Oddly, a faint whiff of the 1996 election that pitted Benjamin Netanyahu against Shimon Peres is wafting through the current election campaign.
Because one would think that the fifth election in three-and-a-half years would resemble the ones that came before, not one from 26 years ago. And, indeed, this election does bear a striking resemblance to the four previous ones in this cycle that began in April 2019. Same candidates; same “Bibi is a threat to democracy” vs “Bibi is the country’s savior” campaign theme; same stalemate in the polls.
Yet still, there is a scent – and again, only a scent – of 1996.
The 1996 election – which was the first of only three times the country voted separately for the prime minister and the Knesset party slates – took place just seven months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The nation was reeling.
Peres, who had replaced Rabin, called the election, hoping to gain full legitimacy as prime minister. At the time Peres called the election, he was riding on a sea of public sympathy. An Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) poll following the assassination found that 36% of Jewish voters self-identified as being on the Left, 28% in the Center, and 29% on the Right.
And then terror struck.
A spate of attacks, including two suicide bombing attacks in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, killed 64 people from January until the election. Against all odds, Netanyahu eked out a slim victory of just under 30,000 votes over Peres and set up a government, even though Labor won two more seats than the Likud.
Netanyahu’s victory came despite the not-so-subtle meddling of then-US president Bill Clinton.
In a candid television interview in 2018, Clinton admitted “it would be fair to say” he wanted to help Peres. And what form did this help take? It included convening, choreographing and directing the “Summit of Peacemakers” in Sharm e-Sheikh just after Peres called for new elections, in a barely veiled move to boost his chances at a time of raging Palestinian terrorism. It also included inviting Peres to the White House a month before the election.
Netanyahu, a decade and a half later, was accused of meddling in an unsuccessful attempt to get Mitt Romney elected president instead of Barack Obama. Clearly, Netanyahu did not invent the wheel.
So how is any of that similar to what is happening now?
First, the American intervention. It is subtle, but it is there. Without President Joe Biden having to say anything, it is conventional wisdom that he would prefer working with an Israeli government led by Yair Lapid or Benny Gantz, rather than one led by Netanyahu.
Sure, Biden might “love” Netanyahu on a personal level, a feeling he expressed when he signed a picture for him years ago. But, as he also wrote on that picture, “I don’t agree with a damn thing you say.”
While Biden might not have the same decades-long relationship with Lapid or Gantz that he has with Netanyahu, he definitely does agree with much of what they say, especially Lapid’s recent comments at the UN about supporting a two-state solution.
So how has Biden boosted Lapid in this campaign?
First, by choosing to go through with a visit here in July, even though a new election was called just three weeks before the planned trip. Lapid’s strategy in this campaign has been to cast himself as prime ministerial-worthy, as a political player ready for prime time, and Biden’s visit helped him do just that. This visit allowed the electorate to get used to the idea of Lapid, the former television host, in the role of prime minister.
But that was in July, a long time ago. Who remembers that now?
A more recent example of Biden’s subtle assistance was the president’s reaction to the recently brokered agreement putting an end to the Lebanon-Israel maritime dispute. Biden took the opportunity to get on the phone and congratulate Lapid for the accord, deeming it no less than “historic.”
The accord is important, it is significant, it is an achievement. But historic? If this accord – largely an economic one – is historic, then the Abraham Accords signed two years ago must be downright biblical.
There’s a reason the administration wanted to bump this agreement up a league: to give candidate Lapid a weighty achievement to take to the voters before an election. Clinton tried to do the same thing for Peres with his “Summit of Peacemakers.” A cautionary tale: it didn’t work for Peres.
Also, is it pure coincidence that Biden last week invited President Isaac Herzog to the White House for a meeting that will take place on Wednesday, less than a week before the voting starts?
Granted, Herzog is not Lapid, but Biden will surely shower him with a warmth that will get wall-to-wall coverage in the Israeli media. The message this will send is clear: take a look at the warmth of the US-Israel relationship now, and contrast that to what is likely to occur if Netanyahu returns to power.
And then there is the terror. The current wave of terrorism does not compare to what the country faced in 1996: 21 people were killed in terrorist attacks over the last eight months, compared to 64 in the eight months before the 1996 voting.
But still, 21 people killed in eight months is not an insignificant number. It leaves a deep psychological impact. Moreover, there have been almost daily shooting attacks over the last month – a month in which three Israelis were killed. Those attacks, even if in most cases they did not end in fatalities, also penetrate the Israeli psyche and leave their mark.
Terror and issues of personal security could impact this election, much as they did in 1996. It’s no coincidence that the Religious Zionist Party’s Bezalel Smotrich put forth his candidacy for defense minister this week. He wants to put a stark choice out there: “Who do you want to deal with security, me or Gantz?”
To many outside observers the choice may seem like a no-brainer: a former IDF chief of staff vs someone who did truncated army service.
But Smotrich is betting that there are many people like him living over the Green Line, or who have friends and family living there, who want to see a much stronger hand used than the one Gantz is employing to put down terrorism on the roads that is keeping them up at night – terrorism that comes in the form not only of shots being fired, but also of rocks and bricks being hurled at passing cars.
According to polls reported on Channel 12, there are fully two seats’ worth of voters debating whether to vote for Gantz’s party or the Religious Zionist Party of Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. There are a few thousand others who are also believed to be choosing between Gantz and Ayelet Shaked’s Bayit Yehudi Party.
These voters constitute what is called the “soft Right,” many of them Modern Orthodox and many of them refugees from Yamina, who either live in Judea and Samaria, where the bulk of the shooting attacks have taken place over the last month, or have friends and relatives who do. They could determine the election, since pulling votes from the center-left bloc, with which Gantz is affiliated, to Netanyahu’s bloc could tip the scales.
There is much hand-wringing in many circles, both in Israel and abroad, about the rise in the polls of the far-right Religious Zionist Party. To understand where much of that is coming from, one should look at the daily drumbeat of terror.
Before the current wave of terror, which began on March 22 with the killing of four people in Beersheba, the Religious Zionist Party, which currently has six Knesset seats, was – among the six major polls taken from the beginning of the year – averaging 7.6 seats. Two months later, as terrorism increased, that average among the polls rose to 8.6 seats. This average jumped to 10.7 seats in the 14 polls taken in July, to 12.4 seats as an average of the 24 polls taken in September, and 13.6 seats in the 16 polls taken so far in October.
Was terror the only factor responsible for this steep increase?
Obviously not, but it was surely one of the factors.
Many people abroad look open-mouthed at the right-wing lurch of Israeli politics over the last three decades. And there undoubtedly has been a rightward lurch – just consider that the last prime minister to come from a classic left-of-center party in the country was Ehud Barak in 1999, or how the fortunes of Meretz and Labor have fallen from garnering 56 seats in the election that brought Rabin to power in 1992, to the 10 seats most polls say the two parties will get combined this time around.
AN IDI poll before the last election in 2021 found that 62% of the Israeli Jewish population considers itself “right-wing,” while in 1995 that number stood at only 29%. Conversely, today the number who call themselves left-wing stands at 11%, compared to 36% in 1995.
Many are the factors responsible for that seismic change, but surely the most dominant has to do with terrorism. When the elections were called, back in June, some thought that economics – along with the perpetual “good Bibi, bad Bibi” question – would be foremost on people’s minds. But now, what is foremost in the minds of many, once again, is terrorism and issues of personal security.
While those driving to Tel Aviv in the morning and concerned chiefly about traffic jams may not have an experience similar to that of drivers on Highway 60 to Ariel, who, in addition to the traffic, now have in the back of their minds concern over the possibility of rocks or even bullets flying through their windows, there are plenty of voters on the highways who are again feeling a real sense of terror-induced personal insecurity.
Those feelings of insecurity may again determine the election, as those feelings – coupled with anger and frustration caused by the terror – may compel right-wing voters who sat out the last election to vote this time, just as they may move some of those debating between Gantz’s party and the right-wing bloc to cross the line, potentially giving Netanyahu the edge.
The bottom line: Palestinian terrorism may yet determine the outcome of this election, just as it did in 1996.