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Analysis

Will Netanyahu face his own ‘six-year itch’?

Left and right agree the looming election is a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu. That could be bad news for the prime minister

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)

At 8:41 p.m. on Wednesday, after Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid charged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “detached” from the struggles of ordinary Israelis, the Likud party issued a remarkable statement:

“The upcoming elections are about one issue only: who will be the next prime minister to lead the nation and the country – who is best suited to battle the security threats from Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic State…; who will know how to lead the Israeli economy to prosperity and growth, and to a lower cost of living. The public knows that there is only one man who can lead the country in the face of these many challenges: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

The following morning, at 9:37 a.m., amid news reports that several center-left parties were contemplating joining forces to attempt to topple Netanyahu, the Likud again issued a statement that was surprising in both its blunt tone and content:

“The cat is out of the bag. The one goal of the parties of the left is to replace Netanyahu. Again we see that this election is about one issue only: who will be the next prime minister. Will it be a candidate of the left, or will it be Netanyahu leading a strong, unified national camp?”

Parties who vehemently disagree on a range of issues are uniting, at least in rhetoric, in their call to unseat the prime minister

It is still early days in the campaign; the Knesset won’t even formally dissolve before Monday (assuming no last-minute surprises). But the Likud’s campaign narrative is already set. This election is not about the economy, the Palestinians or any of a dozen issues over which the outgoing coalition bickered in recent months. It is, according to the Likud’s own campaign, a referendum on Netanyahu.

The new strategy is remarkable, because it marks the prime minister’s embrace of his opponents’ longest-running and most successful slogan against him.

Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On. December 25, 2013. (Photo credit: Flash 90)
Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On. ‘Just not Bibi’ (Photo credit: Flash 90)

As Meretz leader Zehava Gal-on put it in the Knesset plenum last week, “Even if these elections reveal a rotten politics and pathetic power games, my fellow Members of Knesset, we see in them an opportunity for the parties of the center-left, who are committed to ending the occupation and to the two-state solution, who are committed to battling racism and protecting democracy, to closing the economic gaps and to a solution to the cost of living – and to a prime minister who isn’t Netanyahu. And if someone didn’t understand me: ‘Just not Bibi,’ my fellow Members of Knesset. The next government must be ‘Just not Bibi.’”

She didn’t stop. “Pay attention, pay careful attention. Remember this sentence. I’ll repeat it. ‘Just not Bibi.’ We’ve had enough of you. ‘Just not Bibi.’ And to those who didn’t internalize it the first time, ‘Just not Bibi!’”

Even in these early days, the warring sides in the campaign have reached an emphatic agreement on one thing – that the central question in the campaign is not ideological but personal. Parties who vehemently disagree on a range of issues are uniting, at least in rhetoric, in their call to unseat the prime minister.

If not Bibi, who?

Foreign observers routinely misunderstand Netanyahu’s popularity in the Israeli electorate.

In 2009, when US President Barack Obama pressured Netanyahu on settlement construction, eventually extracting from him a 10-month settlement freeze, Obama’s sky-high popularity among Israelis plummeted. In the years since, many American officials, Obama included, interpreted this decline as a sign of Netanyahu’s popularity. When the two leaders bickered, Israelis rallied around their own.

But Netanyahu’s approval ratings didn’t soar when Obama’s crashed. Israelis wrote off America’s leader on the basis of his own failings, as they saw them. His tiffs with Netanyahu were secondary to the perception among many Israelis that Obama seemed to be short-sightedly expecting them, after the Second Intifada, Second Lebanon War and a fresh war in Gaza, to trust once again in their neighbors’ peaceful intentions.

On Friday, when the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont cited a recent poll (among several) that found most Israelis don’t actually want Netanyahu as premier when asked the question point-blank, he suggested this meant “the incumbent may be more vulnerable than previously thought.”

And, indeed, a Channel 2 poll over the weekend found that just 36% of Israelis view Netanyahu as the most fit candidate for the job of prime minister among those running.

Yet these numbers mark little change from the past. Netanyahu has won elections not because of his own popularity, but because of his opponents’ unpopularity.

Isaac Herzog leading a Labor Party meeting in the Knesset on December 1, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Isaac Herzog leading a Labor Party meeting in the Knesset on December 1, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Thus, in a late-November Globes poll that asked about each party leader’s “fitness” to be PM, Netanyahu got just 33% – but his competition trailed far behind, with Labor leader Isaac Herzog garnering just 15%, Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett 12% and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid just 6%.

In the days before the last election, in January 2013, a Times of Israel poll found that Netanyahu’s approval rating after nearly four years of a Netanyahu-led government was just 39% positive and 57% negative. Or, as pollsters report such figures, his net approval was -18.

He won that election.

In a follow-up Times of Israel poll in January 2014, the numbers had not improved: 34% positive, 61% negative. Yet in that very same poll, a year into Netanyahu’s third government and with an approval rating at just 34%, fully 52% of voters, including one-third of voters on the left, said they did not see any meaningful alternative to Netanyahu.

And so the finding that two-thirds of Israelis don’t actually want a fourth Netanyahu government is not surprising, nor does it necessarily signify a dramatic improvement in the center-left’s ability to replace him.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (L) seen with former justice minister Tzipi Livni during a farewell party in her honor at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on December 4, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (L) seen with former justice minister Tzipi Livni during a farewell party in her honor at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on December 4, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After all, the one-third of the electorate that consistently supports Netanyahu comes from a relatively unified right-wing bloc, while the two-thirds that dislike him are made up of centrists, the center-left, the far-left, the far-right, Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox. The real question – the question center-left parties are scrambling to discover as they ponder uniting into an anti-Netanyahu coalition – is whether the disparate opposition to Netanyahu can coalesce into a real threat to his premiership. Which leader of the center or left can unite enough of the anti-Netanyahu electorate to mount a serious fight? And which can offer a credible answer to Netanyahu’s most resonant accusation against the center-left: that it is an irresponsible steward of the economy and peace talks?

The six-year itch

As the moment of Netanyahu’s announcement last week that the country was going to elections fades into the past, the reasons for his decision are becoming clearer. One reason that now looms large in Knesset water-cooler conversations is Netanyahu’s apparently firm belief that his (now ex-)finance minister Lapid planned to leave the coalition and go to elections immediately after the 2015 state budget and Lapid’s flagship affordable housing program known as the “0% VAT” bill passed into law this month.

It is impossible to know if Lapid had such plans, though his repeated public excoriations of his coalition partners in recent months might have convinced some Likud leaders that such plans existed even if they didn’t. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Netanyahu believed it, and that the prime minister felt he was being played – that Lapid was waiting for the moment when he would win his first dramatic legislative achievements, and then run to the voters as a man of accomplishment, rather than mere words.

With elections called before lawmakers could pass the 2015 state budget, all of Yesh Atid’s major reforms – Yael German’s private medical care reforms in the Health Ministry, Shai Piron’s nationwide matriculation and curriculum reforms in the Education Ministry, Lapid’s own 0% VAT bill and plans to raise investment in various sectors – are now canceled, wiped out by the dissolution of the Knesset moments before they were to be implemented.

The frustration in Yesh Atid over the timing of Netanyahu’s break-up of the coalition is palpable. As Yesh Atid MK Ifat Kariv said last week with caustic sarcasm, “In the budget that Bibi [Netanyahu] chose not to approve, there were another 1.2 billion shekels in increases for the Internal Security Ministry towards the personal safety of Israel’s citizens. I wish a speedy recovery to the wounded.”

Ex-finance minister Yair Lapid speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, December 3, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)
Ex-finance minister Yair Lapid speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, December 3, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

Lapid now goes to the voters not as an accomplished political leader, but merely as an aspirational one.

In a speech last week, he touted his party’s “list of achievements – despite all the obstacles, we have achieved more in a year and eight months than other parties have achieved in decades.” But these achievements were in a narrow set of issues – a new ultra-Orthodox draft law, for example – and not in the broader economic themes that swept Lapid into office in the first place. The latter was denied him by Netanyahu’s timing.

And it is this rush to undermine Lapid that suggests Netanyahu nevertheless perceives a danger to his continued rule.

For the prime minister, the problem doesn’t lie with the polls. He’s doing well enough there to win on March 17. Rather, the problem lies with the inchoate sense that he has lost his base

He knows he is not actually loved by any meaningful segments of the electorate, as Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Rabin were at various points in their careers. It is true that his peculiar combination of managerial ability and foreign-policy skepticism appeals to a jaded electorate, but this is an appeal rooted in shared mistrust. Many Israelis, even when they dislike Netanyahu and even among some who won’t vote for him, trust his skepticism on the Palestinians and other issues.

Netanyahu does not fear Isaac Herzog. Rightly or wrongly, the Likud believes the Israeli electorate is still too traumatized by the disastrous results of the last major round of Labor-led peace negotiations in the late 1990s to trust a left-wing leader who urges them in turn to trust in Palestinian intentions.

Moshe Kahlon speaks at a Tel Aviv pub on Friday, December 5, 2014 (Photo credit: Channel 2 News)
Moshe Kahlon speaks at a Tel Aviv pub on Friday, December 5, 2014 (Photo credit: Channel 2 News)

But Netanyahu knows that he is vulnerable to another sort of leader, one who voters might perceive as equally skeptical, equally competent, and not saddled with the handicap of incumbency.

Yair Lapid was one such potential political hero who Netanyahu needed to defuse. Former communications minister Moshe Kahlon is another.

For the prime minister, the problem doesn’t lie with the polls. He’s doing well enough there to win on March 17. Rather, the problem lies with the inchoate sense that he has lost his base, that as he passes the six-year mark in February, many Israelis, including in his own camp, are wondering if it isn’t time to move on. Voters may deliver an ostensibly friendly Knesset, but when it comes time to cobble together a coalition, will lawmakers accept him as prime minister for a seventh straight year?

Former US president Bill Clinton speaks at Georgetown University on Wednesday, April 30, 2014 (photo credit: Georgetown University)
Former US president Bill Clinton speaks at Georgetown University on Wednesday, April 30, 2014 (photo credit: Georgetown University)

In American politics, pundits speak ominously of the “six-year itch,” in which a two-term president, when he reaches his sixth year in office, almost invariably loses control of both houses of Congress. Bill Clinton was the only two-term president since the mid-19th century to avoid a second-term Congressional loss. Obama’s sixth-year loss of Congress happened just last month.

The basic psychological effect is relevant for Netanyahu. The longer a particular party or leader are in power, the more they are identified with the unsatisfactory status quo.

Likud is almost certain to emerge from the election as the largest party in the Knesset. But that won’t be enough to ensure Netanyahu’s victory. Will fellow rightist Avigdor Liberman, who has criticized Netanyahu repeatedly in the current government and dramatically split from a shared Knesset list with him this past summer, recommend Netanyahu for premier when it comes time to form the next coalition? Will Kahlon or Lapid or Livni? Can Netanyahu bring the ultra-Orthodox back into his fold after they were so unceremoniously shut out of his last government?

In February 2009, Netanyahu’s main challenger, then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, introduced the slogan “Just not Bibi.” It became the Kadima party’s refrain in the final days of the campaign. It was a call for the left to unite under Livni’s centrist banner for the sole purpose of preventing a Netanyahu victory. The strategy failed; Netanyahu was elected. But it was not completely ignored by voters. Kadima swelled by four Knesset seats in the final polls and at the ballot box, while Meretz shrank by three and Labor by one.

The center once drew four Knesset seats from the deep left by rallying voters against Netanyahu’s bid for a second premiership.

What might such a campaign achieve now, as Netanyahu seeks his fourth?

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