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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to address supporters after the March 23 elections, at his Likud party's election HQ in Jerusalem, early on Wednesday, March. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Ariel Schalit/AP: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to address supporters after the March 23 elections, at Likud's election HQ in Jerusalem, early on March 24, 2021.
Op-edHow the PM whipped COVID, slipped on election day

The man who divided Israel

Netanyahu had so many advantages this time, but had alienated so many voters. Attracted and repelled, they denied him a clear victory. But only his rivals can force his defeat

Main image by Ariel Schalit/AP: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to address supporters after the March 23 elections, at Likud's election HQ in Jerusalem, early on March 24, 2021.

March 23’s election, our fourth in less than two years, was there for the taking by our rapier-smart, energized, supremely experienced prime minister.

Three times in rapid succession he had failed to defeat his rivals’ spirited challenge to his record-breaking stint as prime minister, which began way back in 2009. Three times he had to marshal all his considerable political skills to outsmart his main challenger Benny Gantz, and narrowly managed to cling to power, most recently last May by luring Gantz into his coalition with a promise he never intended to keep to eventually hand over the prime ministership.

But exceptional politicians, like great generals, make their own luck, and as polling day loomed, it looked as though Netanyahu’s battle against COVID-19 had played out with perfect timing to ensure that, this time, he would be decisively victorious.

His new, surely invincible asset was that he had gotten Israel largely vaccinated, beating the world. While Trump chose denial and left Biden to play catch-up, Europe hesitated and bickered, and much of the Third World was hopelessly ill-equipped to do much at all, Netanyahu relentlessly persuaded, as only he can, the world’s leading vaccine manufacturers that Israel — with its dynamic social culture and super-efficient HMOs — was the perfect testing ground for their shots.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (second right) during a visit at a Leumit COVID-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv, with the 5 millionth Israeli who received a vaccination. March 8, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Frankly impressed” by Netanyahu’s “obsession,” Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla was won over; the inoculations were flown in by the millions; most of the public rushed to embrace the miracle of COVID-19 protection; and the virus was driven back. All the dire indices, the barometers of disease, began to turn in Israel’s and Netanyahu’s favor. Contagion rates dipped, even as the economy reopened. On the very eve of the elections, the number of serious COVID-19 patients in Israel fell below 500 for the first time in months.

The prime minister had worked his magic. The virus was under control. The election was there for him to win.

All the prime minister’s advantages

Except that he didn’t win.

He hasn’t lost either. Not yet, in any case. He could yet bend the final numbers, just as he bent the spread of COVID-19, to his formidable will. So long as there is any path by which he can retain the premiership — however improbable it may seem, however ideologically unthinkable –nobody should doubt for a second that he will pursue it.

How did this happen, when the success of his vaccination drive was only the most irresistible of a whole array of factors so plainly working in his favor?

But the sweeping triumph he had every reason to anticipate? No, the Israeli electorate denied him that, refused him that.

How can that be? How did this happen, when the success of his vaccination drive was only the most irresistible of a whole array of factors so plainly working in his favor, so clearly appreciated by the Israeli electorate?

How did he not triumph, when he had signed no fewer than four regional normalization agreements, overwhelmingly applauded by the public, in the months before these elections? When the Mossad under his direction has achieved such extraordinary successes in the battle against Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program? When the Israeli economy under his oversight has proved so robust and so innovative, and is such a credible bet to bounce back relatively rapidly from the devastation wrought by COVID-19? When he is so articulate a presence on the world stage? When he has kept Israel so relatively stable for so long in the shifting, hostile Middle East?

All that, and much more besides.

Going into these elections, Netanyahu was bolstered not only by the benefits of being the incumbent, whose every action garners immense attention and media coverage, but also by the fact that he could legitimately enter the nation’s living rooms at will, to update the public on the battle against COVID, and use that access to implicitly and explicitly advance his political goals.

Netanyahu had divided and conquered the most credible challenge to his leadership

He was helped by the fact that his political rivals were so splintered and mutually antagonistic. While the anti-Netanyahu camp widened this time, to include direct challenges from hawkish politicians Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, along with his now-familiar right-wing nemesis Avigdor Liberman, they all ran separately against him, none of them retaining substantive followings, none of them ultimately winning Knesset representation beyond single figures.

From left: Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi of the Blue and White party at its official campaign launch in Shefayim, July 14, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The one anti-Netanyahu party that did make it into double digits, Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, was itself only half the force it used to be when, for three elections, it was part of the Gantz-led Blue and White. Lapid and Gantz had been bitterly at odds since Gantz joined Netanyahu in government last spring; Netanyahu had thus divided and conquered the most credible challenge to his leadership. And in so singularly out-maneuvering the politically naïve Gantz, he had re-emphasized his mastery and reinforced the notion that even a challenger hardened by four decades in the IDF, culminating in a term as chief of staff, was ill-equipped for the cutthroat, bruising and cynical world of national and international politics.

For all that Netanyahu endlessly asserts that Hebrew media is almost universally invested in sending him home, all of Israel’s main TV and radio stations also granted him far more air time for campaign interviews than any of his rivals. On Army Radio, his cheerleader Jacob Bardugo, misidentified as the station’s “political commentator,” was provided over an hour of prime time each weekday evening to extol his virtues and denigrate his opponents.

Netanyahu helmed a social media network larger and far more sophisticated than those of his rivals, and could call on an election get-the-vote-out infrastructure with more experience than those of his challengers, with the possible exception of Yesh Atid.

In this campaign, he also wooed Israel’s Arab electorate like never before, insisting that he had been misunderstood when warning his supporters, on election day in 2015, that the Arabs were heading to the polling stations “in droves,” and now saying his only concern was that those Arabs were voting for the non-Zionist Arab political parties when they should have been voting for his Likud. He installed an Arab candidate, Nail Zoabi, on Likud’s slate, and promised Zoabi ministerial office in the next coalition.

Head of the far-right Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich and party member Itamar Ben Gvir with supporters at the party headquarters in Modi’in, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

And of perhaps the greatest significance for electoral arithmetic, he brokered the Orthodox-nationalist alliance that ran as the Religious Zionism party and won six seats, paving the path to the Knesset for both the Otzma Yehudit faction, led by Kahanist disciple Itamar Ben Gvir, that wants to expel “disloyal” Arabs, and the virulently anti-LGBT Noam faction. He claimed that Ben Gvir would not be allowed ministerial office, implicitly acknowledging that Otzma’s policies are unconscionable, but argued that it was entirely legitimate for him to help the faction into parliament, and potentially into his coalition, in order to ensure that no right-wing votes went to waste below the 3.25% Knesset threshold.

On the other side of the political spectrum, by contrast, Meretz, Gantz’s Blue and White, the conservative Islamic party Ra’am, and even the revitalized Labor party of Merav Michaeli, though polling uncomfortably close to the threshold, insisted on running separately, eschewing merger possibilities, when it was plain that Netanyahu’s victory prospects would be immeasurably boosted were one or more of them to fail to make it into the Knesset.

The overall parliamentary distribution reflects the pollsters’ finding, in several pre-election surveys, that a little more than half of the Israeli electorate simply does not want Netanyahu to continue as prime minister

And yet, despite all these advantages, savvy policies and tactical ploys, he still fell short of a decisive victory. The Religious Zionism alliance, Kahanists et al, indeed got into the Knesset, but so too did all the aforementioned parties on the other side of the spectrum. Meanwhile, his Likud lost significant ground — declining from 36 seats to 30, shedding 285,000 votes.

Tellingly, the overall parliamentary distribution appeared to reflect the pollsters’ finding, in several pre-election surveys, that a little more than half of the Israeli electorate simply does not want Netanyahu to continue as prime minister.

Whatever it takes to win

Why is this so?

Or to put the question in another, more nuanced and more accurate way: Why did many Israelis who are appreciative of much that Netanyahu has done to keep this country safe; who do regard him as sharper and more capable than most if not all of his rivals; and who do worry more than a little about Israel’s well-being in his absence, nonetheless choose to vote against him?

His disunited rivals’ core common claim plainly resonated: that Netanyahu has come to regard his own and the nation’s interests as inseparable, and is therefore ready to utilize just about any means — including the mainstreaming of radicals whose presence in the Knesset stains Israel — in order to retain power

There’s no one answer, but rather a host of contributory factors that weighed on that slight majority of the electorate who cast their ballots in favor of parties indicating or intimating they were seeking to oust the most successful politician in Israeli history.

For some, his disunited rivals’ core common claim plainly resonated: that Netanyahu has come to regard his own and the nation’s interests as inseparable, and is therefore ready to use just about any means — including the mainstreaming of radicals whose presence in the Knesset stains Israel — in order to stay in office.

This, in turn, has prompted growing fears for our democracy under his leadership — and specifically a concern that, if he were reelected with sufficiently docile support, he would redesign the separation of powers to match his needs.

Netanyahu has spent the past three years ratcheting up his assault on the police and the state prosecution for investigating and then indicting him on corruption charges that he claims are fabricated. He and his loyalists have relentlessly targeted Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for ostensibly leading a sophisticated attempt at a political coup — and never mind the fact that Mandelblit is a Netanyahu appointee, as was the former police chief Roni Alsheich, who oversaw the investigation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (seated beneath a window) before a hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one of them. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

The public may not be remotely persuaded of Netanyahu’s guilt. The charges — centering partly on allegations of taking illicit gifts, and more substantively on his alleged efforts to corral Hebrew media and engineer financial benefits for media barons in exchange for favorable coverage — are certainly not black and white, in layman’s terms or those of legal experts, for that matter. With the trial only set to enter its evidentiary stage on April 5, there is no public consensus about where it might be headed. But the prime minister’s assaults on his state accusers have sharpened the fear that he is seeking to place himself above the law.

While Netanyahu insists he is not pushing judicial reform primarily in order to wriggle out of his trial, his loyalists indicate the opposite

As Netanyahu has sought to extricate himself from his legal difficulties, he has begun energetically championing a radical “reform” of the balance between the executive and the legislature, on one hand, and the judiciary, on the other. Were this a cause he had centrally advanced before becoming embroiled in corruption allegations, it might have resonated further across the political spectrum; even some liberal jurists believe the Supreme Court has become overly activist and interventionist. But while Netanyahu insists he is not pushing judicial reform primarily to wriggle out of his trial, his loyalists indicate the opposite.

Members of Likud and Otzma Yehudit told the electorate in the run-up to polling day that they indeed intend to initiate legislation, effective retroactively, that would bar the prosecution of a prime minister in office. When Netanyahu insisted in numerous interviews that he would not advance or rely on any such legislation, much of the public — opponents and supporters — likely did not believe him. This is the prime minister, after all, who vowed repeatedly, when luring Gantz into their short-lived coalition last year, that he would honor a “rotation” agreement to make Gantz prime minister in November 2021, and then, to the surprise of almost nobody in the country with the glaring exception of Gantz himself, reneged on the deal and triggered these latest elections.

Thus, for at least some of the voting public, Netanyahu, for all his attributes, stands as a potential threat to Israeli democracy, and as a leader who cannot be trusted — hardly vote-winning attributes for a good part of the electorate.

New Hope party chair Gideon Saar and his wife Geula vote with one of their children in Tel Aviv, on March 23, 2021. (Jalaa Marey/Pool Photo via AP)

Sizing up the not-final results in the early hours of last Wednesday morning, Netanyahu urged the likes of Sa’ar and Bennett to return to his orbit, and enable him to build a stable coalition and avoid fifth elections. It is improbable, but not impossible, that either or both could yet be persuaded to do so.

Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party seen with Yamina supporters at the party headquarters in Petah Tikva, on election night, on March 23, 2021. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

But both of them, and the entire Israeli electorate, know that once safely re-ensconced as prime minister, Netanyahu would be looking to exploit any loopholes he had managed to insert into their agreements in order to breach coalition terms not truly to his liking. Having witnessed the shafting of Gantz, neither of his ideologically compatible rivals is likely to agree to a rotation deal in which Netanyahu goes first.

Thus his legacy of broken promises, combined with his derisive campaign targeting of Sa’ar and Bennett, both accelerated the slide in support that denied him outright victory and narrowed his potential paths to reelection, now that the votes are in.

When even the hawks are ‘leftists’

Netanyahu has also over the years gradually alienated wider swathes of the public by sowing and inflaming division and internal friction.

Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman seen with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in the Knesset on March 11, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90 )

When Liberman refused to join his coalition after the first of our four rapid-fire elections, the emphatically right-wing Yisrael Beytenu leader — he lives in a settlement; he has floated the idea of redrawing Israel’s borders to exclude certain heavily Arab populated areas — was summarily declared by Netanyahu to be “a leftist,” the premier’s catchall for evil. Indeed, everybody who complicates Netanyahu’s hold on power is routinely designated a member of the left — Sa’ar, Bennett, Liberman, the state prosecution, the cops, the media, et al — to be reviled and resisted.

While they are the left-wing, weak and unpatriotic enemy when they oppose West Bank annexation and seek to build alliances with Arab politicians, he is the leader of the right-wing, nationalist, patriotic camp even when he suspends annexation in the cause of a peace treaty and woos Arab voters.

In these elections, evidently, a smaller proportion of the voting public was amenable to this argument.

Israelis protest against PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and commemorate assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Jerusalem, on October 31, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu, the man who led political opposition to Yitzhak Rabin in the months before the Labor prime minister was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995, has pulled back from incendiary accusations against his opponents. But his son Yair pumps out an endless supply of inflammatory material on social media, and extremists among his supporters have attacked protesters at anti-Netanyahu demonstrations and targeted Sa’ar campaign events. In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu said he opposed the violence, but could not resist the cynical twist of condemning attacks “even” on “irrelevant” rivals such as Sa’ar.

Aspects of his battle against COVID-19, meanwhile, also reduced his appeal for that large section of the electorate that worries Israel’s official Jewish character is increasingly determined by the 12%-strong ultra-Orthodox community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism at a meeting of the heads of the right-religious bloc, at the Knesset, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s most loyal allies have long been the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. Wary of alienating them, he and his ministerial colleagues chose not to implement a “traffic light” system that would on occasion have imposed stringent lockdowns on high-contagion areas, since many such areas were ultra-Orthodox, and instead locked down the entire country.

With similar deference to Haredi political demands, in 2017, he froze the so-called Western Wall compromise — which would have granted non-Orthodox Judaism a formal foothold in oversight of the pluralistic prayer area at the Wall — betraying a solemnly negotiated agreement with Diaspora Jewish leaders. Likewise, he did not defend a High Court ruling earlier this month that conversions to Judaism via the Reform and Conservative movements must be considered legitimate for citizenship purposes.

Such stances, and his maintenance of the unequal norm by which most young ultra-Orthodox males are exempted from IDF conscription, mean that Netanyahu is widely seen as being in the pocket of the ultra-Orthodox — “a serial capitulator” to them, in Liberman’s words. And thus, the ranks of voters disinclined to support Netanyahu are swelled by those who see Israel, under his leadership, enslaved to widening religious coercion at the hands of the ultra-Orthodox.

Down, but not out

The normalizing of political extremists, the breaching of promises, the winking at low-level violence, the denigration of opponents… all this and more combined to deny Netanyahu the clear-cut victory he declaredly anticipated. (He had told small business owners in a leaked video call in January that he expected to win 40 seats or more.)

The country hasn’t turned on him. It is at once attracted and repelled by his single-mindedness, his stamina, his tenacity

It is not over yet. Likud is by far the largest party. Any number of small swings in the vote could have lifted him, his allies and a reluctant Bennett to a winning total of 61; he only narrowly missed out on a majority. He fights on.

The country has not turned on him. It is, rather, divided by him, at once attracted and repelled by his single-mindedness, his stamina, his tenacity.

The Likud is rock solid behind him. Unlike its historic rival Labor, it doesn’t ditch its leaders. Menachem Begin failed eight times before winning an election. Its Knesset members stick with Netanyahu out of “a mix of admiration and fear,” in the words of the disillusioned ex-Likud minister Limor Livnat, knowing that their prospects of advancement are tied directly to their sycophancy.

Now he is searching for defectors in the anti-Netanyahu camp. He’s trying to shame Bennett into joining forces with him, rather than consorting with the left. He’s reportedly promising Sa’ar the moon — specifically that he’ll quit politics altogether and hand over the prime ministership in as little as a year. His emissaries are attempting to woo the most astoundingly improbable and ironic kingmaker in Israeli political history — Mansour Abbas of Ra’am, the man Netanyahu called an anti-Zionist and whose party he said unequivocally could play no role in his coalition, not as a formal member, and not as a supporter from outside. “I won’t do that… Out of the question,” he declared.

That, of course, was before the election.

Now it’s up to the politicians

The electorate has spoken. But the political machinations are only just beginning. And none of his rivals can match Netanyahu’s experience and cunning.

Maybe he will yet persuade a Sa’ar or a Bennett that he really means it this time when he promises to hand over power in just a year, or two, or two-and-a-half.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, prays in the northern town of Maghar on March 26, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Maybe Abbas, an unknowable and evidently courageous, independently minded player who put himself at political and personal risk when breaking away from the Joint List and running separately, will conclude that Netanyahu, rather than Lapid, will deliver the resources to tackle the Arab community’s murderous criminals, ease building restrictions, improve his voters’ socioeconomic conditions.

The electorate balanced its legitimate concerns that Israel will be more vulnerable to external enemies when bereft of Netanyahu, against its reasonable fears for the internal cohesion and resilience of the country under his continued rule

Yet again, Israel’s political future balances on a knife-edge.

In contrast to the previous three campaigns, Netanyahu had good reason to believe that, this time, his COVID battle would prove decisive. The electorate thought differently. It balanced its legitimate concerns that Israel will be more vulnerable to external enemies when bereft of Netanyahu, against its reasonable fears for the internal cohesion and resilience of the country under his continued rule.

What the electorate, in its apparent wisdom, ultimately did at the ballot box was to require Netanyahu’s opponents to prove that they really meant it when they claimed, as they did day-in, day-out on the campaign trail, that the prime minister has become inimical to Israel’s interests.

The anti-Netanyahu parties have all the Knesset seats they need and more to oust the prime minister — but they will have to put aside personal ambitions and core ideological differences to do so. And they will all have to agree, and act in unison on the belief, that Israel would be better off without Netanyahu, that he does more harm to the nation than good.

On March 23, the Israeli electorate denied Netanyahu an outright victory. But only his elected opponents can condemn him to defeat.

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