Bibi’s No Beauty, but He’s Not the Beast He's Made Out to Be

Israelis knew the Netanyahu years weren't as bad as the media hysterically portrayed them, but they were too embarrassed to tell pollsters that.

Olivier Fitoussi

Anyone who wanted to capture the state of the nation on Election Day would have done better to steer clear of the pollsters and assorted experts and pundits, and spend the day at the country’s shopping malls.

While the surveys and professional commentators were telling us that Israelis are in a funk, crushed by the high cost of living and put off by Netanyahu’s Hobbesian worldview and his baroque expense accounts, the great mass of Yossi Cohens and Yael Levys were engaged in a consumer orgy – after they had gone to the polls to cast a ballot for Bibi.

Of course, they were griping about 20-shekel ($5) glasses of orange juice, but they were spending and voting for him all the same. Likud won a thumping victory, with 30 seats, while the polls had predicted Bibi's party finishing slightly behind rival Isaac Herzog's Zionist Union.

Pulp fictions

How did everybody, including Bibi himself, get it so wrong? Let’s say the campaign was a victory of fiction over fact until Election Day itself, when fact finally won out.

Fiction No. 1: The election was about two intertwined issues - the intolerably high cost of living and the intolerably lengthy presence of Netanyahu in the prime minister’s residence.

The first had some basis in fact, but not a lot. Israel is enjoying record low unemployment even as more people are joining the labor force and the economy is growing faster than Europe’s. Skyrocketing housing prices are a serious problem, as is the high cost of living, but it obviously had little impact on voters’ calculations. The parties that focused the most on the issue (Kulanu, Zionist Union) did well. But so did the parties that could easily be blamed for the problem (Likud, Yesh Atid).

Bibi himself was issue No. 2, but it seems his ideological enemies took their vitriol too far. Keeping deposits from returned bottles, running off with state-owned lawn furniture, spending thousands of shekels on scented candles...  Still the majority of Israelis, polls showed, thought Netanyahu was the best man for prime minister even when the choice was a perfectly respectable alternative like Isaac Herzog.

Fiction No. 2: Bibi the beast. There were certainly a good number of real issues to attack Netanyahu on, but instead the media (minus Bibi’s personal Pravda, Israel Hayom) and rival politicians made him into a monster. He’s no beauty either, but the over-the-top attacks on him may have evoked a little sympathy for him, as hard as it is to fathom.

The result was that two Bibis were running in the election. One was the closet Bibi, who helped steer the Israeli economy through a wrenching global recession and did the best he could to keep Israel at peace in a turbulent part of the world. The closet Bibi was the one people talked about positively with their closest friends and family, and voted for. The other was the public Bibi, the one who was so thoroughly skewered in the press that people were ashamed to admit they supported him – ashamed to the point that they wouldn’t own up to it when they were asked by pollsters.

Less hysterical media coverage would not have changed the results, but at least we could all have been prepared for it.

Fiction No. 3: Like a lot of other people, Bibi bought Fiction No. 1 about the economy and tried to steer the voters back to his obsession with security, mainly the Iranian nuclear threat. It was all for nothing. His address to Congress got more traction among Republicans than it did among Israelis and he insulted the voters by asserting that seeing off Iranian nukes and dealing with rising home prices was a zero-sum game. Do you want an expensive house you can live in and pass on to your children, or a cheap one than will be flattened by a rocket from Tehran?

The fact is Bibi has not had a bad record on security issues, which is politically incorrect to say in certain circles, because he did everything he was not supposed to do. He saw down Obama on the Palestinians talks but paid no price for it, he expressed skepticism about the Arab Spring and now counts an unreformed Egypt as a good friend, and he threatened an attack on Iran, which scared the West into imposing sanctions and Tehran to the negotiating table.

Having succeeded, however, Bibi removed the security/peace process controversy off the national agenda. Trying to bring it back with scare tactics was silly and unnecessary, as it turns out.

Which leads to Fiction No. 4.

Fiction No. 4: There’s a left and a right in Israel. The left believes in peace with the Palestinians and a more “social” economic policy, while the right believes in building settlements, is content with fighting an endless cold war with the Palestinians so long as it doesn’t heat up into an Intifada, and likes small government and big tycoons.

Those kinds of voters exist, but only on the fringes of the Israeli politics. They voted for Meretz on the left and Habayit Hayehudi and Yahad on the right, all of which added up to 12 Knesset seats.

Palestinians who?

The real politics is an amorphous center shorn of any real ideology at all. It’s indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians and the aspirations of the settlers so long as the two don’t drag the rest of us into a war. It would like a government that provides better schools and healthcare but isn’t ready to pay a lot more in taxes to do it.

The average Israeli realizes that the economy has delivered on jobs and standard of living, even if he is constantly badgered by politicians and journalists telling them it hasn’t. Lacking any real ideology, the average voter opts for a party whose leader has celebrity qualities, like a being a good talker, or at least, is someone different than the last election. Think Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon.

Fiction No. 5: This belongs to Israel and the people who returned Bibi to office, and it’s the biggest fiction of them all, namely that the next Netanyahu government will be just like the others.

As useful as Netanyahu was over the last years, he has outlived it. The Bibi we once had had a fully formed philosophy on economics and diplomacy as well as the ability to bring it to fruition. But the Bibi we have now has been corrupted by power and ego, convinced that he is the only one who can lead Israel and must be allowed to do so at all costs.

We got a taste of the damage he is likely to wreak back in office under a right-center government when he reneged on his commitment to the two-state solution and fanned divisive politics by raising the alarm about Arabs flooding to the polls, all for the sake of political expediency. There won’t be any Tzipi Livni or Yair Lapid this time around to hold him back.

Worse still, the new government is going to engage in the worst kind of economic populism under Moshe Kahlon, who is destined to be the next finance minister. The Haredi parties will ride roughshod over the budget and reverse the reforms aimed at getting them into the army and the job market.

It's a pity, but the facts of the next election may resemble the fictions of this last one.