Editor's Note: The magician strikes again

This was supposed to be the election that Benjamin Netanyahu was going to lose.

By
April 12, 2019 06:43
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu votes Tuesday in Jerusalem

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu votes Tuesday in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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This was supposed to be the election that Benjamin Netanyahu was going to lose – three criminal investigations; a decision of intent to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust; and three former IDF chiefs of staff who joined together with the sole purpose of taking him down.

But even all of that could not defeat Netanyahu. He refused to be beaten.

There were those in Israel who referred to him on Wednesday as a magician. Considering the challenges he overcame and the final preelection polls last Friday, he might well deserve the title. While some of those polls showed Likud behind Blue and White by one or two seats, others showed the gap at four. But Netanyahu managed to pull ahead, and in the final days before the vote his Likud party climbed five or six seats.

Many political analysts dismissed his final “gevalt, I am going to lose” campaign as Netanyahu just crying wolf, like he did on the eve of the last election in 2015. They claimed it wouldn’t work. But it did – and better than he could have imagined. Netanyahu managed to tie with Blue and White by sucking just enough votes from the satellite right-wing parties, but to let them keep enough so they would get into the Knesset and he could then form a coalition.

The added prize was the news that his three nemeses – Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Moshe Feiglin – would not make it into the Knesset. Not only did he manage to siphon votes, he did it mostly from the two parties he couldn’t stand.

That is the positive outcome of the election.

Here is the negative: If Netanyahu decides to form a narrow haredi (ultra-Orthodox), right-wing coalition, he will be vulnerable to extortion like never before. Each party will potentially hold in its hands the key to his political survival, and will use it accordingly.

Netanyahu will want to make concessions to the Palestinians to show good faith after the rollout of the Trump peace plan? URP will veto it. He’ll want to permit Qatar to insert more money into the Gaza Strip to avoid a conflict with Hamas? This time, Liberman will be able to stop him. He won’t want to annex settlements in the West Bank? Too bad – because if he doesn’t, Netanyahu could face the end of his political career.

THIS IS NOT the way to run a government, and this is not the way to run a country. From a national interest perspective, the best government would be one that is the most stable, represents the largest portion of the population, and could be the most effective in grappling with the military, diplomatic and security challenges on Israel’s horizon.

A Likud-Blue and White unity government – the parties have very little ideological differences – would also be more acceptable to the world. It wouldn’t have Kahanists or far-right parties, which are only interested in advancing their constituents’ narrow interests.

But – and this is a big but – what Netanyahu has shown in recent years is that his primary objective is remaining in power. To do that, he needs a government that will not bolt the moment Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit indicts him, as is expected to happen sometime in the coming year. Gantz would not be able to stay inside a government with a prime minister under indictment. But the haredim and small right-wing parties can.

Does this mean that Netanyahu won’t try to bring Gantz into his government? Not necessarily. While he knows that Gantz will not stick around after an indictment, he might prefer to first have him in the government, get through Trump’s peace plan without clashing with the US president, and then – when Blue and White leaves – bring in the right-wing parties to help him stay in office through a future indictment and court case.

While turning away the right-wing parties now might make them hold a grudge in the future, it could be a gamble that Netanyahu ultimately feels is worth taking.

IN THE weeks to come, Blue and White will need to not only lick its wounds but also try to figure out what it did wrong. That shouldn’t be too hard: three of the four heads of the party are former IDF chiefs of staff, and the military is known for its ability to conduct comprehensive post-operation inquiries.

One problem that the party is already aware of was the lack of enthusiasm when it came to the campaign trail. Gantz oftentimes appeared like he was being dragged along, forced to do events and reading scripts written for him. When Netanyahu claimed Gantz was a puppet of PR specialists and strategists, the public nodded. Even if it wasn’t true, on the surface it definitely seemed so.

On Tuesday, the day of the election, we suddenly saw a different Gantz. In a video he posted on Twitter, Gantz yelled: “Get yourselves together and fly to the polls.” It was a Gantz never seen before – determined, insistent and passionate. Where had he been for the last two months?


The problem was that Gantz was constantly being compared to Netanyahu, who despite being 10 years his senior, fought these elections as if his life depended on it. Just watching him on Election Day was impressive. Here was a man, almost 70, running in his seventh prime ministerial election with the vigor and zest of someone half his age. Ultimately, it may have been that Netanyahu simply wanted to win more than Gantz.

The second problem had to do with the party’s messaging. When the Gaza Strip flared up in late March, for example, the party held back from attacking Netanyahu, whose response came under heavy criticism from within the right-wing camp. This was strange. Blue and White’s three former chiefs of staff had together, as they constantly reminded us, more than 100 years of military experience – and they had nothing to say about Gaza? Instead, the party continued to attack Netanyahu with the submarines controversy, an amorphous, unclear affair that has yet to ensnare the prime minister.

And finally, the biggest problem of all: Blue and White’s failure to pull votes away from the Right. This was the key to the election, and instead of focusing on how to do just that, the party invested its efforts in sucking votes away from Labor. It was inevitable that some Labor votes would move to Blue and White, but the way to win wasn’t to cannibalize the Center-Left bloc, but to try and move people away from the Right.

After all, that was why Gantz joined forces with Moshe Ya’alon – a right-wing, former Likud defense minister – and why he then worked hard to recruit former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. These two were supposed to appeal to right-wing voters, but that never became the focus. While Ya’alon seemed to try, Ashkenazi was pretty much hidden throughout the campaign, only pulled out in the final days when it was already too late.

The numbers speak for themselves. While Blue and White won 35 seats this week, it’s basically the 11 Yesh Atid has in the outgoing Knesset plus the Zionist Union’s 24. With Meretz, that gave the Left 40 seats. Now after Tuesday, with Meretz and Labor, it’s 46 – and while that is a slight increase, it is not enough. Blue and White needed to bring over a lot more from the Right.

In the end though, Blue and White gave Netanyahu a good fight and posed a serious challenge. Gantz and Yair Lapid should be commended for establishing the party just seven weeks ago and turning it into a formidable force that has a real chance – if its members manage to stick together – in winning a future election.

For that to happen though, the party will need to change strategy. Netanyahu proved this week that he still has the magic.

***

Israel is the 10th-oldest democracy in the world. Since its inception, there have been equal rights for all citizens, including the right to vote. Men and women, Jews, Arabs, Druze and more have all benefited from this real and tangible culture of equality.

Einat Wilf, a former MK, put it best: “No civil wars, no military coups, no suspension of elections, and universal suffrage from Day One. Since the days of the first Zionist congresses, we are heirs to a long democratic tradition: Respect.”

This does deserve respect. Israel once again proved that despite living in the most dangerous region in the world, next to dictatorships and enemies bent on its destruction, it is a nation that celebrates life, freedom and democracy.

I mention this since there is something condescending and patronizing when people outside this country decide to tell Israelis not only how to vote but also how their votes were for the wrong candidates. It is perfectly fine to express an opinion – God knows we all do all the time – but when people claim that Israel lost due to the results of the election, or that now there is no longer justification to support Israel, that is already insulting.

While Israelis might appreciate the advice and concern for their country, telling them who to vote for or how the results of the election are a blow to democracy primarily does one thing: turn people away.

So here are my two cents: You don’t have to agree with whom Israelis elect, but don’t patronize a people who have the freedom to do so.

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