Will Netanyahu’s vaccine success outweigh his rivals’ warnings about democracy?

Four insights as Israel prepares for Election IV, the least ideological vote yet and the most personal referendum on our longest-serving prime minister

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israeli workers put up a giant election campaign poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, in Jerusalem on March 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli workers put up a giant election campaign poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, in Jerusalem on March 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If Benjamin Netanyahu is reelected next week, there will be no doubting the central role played by his handling of Israel’s vaccination drive.

In a TV interview last week, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla admitted to being “impressed, frankly, with the obsession of your prime minister” in seeking to persuade his company that Israel was the perfect national testing ground for Pfizer’s vaccines. “He called me 30 times,” Bourla marveled.

Because Netanyahu secured early and plentiful supplies, Israel has led the world in vaccination per capita, with barely a million eligible Israelis yet to be vaccinated. As a direct consequence, Israel has been able to gradually reopen most of the economy in the last few days without witnessing a rise in contagion levels and with the number of serious COVID-19 cases falling by the day.

Netanyahu’s rivals charge that Israel, with over 6,000 COVID fatalities, has not performed well in terms of its per capita death rate — we’re 55th worst in the world, as of this writing, with about 170 countries faring better — and they argue that this stems at least in part from his politicized decision not to implement the so-called traffic light system. This system was intended to impose more restrictive lockdowns on higher-contagion areas, but since many of those areas were densely populated ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods, and since Netanyahu was wary of alienating the ultra-Orthodox electorate and its Knesset members, these differentiated closures were not generally imposed.

Critics such as Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid have cited nearby Cyprus to highlight Netanyahu’s ostensible failure in this regard — with a population a tenth of Israel’s, it has a death toll, at 240, that’s about a 25th of Israel’s. And while Netanyahu has countered that Cyprus, being an island, is easy to seal off, Lapid noted in a ToI interview earlier this month that Israel only had to close down a single airport — while Cyprus has two — yet failed to do so effectively.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein at a Covid-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv, with the 5 millionth Israeli to receive a vaccination, March 8, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Nonetheless, asked in recent polls whether they are satisfied with the government’s handling of the pandemic, an increasing proportion of the electorate is saying yes: 57% in a Channel 12 survey Tuesday night, compared to 44% when asked the same question two weeks ago.

Most Israelis are still telling the pollsters they doubt Netanyahu’s assertion that COVID-19 is truly behind us, but should the statistics on falling contagion rates and falling numbers of seriously ill virus patients hold firm until Tuesday, it will be an increasingly COVID-upbeat Israel that goes to the polls, and that can only benefit Netanyahu.

The kingmaker’s dilemma

No opinion poll in this campaign has shown the pro-Netanyahu camp anywhere near the magic 61 figure — the narrowest majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Rather, Likud, the two ultra-Orthodox parties and Religious Zionism are heading for somewhere in the region of 50 seats between them. While allowing for the fact that the pollsters sometimes underestimate Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties, and that Netanyahu is an incomparable election day get-out-the-vote campaigner, even he probably doubts that those four parties alone will propel him to victory. Rather, he is betting on reaching 61-plus with the support of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina.

Several polls suggest this is arithmetically well within reach, since Yamina is polling at 10-12 seats. The question is whether Bennett, who is adamant that Netanyahu needs to go and that he himself should be prime minister, would agree to serve in a Netanyahu-led government, and if so in what role.

Netanyahu has explicitly said he will not agree to “rotate” the premiership with Bennett and would certainly not allow Bennett to go first in any such arrangement. Bennett, having seen what became of Netanyahu’s rotation promise to Blue and White’s “alternate prime minister” Benny Gantz, almost certainly wouldn’t agree to go second.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett insists he won’t serve in a coalition led by Yesh Atid’s Lapid. He said on Tuesday he’ll be the “responsible adult” ensuring a right-wing government after the elections. He said he’ll approach New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar to try to ensure this. He also said that “in the end, the public will decide.”

If, in the end, the public leaves Bennett with the choice between serving under Netanyahu, struggling to construct a hugely improbable, wildly diverse anti-Netanyahu coalition, or forcing Israel into yet a fifth election, what will he do? What would his voters want him to do?

Who’s wasting votes?

In Israel’s multi-party system, elections can be won and lost on wasted votes — i.e., ballots that are cast for parties that fail to clear the 3.25% threshold and thus are not counted when Knesset seats are allocated. As of this writing, the pro-Netanyahu camp would appear to have a major advantage over the anti-Netanyahu camp in this regard.

Of the Netanyahu-supporting parties, only the Religious Zionism party led by Bezalel Smotrich is hovering near the threshold, but most polls see it safely making it into the Knesset, with 4-5 seats. Of the anti-Netanyahu parties, by contrast, Meretz and Blue and White are polling dangerously close to the threshold. So, too, is Ra’am, an Arab party that split away from the Joint List and that Netanyahu has ruled out as a coalition partner or backer.

Should all three of these parties fail to make it, several hundred thousand non-Netanyahu votes would go to waste — a huge, potentially election-determining advantage for him. (Some 4.6 million votes were cast in last year’s election.)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz attends a Channel 12 News conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

All about Bibi

For a brief period 20 years ago, Israel experimented with a two-vote election. The electorate cast one vote for its preferred prime minister, and a second for its preferred party. The “reform” was swiftly abandoned because it failed to have the desired effect of strengthening the larger parties and thus stabilizing the political system.

In these elections, more so even than in the past three, nonetheless, the electorate is essentially voting for its preferred prime minister — or more accurately, choosing between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps.

Ideology is more marginalized than ever before. The declared anti-Netanyahu camp, this time, includes not only the ideologically opposed center, left and Arab parties and the veteran anti-Bibi right-winger Avigdor Liberman, but also the hawkish ex-Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, and, albeit a little more ambivalently, the firmly right-wing Bennett’s Yamina. Not incidentally, Liberman, Sa’ar and Bennett all worked very closely with Netanyahu in their previous lives — before they became Knesset members themselves — as well as serving as ministers in his governments; all are now adamant that he is bad for Israel.

Of his right-wing rivals, Liberman castigates Netanyahu principally for serial capitulations to the ultra-Orthodox parties. Sa’ar says the prime minister is skewing policy-making to serve his own interests. Bennett says he can’t be trusted and has been in the job for far too long.

The relative success of these Netanyahu opponents and their parties confirm that their criticisms have some resonance among the electorate, but Likud remains by far the largest party, and Netanyahu a far more popular choice than his rivals as prime minister.

Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit campaigns at the market in the northern town of Safed, March 10, 2021. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

On the left and much of the right, there is widespread disgust that Netanyahu, in these elections, has almost certainly paved the way for provocateur Itamar Ben Gvir to enter the Knesset, by brokering a merger that saw Ben Gvir’s extremist and homophobic Otzma Yehudit join forces with Smotrich under the Religious Zionism rubric. Ben Gvir is a disciple of the late rabbi Meir Kahane who kept a picture in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of 1994’s massacre of Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs.

There is also widespread dismay at Netanyahu’s relentless rhetorical assaults on the police and the state prosecution that have had the temerity to put him on trial for corruption, and his claim that law enforcement is attempting a political coup in league with the media and “the left” — an ever-widening catch-all for his many and varied enemies, including those who stand most emphatically on the political right.

He is a divisive figure, who alternately targets and woos the Arab electorate as best serves his needs, absolves himself of responsibility for the incendiary social media activities of his son Yair, and couldn’t even condemn recent incidents of violence by his own Likud supporters against rival New Hope candidates without undermining that condemnation by sardonically referring to Sa’ar’s party as “irrelevant.”

Netanyahu is also a deeply mistrusted figure. Benny Gantz was apparently one of the very few people in Israel who believed him when he promised to honor their rotation agreement, and even Gantz now says he has learned his lesson. Asked time and again if, were he to be reelected, he intends to try to pass legislation that would block his corruption trial, Netanyahu denies it, is not believed, and knows full well that he is not believed.

Set against all this, however, is Netanyahu the prime minister now presiding over one of the calmest security periods in Israeli history. Netanyahu who has steered Israel (most of whose youngsters are required to serve in the army) without military adventurism through 12 years of regional upheaval. Netanyahu who has assembled credible evidence of Iran’s rogue nuclear program, and strides the global stage articulately highlighting the threat posed by the ayatollahs’ regime. Netanyahu who indefinitely eschewed West Bank annexation in favor of normalized relations with the UAE, followed by three other normalization processes (with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco), with the promise of more to come.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaks during an interview at the ‘Influencers Conference’ of Channel 12 news in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021 (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)

Most Israelis keep telling the pollsters they don’t want Netanyahu to continue as prime minister — 58% in a Channel 13 poll two weeks ago; 52% of Jewish Israelis and 56% of Arab Israelis in a Channel 12 poll last week. But when asked who is their favored prime minister, he still scores significantly higher than any of his would-be successors — 37% in Channel 12’s poll Tuesday, compared to 21% for Lapid, 10% for Bennett and 9% for Sa’ar.

Israelis’ deeply conflicted views of Netanyahu saw him fail to decisively prevail in three successive elections and narrowly cling on to power. This time, more of the right has joined the battle against him. Offsetting that, however, the alliance under former IDF chief Gantz that challenged his security credentials has collapsed. And we’re voting in a mood of greater optimism than at any time since the pandemic struck.

In the fateful choice on Tuesday, with a substantial proportion of the electorate still avowedly undecided, the contrast between Lapid dismissing the possibility of vaccines by January and Netanyahu hounding Bourla to ensure Israel got millions of them is not easily ignored.

Neither is Lapid’s assertion that Netanyahu, if reelected, will defang the judiciary, further corral the media, and turn Israel into a kind of “illiberal democracy.”

** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

Most Popular
read more: