The 2013 Election: A Choice Between Netanyahu and Netanyahu

This election was a three-way affair involving an enfeebled Netanyahu flanked by two new, young and electrifying party leaders, who drew strength from the prime minister and exploited it to the hilt.

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The 2009 election was a contest of Bibi vs. Tzipi. The question put to voters then, explicitly and misleadingly, was whether they wanted a "peace" government led by Livni, or a "power" government led by Netanyahu.

But the 2013 election was a Bibi-or-Bibi contest: The question put to voters, albeit not directly, was whether they wanted a centrist government led by Netanyahu or a right-wing government led by Netanyahu. Those who understood the question answered it and won; those who did not understand the question dropped out of the game and lost.

At bottom, the story of 2013 was entirely that of Benjamin Netanyahu. He chalked up three important achievements in the past four years: security stability, economic stability and political stability. But he also chalked up three major failures: foot-dragging in the peace process, foot-dragging in the social-welfare sphere and mental foot-dragging.

As a result of this combination of achievements and failures, the election campaign encapsulated five different referenda about the prime minister. Do people like Netanyahu? They don’t like him. Do they hold him in esteem? They hold him in esteem. Do they trust him? They don’t trust him. Do they want Netanyahu as prime minister? Yes. If that’s so, who in the hell do we vote for? We vote for a political force that will hook up with Netanyahu and force him to embark on the path we want.

In 1992, Yossi Sarid coined the triumphant phrase “yumratz Rabin”: Yitzhak Rabin will be made to pursue the agenda of Ratz, the forerunner of Meretz. In 2013, the triumphant (if implicit) assertion by Naftali Bennett was “yuktzan Netanyahu”: Netanyahu will be made more extreme. The triumphant (also implicit) assertion by Yair Lapid was “yemurkaz Netanyahu” Netanyahu will be centralized.

The two political greenhorns were the only people who grasped the weakness that was inherent in Netanyahu’s position as sole candidate for prime minister. They both exploited the weakness to their advantage, and built themselves up by means of fake embraces of an unpopular national leader who for the time being has no replacement.

Naftali Bennett was the first to understand the secret. The squad commander from the elite Maglan reconnaissance unit showed his former boss how the game is played. On the one hand, he fired up the religious-Zionist movement by realizing its hidden dream (which was formulated by Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky many years ago) of moving from the dining car of the train to the engine. On the other hand, he enthused many young people by offering them something new and cool and high-tech-like. The combination of those two powerful streams brought about a situation in which Bennett’s share in Israel’s right-wing armored vehicle grew steadily at the expense of Netanyahu’s. The cumbersome, obsolete Goliath of Likud-Beiteinu was helpless in the face of the hammer-blows of love that the agile David of Habayit Hayehudi heaped on it.

Yair Lapid was the second one who understand the secret. For months, the election campaign of the “beautiful Israeli” was unfocused and unconvincing. During Operation Pillar of Defense, he fell mute and even disappeared, and at the low point of his campaign he plummeted to five seats in the polls. But when money time arrived, Lapid knew where the lucre was. On the one hand, he tattooed the cry of pain of the middle class on his forehead. On the other hand, he positioned himself as Netanyahu’s future responsible partner.

Those moves transformed Lapid into the new icon of the Israeli center during the final two weeks of the campaign. The combination of a newcomers’ party and the rebels’ party of the bourgeoisie, with a party that would join with Netanyahu, made Yesh Atid the true darling of the Israeli high-tech nation. It allowed people who are not right-wing both to vote against Netanyahu and to hook up with him so there would be a prospect of a future here.

Thus, the 2013 election became a three-way affair: an enfeebled Netanyahu in the middle, flanked by the two new and electrifying young people of the right-right and the center-center, who drew their strength from the prime minister and turned it into their own.

By contrast, Shelly Yacimovich and Tzipi Livni, who stuck to their principles and refused to play the power game, became irrelevant. Shas, which always plays the power game, didn’t win or lose. The Zionist left of Meretz doubled its strength in the Knesset while the non-Zionist left maintained its strength but both remained outside the true sphere of influence. The name of the game was Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett, and the outcome of the game was Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett, and what will shape the coming years here will be the balance of forces between Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.

Between Lapid and Bennett, Netanyahu’s preference is clear. Lapid. Both ideologically and personally, the prime minister loathes the high-tech guy from Ra’anana and prefers the media talent from Ramat Aviv. In very private conversations ahead of the election, Bibi set forth his goal: a Netanyahu-Lapid bloc of 50 seats. He hoped the bloc’s internal makeup would be 38-12 and not 31-19, but he can at least take consolation that the coveted goal of 50 seats was achieved nonetheless.

Now the two good friends of Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan can make use of him to forge mutual trust and to create the strong axis around which the next government will be created. The solid parliamentary basis of Likud-Atid allows them to neutralize Habayit Hayehudi and restrain Shas, and turn the bow of the new ship of government toward the center.

With Bennett or without?

So it is now Lapid who will call the shots. If he prefers to turn his back on his campaign promises, take the foreign affairs portfolio and lead Israel into a peace process, he has the ability to leave Bennett out of a government that will instead include the ultra-Orthodox, Hatnuah and Kadima. However, if he prefers to focus on changing the electoral system, address the issue of equal sharing of the military-service burden and improve the situation of the middle class he will need Bennett as a partner. In the former case, Netanyahu and Lapid will work together while Bennett blasts them from the opposition, whereas in the latter case the leading trio of the election campaign will become the triumvirate of the government. The cool guy who will work to “centralize Netanyahu” and the other with genes that will “make Netanyahu extreme” will take their places on both sides of the forlorn premier and make his life miserable.

In the month that preceded the elections, I conducted a brief but intensive tour of the Israeli center-left. What arose mainly from this series was that Netanyahu was not as strong as he seemed to be and that if the center-left could find a Bennett of its own it could pull off a surprise.

Until a week before the election, both the interviewer and the interviewees justly lamented the rift and the wretchedness of the center-left. However, in the final days of the campaign, Lapid managed to turn himself into the Bennett of the center and outdo the Bennett of the right big-time. The Lapid thrust of 2013 was remarkably similar to the Livni thrust of 2009. Suddenly, in the face of the concrete threat of the right, many flocked to what they saw as the last white hope.

That makes Lapid the new Livni. He enjoys the credit that Livni enjoyed and he is arousing the expectations that Livni aroused, and he is leaning on the same alignment of forces. After Kadima inherited the role of his father’s party, he became the successor to Kadima. But the huge challenge facing Lapid is how not to become a Livni-like disappointment and how not to experience a Kadima-like crash. How to break once and for all the recurring pattern of the knight riding a white horse who vanishes as quickly as he appeared.

No less dramatic is the challenge faced by the center-left. The 2013 election proved that Israel is not right wing. Despite the demographic changes, the majority remains a sane majority that wants a sane country that is neither nationalist nor religious. Thus, with proper work, the center-left can do in Israel what Bill Clinton did in post-Reagan-Bush America and what Barack Obama did in post-George W. Bush America.

However, to foment deep change, a sophisticated election campaign and a charming candidate will not be enough. To foment deep change, it will be necessary to articulate a new worldview and establish a new leadership team that will offer a serious and comprehensive response to this country’s existential challenges.

The worthy worldview and the worthy leadership team should be put together already now because you never know what’s coming in this country and in this Middle East. The crack of hope that opened in January 2013 needs to be be widened fast right now.

Yair Lapid, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Naftali Bennett.Credit: Archive
Illustration by Amos Biderman

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