A central theme in the barrage of interviews Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has delivered in recent days — including with this writer on Friday — has been “They don’t get it.” As in, a significant proportion of the Israeli electorate that really wants to keep him on as their prime minister, simply doesn’t realize that this may not happen if it votes for right-wing parties (such as Jewish Home, Yachad, Yisrael Beytenu) or right-wing-ish parties (such as Kulanu and Shas), rather than his Likud.
Netanyahu told The Times of Israel, “The public really has chosen: They really want us. They really want me and Likud to lead. But… (there are voters who)… think they have a choice to vote for those parties and still get me as prime minister. But in fact they won’t. The only way they’ll get me as prime minister is if Likud gets sufficient votes. That’s something that’s not been understood. They think that they have two votes, two ballots. But they don’t. They have one. And those that want me as prime minister have to vote for my party, Likud.”
Netanyahu’s assertion that “they really want me” is doubtless founded in good part on surveys that have unanimously shown him to be Israelis’ preferred prime ministerial candidate. Channel 2’s final pre-election poll showed 43% want Netanyahu as prime minister, compared to 35% who prefer his main rival, Isaac Herzog; many polls in recent weeks have shown a far wider gulf.
Like all or almost all Israeli prime ministers — Yitzhak Shamir might possibly have been an exception — Netanyahu has long since convinced himself that, without him at the helm, the country would be in terrible trouble: “I think that the policies that I’m leading are essential for the future of the country. That’s why I’m doing it,” he said in one of the more revealing passages of our conversation. “Otherwise, why would I sustain the enormity of these personal attacks and slurs…?”
The question is whether the prime minister’s “save me” tactics in the last few days of an election campaign that he initiated, tactics that might be described as “Netanyahu’s ‘gevalt’ gamble,” are going to save him or doom him as we enter the final hours before the March 17 vote.
One of Netanyahu’s greatest electoral assets — borne out in those relentless polls showing him to be voters’ preferred prime minister — is that he had created a palpable sense of inevitability about his rule. Having run the country for the past six years, and for three more in the late 1990s, he had managed to instill a certain aura of invincibility. “King Bibi,” TIME magazine crowned him in a cover story less than three years ago. And his various opponents in recent years — notably Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yachimovich — failed to shatter that aura.
Isaac Herzog has done a little better than those two in confronting the image of “Netanyahu the unbeatable” — but only a little. Decent but unimposing, clear-spoken but lacking the security credentials Israelis have often (but not always) sought in their leaders (the first person to beat Netanyahu in a general election was former chief of staff Ehud Barak in 1999; the last was the former army journalist Ehud Olmert in 2006), Herzog has merely dented Netanyahu’s regal air.
Now we wait to see whether Netanyahu — who first warned in a Channel 2 interview last Thursday of the “real danger” that he’ll lose power — finished the job himself. We wait to see whether the gevalt gamble — the self-declared warning that he might lose, accompanied by the assertion that his departure endangers the country, and underpinned by his dark talk of “almost Soviet-style” plots by forces international and domestic to topple him — pays off or bankrupts him.
Two weeks before the elections, Herzog’s Zionist Union was averaging about one seat ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud. Polls in the last week generally gave Zionist Union a three-to-four seat lead. If that momentum is maintained, and if the gap were to widen much further, Netanyahu would be finished.
To their credit, the pollsters themselves have been warning against premature conclusions. The one thing we can say for sure, leading pollsters Camil Fuchs and Mina Tzemach chorused on Army Radio early Sunday afternoon, is that “there will be surprises” on election day.
If turnout in the Arab sector is significantly higher than expected, that could raise the Joint Arab List’s share of seats, help ensure left-wing Meretz clears the electoral threshold, and push right-wing Yachad or Yisrael Beytenu below that threshold. Equally, if Arab turnout is relatively low, the Joint Arab List would fare poorly, Meretz might miss out, and Yachad and Yisrael Beytenu might make it. Numerous seats are in play in that scenario, and it’s just one of many plausible and potentially significant shifts. These are narrow recalibrations that remake not just the party scores but the balance of power between the blocs — the balance of coalition-building strength, that is, between Netanyahu and Herzog.
For those who would complain that this analysis, and the election it seeks to dissect, is long on personalities and arithmetic, and short on substance, I’d say much of the substance is actually contained in what is, essentially, an electoral referendum on Netanyahu. If the Likud leader’s gevalt gamble works, sufficient numbers of Israelis will have been persuaded that life in this ruthless region is just too scary for them to entrust their country’s leadership to that nice Mr. Herzog, and that they’re better off with the nasty Mr. Netanyahu. If not, to quote from another recent interviewee, Yair Lapid, “Three weeks into somebody else’s prime ministership, you will not remember this sense that no one can replace Netanyahu.”