Now the fun really starts.
After three months of the nastiest election campaign this country has ever witnessed, exit polls from the three major television networks painted a muddled and confusing picture.
“King Bibi” may yet be dethroned – we won’t know that for sure for days – but if he is, the uncrowning process will have been brought on by none other than the king himself.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s strong performance against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday was the result more of Netanyahu overstaying his welcome, than anything Gantz did or said.
In these elections, it was not as if much of the country said “yes” to Gantz, as much as it said “no” to Netanyahu.
It said “no” to his style, “no” to his divisive rhetoric, “no” to his alleged malfeasance, “no” to his wife and his oldest son. It said “no” to giving power for another four years to someone who has already held it consecutively for the last 10, and 13 over the last 23 years. Heck, even Britain eventually showed Winston Churchill the door.
But again, that is all tentative, because – long a magician – Netanyahu may still emerge as the country’s prime minister. But even if he does, these less-than-impressive results will have to be sobering for him.
This was an election about personality, not policy. As such, it was particularly ugly, because when there is a campaign that focuses on personalities – not on issues – it is bound to take the low road. An election centering on personalities means simply tearing down the other.
Thus Netanyahu and the Likud Party cast Gantz as “weak,” a “leftist” and someone not mentally stable enough to be prime minister, and Gantz cast Netanyahu as a crook, and as an authoritarian leader in democratic clothes who would kill him if he could. Ironically, the results may force both of them to sit together in the same government.
This was not a contest over ideas, but rather a popularity contest, and the results can be interpreted as a vote of confidence in Gantz the person, because the country still knows precious little about Gantz’s policies.
On policies, Gantz did nothing to distinguish himself from Netanyahu. He may have reintroduced the word “peace” into the national conversation to a certain degree, but he did not loudly wave the banner of a two-state solution, and he said himself that there is no difference between him and the man he sought to replace when it comes to Iran.
But when it comes to personalities, there is a world of difference.
Gantz jumped into the political fray a few months ago with a built-in head start. As a former chief of staff, he emerged from the army – as most former chiefs of staff do – with wide popularity. The country, which consistently says in surveys that the IDF is the institution it trusts most, has a natural affinity for the chief of staff. The public deposits its sons and daughters into the IDF top general’s hands, and as such wants to believe he is a decent, good and trustworthy man.
Only chiefs of staff who failed badly – such as the perception of Dan Halutz in the Second Lebanon War – do not emerge from their service with a jump start on their competitors.
But the tall, slim, blue-eyed, silver haired Gantz did emerge from the army popular – the nation liked him before he even opened his mouth. After he did begin to talk, his support waned, but still held enough to either outlast or run very close to Netanyahu.
Gantz’s image is that of a straight-shooter, if politically inexperienced. His family story – that his mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen and in a single generation he became the head of the most powerful army in the region – was for many a compelling symbol of the Jewish journey from ashes to resurrection. And he seemed like a mensch.
The strategy of Gantz’s campaign was to present him as the anti-Bibi.
If Netanyahu is corrupt, he is not, his campaign drummed into the public; if Netanyahu divides, he unites – note his campaign slogan: there is no Left or Right, we are all Israelis. If Netanyahu is undermining the country’s democratic institutions, he will strengthen them.
This campaign was about one thing, and one thing only: beating Bibi. And after three others tried unsuccessfully over the last decade – Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Isaac Herzog – finally someone emerged to come close to nearly doing the job, less because of who he is and what he stands for, and more because of what the country believes Netanyahu has become.
Netanyahu brought in the big guns to win this battle: US President Donald Trump with the last-minute US recognition of the Golan Heights, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who returned the remains of Zachary Baumel. But even all that did not lead Netanyahu to a conclusive victory, something that indicates that after 10 years – and regardless of how the dust finally settles – for a good part of the public, Bibi-fatigue has definitely set in.