Israel Elections: For or against Netanyahu, Israelis can’t quit him - analysis

Predicting with any certainty that Netanyahu is about to end up the loser is not wise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein seen during the vaccination of the two million recipients, in Ramla, January 14, 2021. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein seen during the vaccination of the two million recipients, in Ramla, January 14, 2021.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Now that we’re on the fourth election in two years, pundits have more or less stopped predicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s imminent political demise.
Like in every other election in this seemingly endless cycle, and in the one before it in 2015, it’s unclear from the preelection polls whether Netanyahu can pull together a majority coalition. But he looks like he has a better chance than anyone else.
Even the commentators who openly detest Netanyahu realize that he is the most skilled politician in the game and manages to pull rabbits out of hats they didn’t even know existed.
So, predicting with any certainty that Netanyahu is about to end up the loser is not wise.
But some have gone to other extremes, like Likud MK Ariel Kallner, who in a recent interview compared Netanyahu to Moses. Yes, that Moses. The one who led the Israelites until he died at age 120. Netanyahu is 71 years old, by the way.
Love him or loathe him, want to get rid of him now or keep him around for 49 more years, Netanyahu undeniably casts a long shadow on the Israeli political field.
This election was supposed to be different. After so many elections that were just “yes-Bibi, no-Bibi” referenda – a trend that began before 2019 – there were real issues on the table when the Knesset was dissolved in December.
Sure, a big part of the reason we went to an election was because creating a coalition crisis over the budget was one of the only ways Netanyahu could get out of a rotation for the premiership with Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
But there was a huge issue that touched everyone’s lives on the agenda: the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response. The country almost immediately went into its third lockdown. Thousands of businesses were shuttered, and unemployment numbers were still high.
Blue and White and Likud were deeply divided on this issue, and their arguments, which were often ugly, leaked from cabinet meetings to the media. Netanyahu’s opposition on the Right, from New Hope and Yamina, also came with strong criticisms of his handling of the pandemic in which 6,000 Israelis died.
Once again, though, Netanyahu showed the doubters. In the ensuing months, Israel became first in the world in inoculations against the novel coronavirus. The “vaccination nation,” as the government has called it, came out of lockdown and saw morbidity rates drop drastically. Now, much of the country is open again, at least to those who have gotten two doses of the vaccine.
And with the apparent end to the pandemic – at least locally – came the end to the brief, issues-based election campaign.
The recent weeks have been characterized by what we saw in the previous three rounds of elections: Netanyahu-supporting parties signing loyalty pledges and coming up with nightmare scenarios involving the parties that haven’t signed. The anti-Bibi bloc parties saying they’ll sit with this one but not with that one, and not if the other is prime minister.
It all sounds a bit like one of those logic puzzles about where to seat the guests at the party and nothing like an actual debate of the big issues Israel is facing, such as economic recovery from the pandemic, an impending International Criminal Court investigation, the Iranian threat and more.
What it sounds like is “yes Bibi, no Bibi.”
This is by design – by Netanyahu’s design. The Likud campaign has once again succeeded in setting the agenda and making the election all about him and his leadership. That helps him set a contrast to the top opposing candidate – in this case, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid – and hone in on his weaknesses, portraying him as unfit to lead.
That also helps the anti-Netanyahu bloc demonize the prime minister in return. This time, Yesh Atid seemed to learn its lesson – that attacking Netanyahu only makes him stronger – and went with a more subtle dig: Their slogan is that they can lead a sane government.
However, Blue and White, which has a large budget in proportion to its number of MKs, has gone with an “us or Bibi” campaign.
Plus, the ongoing anti-Netanyahu protest movements have been leafleting major cities with the message, “You failed,” with the “you” in question being Netanyahu.
And it looks like about half of Israeli voters are saying, “yes Bibi,” if you add up those choosing Likud, those voting for parties committed to recommending Netanyahu and voters for Yamina, which backed itself into a corner where it’ll likely have to choose between Netanyahu or a fifth election.
Whether it’s the vaccines, the Abraham Accords, that Israel just had its most peaceful year and its most peaceful decade ever, under Netanyahu’s leadership, or for any other reason, a very large number of Israeli voters have chosen to prioritize the prime minister’s successes over the corruption cases against him or the failures in handling the pandemic before the vaccines arrived.
Nothing lasts forever, of course, but in the meantime, Netanyahu continues to dominate Israeli politics. Four elections in, Israelis for and against Netanyahu can’t quit him. Whether that will translate into a governing coalition remains to be seen.