“Israel wants change” was the rallying cry at the demonstration in Tel Aviv this week, as an estimated 35,000 gathered to hear former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and other speakers make the case for getting rid of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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A campaign for hope and change – feeding on a desire for something new is obviously borrowed from the success of Barack Obama’s triumphant campaign against John McCain in 2008.
A new campaign commercial launched by the Zionist Union party, led by Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu’s main competitor for the job of Prime Minister, offers a take on then-candidate Ronald Reagan’s famous question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
In the ad, voters in the street are asked to name Netanyahu’s accomplishments over the past six years. The response? Long silences. People scratching their heads. A drawn out, thoughtful “Ummmmmm.”
The signs of Netanyahu fatigue are everywhere, and not only on the left. In south Tel Aviv, a quartet of multicolored signs greets you at every corner with the message: “Bennett is bad for the Sephardim: BIBI IS BAD FOR ALL OF US”; then “Lapid is bad for the middle class: BIBI IS BAD FOR ALL OF US”; then “Bougie (Herzog) is bad for the right-wingers: BIBI IS BAD FOR ALL OF US”; and then “Lieberman is bad for the Arabs: BIBI IS BAD FOR ALL OF US.”
With only eight days to go until election day, the non-stop hammering of Netanyahu from all sides appears to be taking its toll. From the left end of the spectrum to the right, a universal weariness with Netanyahu and the long shadow he has cast over the Israeli political landscape for so many years has set in.
It’s taken a long time, but many Israelis – even those who share his political views and appreciate his rhetorical flourish – are sick of Bibi and his foibles. His vaunted overpublicized showdown at Congress with President Obama over his Iran speech – now that the dust has settled seems to be have been something of a wash, the polls tell us – neither boosted his standing among voters nor damaged him significantly. His decision to dissolve the government and call these new elections, on the premise that they would improve his base of support within the government, has proved to be a terrible miscalculation.
But here’s the catch: While the “Anyone but Bibi” message seems to be getting through loud and clear, the Israeli public is very far from agreeing on the alternative to Netanyahu.
Signs throughout Tel Aviv noting that although specific candidates are bad for certain groups, 'Bibi is bad for all of us.' (Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer)
This is not the U.S., where fostering disgust with the incumbent presidential candidate must necessarily coalesce around a single challenger, strengthening him. In Israel, if you don’t like the current product, there is a whole grocery shelf of “hope and change” possibilities to choose from. The tide may be turning against Bibi, but it is turning in many directions: on the right, to Naftali Bennett, Kahlon, or Lieberman, the centrists to Yair Lapid, and the left to Meretz. The crux of the problem is a major charisma shortage in the blue-blood tag team at the helm of the Zionist Union party - Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni - and the fact that while Bibi may be out of favor, much of the country wants a right-of-center leader in a frightening, unstable Middle East.
So when my American friends ask whether Netanyahu or Herzog is going to win, my answer is “It’s complicated.” I explain to them that while Netanyahu appears to be losing support, that doesn’t mean that Herzog is winning – and I remind them that not so long ago, in 2009, Tzipi Livni and the Kadima Party won more Knesset seats than the Netanyahu-led Likud, yet it was Likud who was able to assemble a coalition, putting Netanyahu in power.
Savvy Israelis aren’t fooling themselves: They know they won’t see a clear-cut answer to the question of who will government them on the morning after the elections. Instead, they are battening down the hatches for what appears to be shaping up for yet another round of long, drawn-out coalition negotiations following the election results filled with confusion, uncertainty, rumor and speculation.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is already reportedly preparing for this scenario. Channel 2 news reported on Sunday night that the president has been consulting advisors on what will happen if neither Netanyahu nor Herzog are able to muster support from the number of Knesset members needed to form a stable government. The report said that in such a case, Rivlin will try to force a coalition between the two large parties, paired with an initiative to change the electoral system to prevent “Israel from becoming Italy” with a chronically unstable government and frequent elections.
So yes, Israelis seem to want change, and it seems a safe bet that some form of change is on the horizon following the election on March 17. Whether it’s going to be change for the better – that bet is far less certain.