a vote for the “left” candidate, he handily ignored the fact that his most acute electoral challenges come from the likes of Lapid and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon in the center, and from Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett on the right. And in explicitly pausing to interject the term “center-right” into his brief description of his candidacy, Netanyahu emphasized the narrative of an inclusive right wing anchored by a strong Likud.

Winston Churchill once urged the United States to “give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” While Livni paints a stark ideological choice between peace and extremism, Bennett publishes annexation plans for parts of the West Bank and Lapid rails against the possible cancelation of his party’s social and economic reforms, Netanyahu has not said a word about ideology or policy. Instead, he launched the election campaign for the 20th Knesset Tuesday night by simply asking Israelis to trust him, and undoubtedly hopes fiercely that that will be enough.

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