Israeli elections: Testing Netanyahu's assumptions

Israel’s most premature election in 54 years will deliver a verdict concerning its mastermind’s political judgment, relevance and survival

By
March 15, 2015 17:52
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his appearance before Congress

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his appearance before Congress. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Having digested the results of the early election he accidentally caused in 1961, David Ben-Gurion said bitterly: “The State of Israel needs mercy.”

The Old Man wasn’t referring to his failure to foresee his party’s decline from 47 to 42 seats, but to the prospects of the greater cause he had joined – which was to replace the political generation of his would-be successors with a younger generation, led by Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres.

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The context of that precarious moment in Israeli history, a generational clash wrapped in a spy scandal, is not the point. The relevance of all this to next week’s general election lies in the price early elections in Israel have repeatedly cost their originators.

Tuesday’s election of the 20th Knesset comes a mere two years and two months after the outgoing Knesset’s arrival, and is thus Israel’s earliest election since 1961 – when the fourth Knesset dissolved a year and 10 months after its election. Every decade since then, there was an early election that punished its architect.

Ben-Gurion didn’t call that early election, but he caused it accidentally by dissolving the government after firing the head of the Histadrut labor federation, Pinhas Lavon, then a major public office, and an outpost of the middle generation that Ben-Gurion was out to fight. Ben-Gurion, until then Israel’s unrivaled leader reputed for his forensic reading of any political map, now made three miscalculations that soon brought his career to its unhappy end.

First, the coalition partners he thought he would disassemble and reassemble like Lego blocks slipped out of his grip and led him to the polls. Then voters, rather than be impressed with the prime minister’s dismissal of the unions’ leader, saw in it a vendetta and robbed Ben-Gurion of one-10th of his votes. And finally, after all this resulted in the Old Man’s resignation, his splitting the ruling party and challenging it at the polls – Ben-Gurion landed in the opposition, where he withered for the remainder of his political days.

As his biographer Michael Bar-Zohar saw it, Ben-Gurion’s departure from the premiership in 1963 began in 1961’s early election.



The following decade’s miscalculating architect of an early election was Yitzhak Rabin. Having misunderstood religious Zionism’s place in his situation, Rabin provoked the National Religious Party when he attended an air force ceremony for the arrival of its new F16s shortly after Shabbat began.

Faced with the religious politicians’ consequent bolting from his coalition, Rabin called the early election that resulted in religious Zionism’s abandonment of its alliance with Labor and the launch of the era of the Likud’s dominance – an era which 38 years on, has yet to end.

In 1984, a party named Tami caused an early election by betraying Yitzhak Shamir and backing Labor’s vote of no-confidence. Voters robbed Tami of two-thirds of its votes, and buried it under a new party called Shas.

The following decade, Peres underestimated the swing vote’s doubts concerning the Oslo Accords, and called the early election of 1996 – which he lost to 47-year-old Benjamin Netanyahu, who Peres assumed he would in any event defeat.

Finally, last decade, by voting in 2003 against the budget, Shas caused the early election – after which Ariel Sharon condemned it to the opposition.

Precedent alone, then, should have made Netanyahu avoid forcing this premature election. Yet the prime minister made several electoral, social and tactical assumptions that led him to believe he would emerge from this election not only intact, but reinforced.

These assumptions are what Tuesday’s polls will test – in what has unfolded as an election that is about its architect’s judgment, relevance and future.

Netanyahu’s first assumption in calling an early election was that the last election’s results were an accident.

The liberal Yesh Atid, whose 19 seats accounted partly for the Netanyahu-Avigdor Liberman ticket’s dive from a combined 42 seats to a mere 31, has been for Netanyahu a politically illegitimate child.

Netanyahu could have interpreted that result as an order from the voter to deliver reforms together with Lapid. Instead, Netanyahu saw in Lapid an enemy and concocted an election that, he hoped, would turn the political clock back and reproduce the kind of conservative coalition where he feels most comfortable.

At the same time, Netanyahu took as a given the size of his alternative coalition’s partners.

Lastly, by calling a very early election, he apparently hoped to catch unprepared the other centrist threat he faced – from former communications minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu.

Socially, Netanyahu assumed the popular protest that has been brewing here in recent years does not require urgent and thorough governmental action. The most telling expression of this assessment was Netanyahu’s appointment of Bayit Yehudi’s Uri Ariel as housing minister.

Ariel’s actual record is difficult to judge, because he had hardly been in office when this election cut him short. Still, when Ben-Gurion faced an acute housing shortage during the immigrations of the 1950s, and when Shamir faced the post-Soviet immigration’s demand in 1990, they did not outsource the urgent national task to sectarian coalition partners. Instead, they appointed, respectively, their own parties’ Bernard Joseph and Ariel Sharon. Ariel’s appointment came across as intended to serve a sectarian cause at the expense of a national need.

The same went for Netanyahu’s appointment of Lapid as finance minister. Had Netanyahu assumed the popular demand for a domestic agenda was broad and potent, he would have kept the Treasury in his own party, and in fact taken it himself. Instead, he used it as a tool for tripping up Lapid.

Netanyahu’s evident social assumption – that the middle class’s travails are not as urgent as many suggest – led to his tactical assumption that this election’s agenda can be steered to foreign affairs. In engineering the brouhaha that surrounded his speech in the US Congress, the prime minister apparently hoped to divert the electoral discourse away from mortgages, housing starts, tuition and food prices.

All these assumptions have since been seriously challenged.

NETANYAHU’S hope to smash Yesh Atid will likely be dashed, as the party seems poised to survive this election and remain a force to reckon with. If anything, the centrist challenge will be multiplied by Kahlon who, barring a major debacle, is poised to emerge as this election’s kingmaker and an indispensable – and assertive – component in any coalition.

Meanwhile, it is also doubtful Netanyahu foresaw the breakup of Shas, which might result in one of its splinters’ failure to enter the Knesset – thus shrinking a potential right-wing coalition by some four Knesset seats.

Netanyahu’s belittling of the social forces demanding a domestic agenda will be judged, for better or worse, by Kahlon’s performance. Every vote the former Likud minister gets will be a vote of no-confidence in Netanyahu’s domestic record.

Lastly, Netanyahu’s attempt to plant Iran at the heart of this election has failed, for the prosaic reason that there isn’t really a partisan controversy about this issue’s substance, and one speech’s circumstances is not what makes Israelis decide how to vote.

Netanyahu, in sum, may emerge from this election with his narrow, conservative coalition in hand, but even then, it is doubtful the gamble he took will have been worth the price – because the issues remain domestic, and if not Lapid then Kahlon will be there to demand their treatment.

This is not to say that Netanyahu’s rivals made better calculations.

The initial effort to focus this election on Netanyahu’s character has failed. The headlines surrounding the management of the Prime Minister’s Residence were an artificial issue from the onset, and the Zionist Union itself understood at a certain stage that it had better ignore it.

Polls, besides having in the past underestimated the Right’s following, show little traffic between Right and Left. The commotion is within and surrounding the Center, where Labor may snatch some votes from Lapid and Meretz, and Kahlon from the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu’s Liberman.

If this is how things end up, it will mean that Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s pact with Tzipi Livni has not delivered the goods, and in fact backfired – as his surrender to her demand that they rotate as prime ministers put off voters who saw the move as a sign of weakness.

The Zionist Union’s pragmatic but low-profile candidates for finance and defense ministers, economist Manuel Trajtenberg and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, will likely not lead Herzog to the centrist electorate Livni seems to be failing to impress.

Even so, for better or worse, Herzog and all this election’s other actors have been merely maneuvering within a situation created fully by someone else: Netanyahu – who is not known to have consulted anyone before firing Lapid and Livni and calling the most premature election the Jewish state has seen in more than half a century.

At 65, Netanyahu is likely more distant from the end of his career than the 75-year-old Ben-Gurion was in 1961. Then again, like Ben-Gurion in his last election, Netanyahu too may soon regret having caused the election that he thought would be about his empowerment – and instead became a poll about his political judgment, social relevance and personal fate.

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