Lessons learned since Israel's last elections - analysis

No one expected Netanyahu, with the cards he was dealt, to be able to put together a winning hand, and – after 28 days of trying – he was unable to do so.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference with Health minister Yuli Edelstein (unseen) at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on April 20, 2021.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference with Health minister Yuli Edelstein (unseen) at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on April 20, 2021.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
 When the results of the March elections rolled in and indicated yet another inconclusive verdict, some – as the coalition wrangling began – advised to “hold on to your seats,” while others asked to “wake me up when it's all over.”
Both sentiments made sense.
The 28-day period that ends midnight Tuesday was a topsy-turvy political ride, with some unexpected blind turns, such as a move to push forward direct elections for the prime minister, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-ditch offer to Yamina head Naftali Bennett to, in the style of legendary American comedian Henny Youngman, “Take the first year of the premiership, please.”
Yet, at the same time, one could have gone to sleep on April 7 when Netanyahu was charged with forming a government, awoken on Monday, and not missed all that much. This period can be summed up simply: No one expected Netanyahu, with the cards he was dealt, to be able to put together a winning hand, and – after 28 days of trying – he was unable to do so.
Yet, by the same token, there are certain things the nation learned over the last four weeks.

Netanyahu’s magic is ebbing away

Netanyahu has seemed to have lost his golden dust. For much of the last 12 years, the prime minister has been couched in an air of inevitability, surrounded by an aura of being able – at the last minute – to always escape political demise.
Now, however, it seems that the jig may well be up. He tried everything over the last 28 days – from offering to rotate the premiership with almost anyone, to groveling to New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, to trying to bully Bennett into submission – but all to no avail. This time he was unable to bend others to his will.
Netanyahu has been blessed and cursed by a very long political track record.
Blessed because his long years in politics have given him an unparalleled understanding of what levers to pull, and when. But cursed because his long years in politics have earned him a huge credibility gap. Many just don’t believe his promises anymore, a serious problem when promises are the main currency politicians have to get people to join their coalitions.

Tough to find defectors

Where, Netanyahu had to be asking himself, are the Alex Goldfarbs when you need them?
Goldfarb was the MK from the right-wing Tzomet Party who jumped blocs in 1994, joined Yitzhak Rabin’s coalition and voted for the second Oslo accord in exchange for a deputy ministry that gave him a Mitsubishi and a driver.
When Rivlin granted Netanyahu a mandate last month to form a government, the numbers never added up. Had Bennett’s party been willing to join together with Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and the Religious Zionist Party, that would only have given the coalition 59 seats.
When this happened in the past, when things looked so close in the past, the solution was to fish for defectors, to look for the Goldfarbs.
Netanyahu had some luck with this recently, having wooed Orly Levy-Abeccasis into the Likud from a coalition with Meretz and Labor after the 2020 election. So it should not be that difficult to do it again this time as well, right? How difficult could it be to move somebody – say Sharon Haskel or Yifat Shasha-Biton -- from one right-wing party (New Hope) to another (Likud)?
It turns out that it is pretty difficult, especially when the whole raison d'etre of the New Hope party was “anyone but Bibi.” Making that jump would be to turn one’s back on the party’s central campaign plank, and – in the process – being turned into a pariah by the media.
Nobody made the move, a sign that politicians may be starting to realize that although voters expect that campaign promises will be broken, they don’t expect that a party’s central campaign promise will be broken.
For Sa’ar, or any of his MKs, to be willing to sit under a government led by Netanyahu would be tantamount to US president Joe Biden saying, when he assumed office on January 20, that he would, like his predecessor Donald Trump, build a wall along the US-Mexican border to keep out immigrants, and have Mexico pay for it. This would have gone against the grain of everything he stood for or talked about in his campaign, and would have been seen by the electorate as a bridge way too far.

The Arabs are partners

While Netanyahu may not have succeeded in forming a coalition, Netanyahu did upend one unspoken rule of Israeli coalition building: only Jewish parties are legitimate because only the Jewish parties recognize the state of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
In previous elections, Netanyahu warned the public that the Left would either be willing to form a coalition with anti-Zionist Arab parties, or rely on their support outside the government, something he deemed illegitimate. Over the last month, however, the country learned that he would be willing to do the same, actively trying to get the Religious Zionist Party of Bezalel Smotrich to join a government that would be supported from the outside by Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am Party.
Netanyahu legitimized Ra’am, an Islamist party with a realpolitik outlook, as a coalition partner, and – in the process – changed the dynamics of Israeli politics going forward. No longer will candidates be able to scare away potential voters from other parties by saying that the party they are looking at would be willing to sit in a government with an Arab party that doesn’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Once again, as it did when the Likud removed settlements from Sinai following the Camp David Accords and pulled all the Jews out of Gaza under the Ariel Sharon government, the country has learned that, as an old campaign jingle once put it, “Only the Likud can.” Only the Likud could legitimize something that heretofore had been considered beyond the pale.

Ideology is not completely dead

The last four elections have deepened a sense among many that Israel has entered a post-ideological age. Why? Because each of those elections has centered around one man – Netanyahu – and not ideology.
And then along came the Religious Zionist party’s Smotrich to prove that, no, ideology is not dead. One might not like his ideology – that a Zionist Israeli government cannot rely for its support on non-Jews, especially a party which he accuses of supporting terror – but it is an ideology nonetheless, and he has been unwilling to sell it out, even after coming under intense pressure to do so from Netanyahu, his political patron.
When Rivlin charged Netanyahu with the task of forming a government, and the numbers didn’t add up, many thought Smotrich would eventually budge, and would rather sacrifice one of his principles than face the prospect of spending the next number of months or even years in the opposition. The country learned that in a political firmament lacking ideology, where ideology is sacrificed on the altar of realpolitik, Smotrich is the last of the ideologues – for better or for worse.
You don’t need all that many seats to be in the prime ministerial sweepstakes, and Bennett is one shrewd politician
It used to be, not that long ago, that if one wanted to be prime minister, one had to be the head of the party with the largest number of seats, or, perhaps, the second largest number of seats.
No more. Over the last 28 days the country has learned that seven seats, or just 273,836 votes out of more than 4.4 million cast, can give one a piece of the premiership. Seven seats used to entitle politicians to a mid-sized ministry – like the Housing Ministry or Immigration and Absorption Ministry – but now, if politicians play their cards right, it can win them a piece of the premiership. Not the whole thing, but a year or two in rotation.
And the country has learned that Bennett knows how to play his cards right. Three other parties – Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, and United Torah Judaism – all have seven seats. Blue and White has eight, and Shas nine – but the leaders of none of those parties are being thought of as prime ministerial material.
Only Bennett. Why? Because he has made himself indispensable for either side – the pro-Bibi or anti-Bibi camp – in forming a coalition.
In little over two years Bennett has gone from being derided as a political novice when a new party he formed to challenge the April 2019 elections failed to even make it into the Knesset, into the man who would be (part-time) king, not only the king-maker. The country has learned, over the last 28 days, not to underestimate him.