Editor's Notes: What are these elections really about?

When the focus is on Netanyahu, he comes out on top.

WHERE IS Israel going? Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
WHERE IS Israel going? Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu.
Just a few months ago, Israeli newspapers were filled with reports on the shortage of doctors, hospital beds and long waits in emergency rooms.
In July, the nightly TV news shows were leading with reports on the racist treatment of Israeli-Ethiopians in schools, in office buildings and by policemen. Gaza was also the focus as nightly rocket attacks made it seem like Israel was on the verge of a large-scale operation in Gaza. There was the round of violence in March, May and July; and just last week a drone flown from Gaza dropped an explosive device on an IDF jeep.
Are any of these issues what the election is going to be about on Tuesday? Is anyone going to the polls and slipping their envelope into the ballot box based on a recent hospital experience, or the way they saw an Israeli of Ethiopian descent detained and questioned by a policeman? Are people giving thought to the latest OECD report that came out this week, showing that Israel is far below average among developed countries for how much money it invests per student?
No, it seems like none of this matters. Not wait times for an MRI or the high cost of living nor the exorbitant price of apartments and new cars. Instead, people seem caught up on one issue and one issue only: do they want Benjamin Netanyahu to remain Israel’s prime minister or not? As Hamlet famously said: that is the question.
For Netanyahu, this is a perfect situation. When the election is a referendum on him, the chances are higher that he will come out on top. When the election is about the health system, the education system or the situation in Gaza, there is a greater chance that he will lose votes.
To his credit, Netanyahu has done a brilliant job ensuring that the news stays focused on him, and only him.
The controversial cameras bill, which the prime minister tried to get passed in the Knesset this week, dominated the political debate this week, making sure that everyone was focused on him and his claims that there are forces out there trying to “steal the election.”
Putting aside the danger in such a comment, and the delegitimization it does to Israel’s electoral system, Netanyahu’s move was brilliant: he got all the politicians to talk about him and his cameras. He set the narrative, and his political rivals had to respond. Nothing they did could steal his thunder.
Talk about education, health, Gaza or the traffic jams? Nothing.
The same applies to the two not-so-dramatic announcements he made this week, one about Iran and the other an election promise to annex the Jordan Valley if he wins on Tuesday. Neither of these statements was particularly striking. The Jordan Valley annexation was a hollow campaign promise: Netanyahu has been prime minister for 13 years in total, and something he hasn’t done for 13 years is likely not going to suddenly happen now if he wins and forms the next government.
The announcement on Iran also didn’t amount to much, and was far from the quality productions and performances for which Netanyahu is famous, not to mention that it failed to achieve the effect he wanted. Just compare that last election with this upcoming one.
Two weeks before the April 9 vote, President Donald Trump invited Netanyahu to Washington and presented him with a signed statement recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This time around, there was no invite and no signed declaration. Instead, when Netanyahu announced that he is planning to annex the Jordan Valley, there was only silence in Washington – Jason Greenblatt had resigned four days before, John Bolton was fired an hour later, and officials were openly talking about easing the sanctions on Iran ahead of a meeting at the end of the month between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. To top it off, there was a report in Politico on Thursday that Israel has been caught spying on the White House.
Seems like the Trump-Netanyahu bromance might no longer be what the posters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would have us believe. Could Trump be distancing himself from Israel to signal to Iran that he is not in Netanyahu’s pocket and could be trusted to negotiate a new nuclear deal? With this president, anything is possible.
Getting back to Netanyahu. What his two statements did accomplish was having the media talk about him, and the public stuck in suspense waiting to hear what he will say. On Tuesday, for example, his office announced at 11:00 a.m. that the prime minister would make a dramatic announcement at 5 o’clock, which was ultimately broadcast closer to 6:30. That gave him over seven hours of speculation and rumors and ensured that all of the radio and TV stations tuned in to hear what he had to say. Again, like with the cameras, Netanyahu kept the country focused just on him.
There is a reason Netanyahu does this. When the focus is on him, he comes out on top. When the focus is on the issues – traffic, our health system, the education system, or the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip – people get upset. And when they are upset, they tend to turn against the incumbent.
But when they are focused on Netanyahu – even if the reports are about his criminal investigations – it seems to work in his favor. People focus on the individual and not on the issues. They then ask one question: am I in the pro-Netanyahu camp or in the anti-Netanyahu camp? The focus is just on him.
Is this good for the country? I don’t think so. Instead of thinking about the issues that really matter, the entire debate is about an individual.
Part of why this happens is that people are fed up with politics, and no longer believe that the system can be fixed or that there is such a thing as a government that can work for the people. Israelis have become apathetic and disenchanted. They seem to believe that all a government needs to do is keep them alive. Anything else is an added bonus. As a result they vote based on emotion, not rationally or logically.
I have been asked countless times in recent weeks for whom people should vote. My policy is to never tell anyone whom to vote for, but to ask them a question in response: what are you voting for?
That is the important question in my mind. Are you voting for the country to change or to stay the same? Are you voting to ensure that Israel moves forward or enshrines the status quo? Are you voting for someone who will build new hospitals or someone who will build new schools? Did you decide to vote for a candidate because she or he has an education plan you like or because they have a vision for how to ease traffic?
These are the issues that truly matter. The threats that Israel faces will never go away, just like they haven’t for the previous 71 years. But Israel today is at a place that it can do more than just hunker down and wait for the next war. With a superior and powerful military and economy, Israel doesn’t have to live in fear. It can change the future. It only has to want to.