The people of Israel went to the ballot boxes on Tuesday for the fourth time in two years and will wake up the day after, for the fourth time in two years, not knowing whether they delivered a conclusive verdict.
The people spoke, again, but they mumbled, and the overall message was garbled… again.
Even though exit polls show that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won yet another personal victory as his Likud clearly defeated the next closest rival by between 15 and 17 seats – the biggest gap between the top two parties since 2003, when Ariel Sharon’s Likud out-polled Labor 38-19 – the prime minister’s path to forming a coalition will be tortuous.
But Netanyahu’s strong showing compared with all his rivals shows that so-called Bibi-fatigue has not set in, and much of the nation still believes that the man who has led them for the last 12 consecutive years, and 15 out of the last 25, is still best suited to serve as prime minister.
This was, to a certain extent, a do-or-die election for Netanyahu, because if he could not eke out a coalition victory this time, it would be unlikely that he would be able to do so any time in the future as the stars, for him, were aligned pretty well.
First, there was the coronavirus vaccine. Netanyahu’s former ally in the White House, Donald Trump, had to be looking at the timing of the vaccine rollout in Israel and thinking to himself, “that Bibi must live right.”
One of the reasons for Trump’s loss in November has been widely attributed to his handling of the virus. The election in the US preceded by some two weeks Pfizer’s announcement of a vaccine. Had Pfizer announced the vaccine two weeks earlier, it may have had an impact on the US polls.
In Israel, the timing for Netanyahu couldn’t have been better, with the vaccines arriving in late December and a highly vaccinated nation emerging from its third lockdown in early March, just days before the elections. Luck or perfect planning, Netanyahu can’t count on fortune smiling on him like that again.
Second, the Center-Left did not put up one candidate as his opponent. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid ran a sleepy campaign, and the fact that he never declared for the premiership kept the Center-Left camp from coalescing around one candidate. That constellation is unlikely to repeat itself anytime soon.
Third, the disillusionment among Arab Israelis with their representatives played to Netanyahu’s advantage. Though the Arab voters are obviously no fans of Netanyahu, they are also not thrilled with their representatives’ performance in the fight for what is most important for them: personal security and a bigger cut of the budgetary pie. The Arab parties’ representation in the Knesset will, according to the exit polls, drop from 15 to eight, due to both the lowest turnout in the Arab sector in years and the split of the Joint List into two, with Ra’am not making it over the electoral threshold. Netanyahu cannot count on such disillusionment or a split of the Arab parties in future elections.
And fourth, the election took place before the prime minister’s trial starts in earnest next month with three hearings a week.
While over the past four elections the fact that Netanyahu was indicted has had little impact on his base, the trial could include dramatic revelations that might have the potential to change the mind of his supporters, who think he is the victim of a witch hunt. Conversely, the trial could convince his supporters, even more than before, of the truth of Netanyahu’s argument that the cases against him were cooked up. Either way, delay of the trial until after the voting redounded in his favor.
And even with all those factors working for him, Netanyahu will still have his work cut out for him to form a coalition.
While the overall message the public delivered on Tuesday was garbled, a couple of sub-messages came across loud and clear.
First, despite Netanyahu’s upcoming trial, despite a steady stream of anti-Netanyahu vitriol from significant parts of Israel’s media, cultural and judicial elite, half of the country still believes that the country is much better with him at the helm than without him.
Those who for the last four years have been beating a steady drum against Netanyahu have, again, failed to convince the country that he is a corrupt politician with authoritarian tendencies leading the country into the abyss. Those people who have beat that drum so loudly need to ask themselves how it is that half the country – time after time – simply does not buy what they are selling, even though they themselves so thoroughly believe in the anti-Bibi goods they are peddling.
And their answer must not be an arrogant, “Well half the country is stupid.”
Even though Netanyahu has been in power consecutively now for 12 years, and the Likud for the bulk of the last 44 since Menachem Begin stunned Shimon Peres and the Labor Party in 1977, a good part of the country believes Israel is in the hands of a cadre of elites who run the judiciary, the media, the cultural scene, the police and academia. They view this elite as arrogant, and out of touch with the Israel in which they live. When these elites say that Netanyahu is a crook who must be replaced or the country will face doom, they are simply not believed by a large segment of the population.
The second message is that the right-wing parties in the traditional sense of the word, meaning on the Palestinian issue, have gained significant strength. Regardless of the composition of the government, the incoming Knesset will be among the most right-wing the country has had in years, with – according to the exit polls – between 73-74 seats from across seven parties now in the hands of parties well on the right when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian issue: Likud, Yamina, New Hope, United Torah Judaism, Shas, the Religious Zionist party and Yisrael Beytenu.
While 13 of those sets – New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu– are firmly opposed to Netanyahu, they are staunchly in the national camp.
And that should lead to some introspection on the Left, even as Meretz and Labor did significantly better than expected. In an election where social welfare issues were much more on people’s minds than the Palestinian issue, and social welfare issues generally are the Left’s strong suit, this should have been an election where parties waving that banner had a golden chance to make huge gains. If during an election when economic and health issues were foremost on people’s minds, Israel’s Left could not fare much better, then when will they be able to do so?