Paroxysms of irrepressible nattering seized numerous local know-it-alls hot on
the heels of the Knesset election results. None-too-amazingly they were of one
mind. While brimming with self-importance, few had anything original to
contribute to our understanding of what happened. Every self-aggrandized
analyst, so at least it seems, obligingly subscribed to the prescribed
That wisdom is predicated on a number of premises
which by and large went unchallenged.
The first and most cardinal is that
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was duly humbled by a host of challengers,
primarily that neophyte wunderkind Yair Lapid, whose dazzling star ascended
overnight to mesmerize all and sundry.
The second premise, disseminated
with particular relish, was that not only did Netanyahu’s alliance with Avigdor
Liberman not produce profitable yields, but it actually appeared to have
embarrassingly backfired. Hence, Netanyahu was devastatingly
Although Netanyahu was returned to power against the fervent
wishes of our omniscient talking heads, their entire coterie pronounced him the
Lots of ink was spilled to further this thesis, to say
nothing of prodigious airtime allotted for the same prattle.
motif was conjoined to a related claim that parity now exists between the two
sides of Israel’s political divide – our alleged Left (doves) and Right (hawks).
This, it was proclaimed with none-too-objective glee, meant a cushy gain for the
Left versus a crushing comedown for the Right, which lost the predominance
heretofore taken smugly for granted. To uphold this contention it was vital to
include Lapid in the left-of-center configuration, even if without empirical
justification and regardless of Lapid’s own hoarse protestations.
– whose name vexingly escapes me – once quipped: “Nothing is ever what it seems,
but everything is exactly what it is.” Examined with less bias, the very same
election returns tell quite a different story.
If anything, Netanyahu was
a victim of his own success.
Put differently, Lapid cunningly rode on
Netanyahu’s coattails. He wasn’t the only one, either. Naftali Bennett from
Bayit Yehudi managed the same feat even more overtly and impudently, as did
Shas’s Arye Deri – ever poised to bite off a mouthful of Likud
Quite shamelessly, both Bennett and Deri appealed to their
respective pools of potential quasi-sympathizers in the Likud and reassured them
that voting for another list would still guarantee a continued Netanyahu
premiership. The added bonus, they asserted, would be rarified accentuation of
lofty ideals or sectarian interests.
Cheeky photo-montages of Bennett
together with Netanyahu soon appeared on giant outdoor billboards, lending the
insidious impression that yesteryear’s split ballot had been
The split ballot was the foremost feature of an attempt to
reform our electoral system in the 1990s. It provided for a direct vote for
prime minister, accompanied by a separate choice of parliamentary
The logic was to shield the government from coalition-related
extortion, to rid us of small pesky parties and mitigate the shortcomings of our
nationwide absolute proportional representation system.
Yet contrary to
propaganda, the much-ballyhooed reform managed spectacularly to achieve the
precise reverse. The politicians and political scientists who concocted the
split ballot were warned of the hardly unpredictable consequences of their
hubris, but to no avail. And so the split ballot allowed members of the
electorate to luxuriate in voting for diminutive singleissue Knesset lists,
while assuaging their consciences by also voting for the prime ministerial
candidate who represented the bloc of their general leaning.
was a drastic decline for the large parties (from which none has to date
recovered) and a far more fragmented Knesset than ever. Concomitantly and
inevitably, coalition-formation became all the more hopelessly tangled. The
professed panacea was tried only twice – in 1996 and 1999. The irrefutable flop
was repealed, with a universal sigh of relief, in 2001.
Yet somehow, some
otherwise presumably intelligent voters still assume that by opting for
satellite parties they won’t injure the prospects of their preferred prime
That, anyway, was the impression calculatingly
imparted by both Bennett and Deri – even after the Central Elections Committee
reprovingly rapped their knuckles for the ruse. Bennett restored his party’s
strength to what it was in the National Religious Party’s heyday, while Deri
managed not to slip back. Both successes were achieved, without pretending
otherwise, at the Likud’s expense.
Lapid essentially did the same, though
not as blatantly. From the launching of his campaign (significantly in Ariel of
all places), he sought to appeal with much ado and fanfare to voters solidly
within the rightist National Camp. And so Lapid sang “eternally unified”
Jerusalem’s praises, declared that our ancient capital is “the source of our
revived national vibrancy,” that the Tower of David will forever be of greater
imperative than the towers of Tel Aviv.
Nothing of the sort has been
heard from the left wing, nor is likely to be heard.
There is more. After
Hamas aimed its rockets at Tel Aviv just a few months ago, Lapid warned against
making further territorial concessions. He pointedly refrained from badmouthing
In truth, the charismatic former TV anchor aimed his alluring
pitches at all political directions. Still, despite his nonetoo- definable
political identity, captivating looks, toothy grin and simplistic mantras, the
polls – until quite late in the game – forecast somewhere between eight and 11
Knesset seats for his list. How did it then suddenly skyrocket to a whopping 19?
That’s where the Likud comes in.
Tzipi Livni and Labor’s Shelly
Yacimovich sought to recruit the enigmatic celebrity into a leftist union that
would function as a counterweight to the Netanyahu-Liberman amalgam. Friendly
pollsters stoked their zeal by speculating that a Yacimovich-Livni-Lapid front
could beat Bibi. This sufficed to generate a merry media
Nonetheless, Lapid never hemmed and hawed. He unceremoniously
pulled out the rug from beneath his would-be partners.
No way, he
declared for all to hear, would he join them. That was when his bandwagon was
abruptly propelled forward.
It now became apparently safe for Likudniks
to do the cool, trendy thing and vote for the cutest all-the-rage meteor in our
firmament. It seemed no less safe than to vote for Bennett or Deri and way more
And then, when Lapid was already on the upswing and cutting deep
into the core Likud constituency, he was helped yet further by none other than
It was from the prime minister’s own entourage that the word
went out to the nation notifying all voters that the first likely coalition
partner to get a phone call from Netanyahu would be Lapid. Could Likud loyalists
get a more authentic and authoritative seal of approval for the suave TV icon?
Bibi and Yair are obviously a team. If the PM kisses up to the newbie already
before polling day, then why not vote for him? To top that, Netanyahu began to
publicly endorse Lapid’s catchphrases about drafting yeshiva students and easing
middle class burdens in a variety of populist contexts.
diehards liked these sounds. Even they could scarcely avoid the message that
it’s OK to vote for Lapid, as he is certain to partner up with Netanyahu, and
Netanyahu is certain to head the next government.
Therefore, rather than
this having been an anti-Netanyahu protest vote, as is the voguish consensus
among conformist opinion-molders, it in fact was quite the
Netanyahu backers were convinced that Lapid was a safe option.
They assumed they were taking no chances and yet running with the fashionable
herd. By voting for Lapid, they could place a more focused emphasis on issues
that given voters want their preferred prime minister, Netanyahu, to place atop
his agenda. They regard the moribund so-called peace process as a
Rather than harp about a Palestinian state, they want their
government to dwell on the Jewish state’s affairs.
This was fine-tuning
the pro-Netanyahu predilection – just as in the bad old days of the split
Lapid may not have used Netanyahu’s image in his campaign, but
his well-chosen words subliminally had much the same effect on his target
audience. Instead of incurring Netanyahu’s wrath as Bennett did, Lapid actually
received the Likud leader’s electorally advantageous thumbs-up.
conservative estimates it is judged that no less than a full third of Lapid’s
votes came directly from the Likud, courtesy of that pre-election flirt between
himself and Netanyahu.
The amorphous return of the split ballot, of
course, would not have been possible had this been a run-of-the-mill
But it wasn’t. For the first time since 1973, the incumbent
prime minister faced no viable rival. He was a shoo-in.
There was no
question he’d be reelected.
That in itself had a liberating effect
specifically on those who wanted to see him remain in office. If Netanyahu was
in no danger, it was thought harmless to indulge again in the luxuries once
afforded by the split ballot.
Rather than Lapid’s triumph having ensued
from an anti-Netanyahu turnout, Netanyahu was ironically hurt by his own
Normally in an electoral showdown, a popular
leader creates momentum for fellow candidates from his own party. These
candidates are then described as having been ushered in on the coattails of
their headliner. But nothing that is self-evident in other democracies can be
taken at face value in our idiosyncratic arena.
Here Netanyahu’s broad
coattails didn’t benefit his own hangers-on. Quite the
Netanyahu’s most voracious competitors for parliamentary power
hitched rewarding rides on his coattails.
Now the happy hitchhikers whom
Netanyahu enabled-cum-emboldened will crow exultantly, haggle fiercely, hobble
him with conditions from hell, pitilessly pull him in opposing directions and
generally spare no effort to make his life more than a little