Netanyahu cannibalized his own, vilified Israeli Arabs – and fell short

This time, Netanyahu's tactics regarding Arab turnout have failed him

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In a down and dirty campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannibalized the Right, declared that Israeli-Arabs are the enemy of the state – and came up short at the ballot box.
In 2015 he had a bloc of 48 right-wing politicians that, combined with 13 seats from the ultra-Orthodox parties, barely gave Netanyahu the required majority. That bloc fell to 44 right-wing politicians, plus 16 ultra-Orthodox parties in April – just one seat short of a majority in the 120-member Knesset.
Now that many of the ballots have been counted, it seems as if he has fared even worse, with 38 right-wing politicians and 17 ultra-Orthodox, for a bloc of only 55.
In an interview with Channel 12 on Wednesday night, Likud Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev spoke of the unified nature of the 56-member bloc at that time, and blamed media falsehoods for its shrinkage.
It was as if Netanyahu had not spent the last three months attacking his own, urging voters to abandon all right-wing alternatives in favor of his Likud Party as the true right-wing Zionist party.
Netanyahu should have swept into office on Tuesday night, even with the corruption charges hanging over his head.
A master orator, his impressive list of diplomatic and economic successes could have served as money in the bank when it came to the public, particularly since the country is supposed to have turned increasingly right-wing, with the Gaza rockets as a constant reminder of the consequences of a failed policy of territorial withdrawal.
In some ways, Netanyahu did deliver. The 32 seats Likud received on Tuesday night are the second most impressive showing Netanyahu has had in the polls since he first entered office in 2009 – second only to the 35 seats he received in April.
Until then he had held on to power with election results of 27 in 2009, 18 in 2013 and 30 in 2015.
True, he came in second after the Blue and White Party at 33, but a second place showing is hardly determinative in the world of Israeli politics.
On election night in 2009, Tzipi Livni, then the head of the Kadima Party, was celebrating her victory after beating Netanyahu 28-27 in the polls.
At the same time at Likud election headquarters, politicians and long-time party members scribbled down numbers, smiled, and walked out knowing that Netanyahu has just won.
That’s because in the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics, high numbers are only one part of the poker game, in which the successes and failures of the auxiliary parties can be as determinative of the outcome as the larger parties – if not more so.
For example, when Bayit Yehudi first formed in the 2013 election, the party had 13 seats. Yisrael Beytenu has not only sat in Netanyahu’s governments in the past, but even ran in 2013 with the Likud on a joint list. In 2015, Netanyahu’s Likud was augmented by the 10-seat centrist right-wing party Kulanu, which dropped to four in the April election and disappeared altogether in this round after joining forces with Likud.
It didn’t fall apart by accident. As part of Netanyahu’s strategy, he deliberately hammered his right-wing opponents, the Yamina and Otzma Yehudit parties, with the idea that a large Likud was the best way to ensure power – his power.
The last-minute annexation campaign, in which Netanyahu spoke of sovereignty over all settlements in Judea and Samaria starting with the Jordan Valley, was a clever attempt to energize his voter base.
But it was also a deliberate attempt to take voters away from Yamina, which has long spoke of the need to apply sovereignty to all of Area C in the West Bank, but has never had enough power to do so. It was one of the significant markers that distinguished their party from Likud.
In the face of Netanyahu’s sovereignty campaign, it was a miracle in some ways that Yamina passed the threshold, let alone received seven seats.
was not their only liability, however. During both election campaigns, politicians to the right of the Likud spent an inordinate amount of time fighting each other, arguing that they were the sole legitimate representatives who singularly deserved the vote.
It took the smaller right-wing parties a long time to coalesce into a single party for this election, led by former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The party then won seven seats, two more than the Union of Right Wing parties had without her – and that was without Netanyahu’s sovereignty challenge.
Still, as Shaked was issuing her victory speech and calling for unity on the Right, her colleagues were busy fracturing the party into two and pushing for her to be ousted.
Netanyahu didn’t just swing right, however, he also swung left, explaining that the only way to have a Zionist government was to have his right-wing government. To do so he played on the obvious: that a left-wing bloc would have to include Arab parties, whom he painted in his rhetoric as enemies of the Jewish state.
The prime minister stood in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station with a bullhorn on Tuesday and spoke of the dangers of a large Arab turnout. He said that they were doing so at the urging of the Palestinian Authority.
It was a move that backfired, as the Joint List moved up from 10 seats in April to 13 seats this time, equaling its 2015 count.
Netanyahu didn’t let up on Arab voters after the results, as he continued to hammer them in his calls for a narrow Zionist government. In an early morning speech on Wednesday, he painted the Arab parties as an existential threat, linking them with those who murder Israeli soldiers, citizens and children.
After the last election it was presumed that Netanyahu would find a way to form a coalition. This time around, he has set a narrow definition for what makes a coalition. This includes his insistence that he would not avail himself of a centrist option by sitting with Blue and White and Avigdor Liberman’s party, then of 10, currently down to eight seats. He has held this position as a sign of strength – but to others, it already signals defeat.