Last Friday, a few days before the March 17 Knesset elections, Eliezer Yaari in his regular Israel Radio spot listed the way political commentators would explain the vote. In a be-prepared scenario, Yaari detailed what the analysts would say in the event of Benjamin Netanyahu’s success or following his failure. The pundits would win either way.
“‘Mr. Netanyahu’s behavior,’ they’ll say, ‘was the well-thought-out work of someone who sees three steps ahead....’” Yaari predicted, assuming Bibi managed to pull it off. The second option, Yaari theorized, was that the morning after the elections the commentators would pronounce: “Mr. Netanyahu’s behavior in the past six months has been a chain of errors and arrogant appearances that brought him down...”
As it happened the big losers on Tuesday – and perhaps this should also have been foreseen as it’s not the first time – were the exit pollsters for the three main TV channels, all of whom had Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog in a virtual tie when they published the polls at 10 p.m.
In an uncanny reminder of the race between Netanyahu and Labor’s Shimon Peres in 1996, much of the country went to sleep on election night thinking it was too close to call. Herzog and Zionist Union co-leader Tzipi Livni, who should definitely know better given her 2006 experience, even confusedly seemed to be celebrating and talking about forming the next coalition.
This time, I didn’t go to sleep early, hence in the wee hours of the morning of Wednesday I became aware that yet again Netanyahu had earned his nickname “The Magician” and was far ahead of Herzog, 29 Knesset seats to 24. The Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country) satire special for Channel 2 must have been pleased with its sketch showing Netanyahu giving an interview to Hello Kitty, on the basis that both of them have nine lives. It was probably also satisfied with its skit showing the prime minister in a panic at the pattern of voter turnout earlier in the day, when he “warned”: “Arab voters are going to the polls in droves. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”
No wonder the foreign media (and even some local press) are presenting the government as right-wing, even though it hasn’t yet been formed; the only far-right party failed to pass the electoral threshold; and overseeing the complex electoral system was a Christian Arab Supreme Court judge, Salim Joubran.
I was asked so often what I thought the results would mean regarding the Palestinians and the peace process that I considered preparing my own can’t-fail explanations – philosophizing that once Netanyahu is officially back at the helm, the pressure to restart some kind of peace process will immediately begin; or, perhaps, not.
As I told a British radio station the morning after the polls, the elections were democratic and the world should recognize that the Israeli people has the right to elect its own leader.
On the other hand, Israel is possibly the only sovereign country whose right to name its own capital city – seat of its parliament, supreme court and president’s residence – is widely questioned.
Remarkably, however, although these elections, like everything else in our lives here, were affected by the security situation, that was not their only focus. Social security is also important. At my local polling station in Jerusalem, there was last-minute interest in a party none of us had previously heard of: “Renting with honor” was presumably dedicated to protecting – or creating – the rights of those who can’t afford the skyrocketing prices of real estate and are exploited in a country that does not have an accepted system or tradition of long-term leases.
Peace, unfortunately, seems even less attainable than reasonable housing. It’s not that we’ve given up on the idea, but the 4,000 or so rockets launched from Gaza last summer followed yet another intensive initiative by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring about some kind of peace agreement. Every peace process and the resulting pressure has had the same result: war and terrorism. Last year it ended in the “national unity government” from hell – a union between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.
And while Israel has been holding elections with increasing frequency, the Palestinians have steered away from holding proper polls: Potential peace partner Mahmoud Abbas is a 79-year-old leader whose four-year elected term in office ended in 2009. So much for democracy.
If anything, these elections were not a vote against Herzog and the Left but a vote against US President Barack Obama. Obama returned the compliment by remaining silent in the hours following the announcement of the winner, unable to bring himself to congratulate Netanyahu.
We live in a particularly tough neighborhood in strangely troubled times. The government has to deal with the incredible threats right on our doorstep. But the electorate is also concerned by what happens literally in their homes – the cost of living and general welfare. Netanyahu can’t ignore the nearly nuclear Iran but neither, as he realized late in his campaign, can he turn away from the social issues.
Ironically, given that ultimately the last government fell due to the crisis in passing the budget, preparing the next budget is one of the obvious first hurdles Netanyahu’s new cabinet will have to deal with. When I mentioned this to former finance minister Yuval Steinitz during a pre-election visit to The Jerusalem Post, he said it would be simpler if the government returns to the model he implemented of a two-year budget, a model abolished by his ousted successor, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
Herzog lost the elections not because of his lack of charisma or squeaky voice. He lost because despite his undoubted efforts to reach out in recent months, he didn’t present a viable alternative as far as half the electorate was concerned.
The elections became personal, so personal the message became “Anyone but Bibi.” But that is a campaign slogan, not a meaningful message of change. To base your campaign on the assumption that you’ll be able to get on better with world leaders does not convey a sense of security to a public at home, where we wonder whether the al-Qaida affiliates on the border will soon be replaced by Islamic State, for example, or what nuclear weapons in the hands of Iranian proxies like Hezbollah might mean.
A joint frustration with Obama is something that is uniting disparate elements in the Middle East. It was a cross between a sigh and an ill wind that could be felt last week when Kerry implied that ultimately the US would have to negotiate with Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria – something Assad himself later dismissed. Possibly Assad doesn’t believe the US will stand by its word after it failed to bring the regime down when Assad “crossed the redline” in the use of chemical weapons against his own people.
We can grumble about our leaders – and are wonderfully free to do so whether they are Left or Right – but somebody like Assad puts things in perspective. Netanyahu, like him or not, won the elections.
Now is the time to pull together. The opposition should take the opportunity to revamp and strengthen itself. It should act as a shadow government, not a black cloud. I suggest also that the Zionist Union discard its name – a concoction composed when party-hopping co-leader Tzipi Livni joined it a few months ago – and return to its Labor roots, a name with a meaning and tradition and history.
Instead of trying to bring down the government as soon as possible, Herzog – and Livni if she sticks around – should try to give it the full four years before doing their best to defeat Netanyahu in the next elections.
The leader of the opposition should lead, not push. A proper opposition and a functioning government gets my email@example.com