Israel’s Decision, 2015: It’s All About the Bibi, No Bougie

A strong charismatic ex-general such as Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak would have wiped the floor with Netanyahu in Tuesday’s vote.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

There are no real, rational reasons for the elections that Israel will hold on Tuesday. There is no development in the peace process that needs urgent decision, no economic crisis that requires instant resolution, no burning security threat, not even the imminent nuclear deal with Iran, that justifies the political upheaval that looms ahead.

The only person who knows why Israelis are going to the polls is the one who called them in the first place, Benjamin Netanyahu. And because he has declined to explain to the Israeli public why he dissolved his government two and a half years before it’s time had come, and given that there is no self-explanatory rationale for the vote, we are left with only one clear-cut issue: Netanyahu, for or against. It’s all about the Bibi, as Meghan Traynor might sing, no Bougie.

These elections would have been lost for Netanyahu a long time ago if his opponents in the center-left had been able to field a strong, charismatic candidate with the appropriately impressive security credentials. Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak, the two Israeli generals who succeeded in breaking through the right wing’s built-in majority in the 38 years since Likud first came to power in 1977, would have wiped the floor with Netanyahu in 2015. Isaac Herzog, despite his many merits, is made of less inspiring stuff. Those who will vote for him, beyond hard core Laborites, will be doing so because he is the default alternative to Netanyahu; not so much the lesser evil, perhaps, but definitely the less objectionable among the two. Not for love of Mordechai, as the Talmud saying goes, but for hatred of Haman (no direct comparison intended, of course).

For the same reason, candidates such as Naftali Bennett and even more so, Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, stand to gain; not so much because they represent ideologies that are dramatically different from Netanyahu’s, but because they are not Netanyahu himself. And by the same token, many of the voters who will opt for Likud in the end will do so despite Netanyahu, not because of him. After 9 years at the helm and over 30 in politics, Netanyahu has very few true admirers left, even among hard-core Likudniks.

He is, after all, a particularly un-Israeli, non-Likudnik prime minister. Technically, he is an Israeli-born sabra; in practice he is more an East Coast stockbroker. His forte is speaking in English, not in Hebrew. His true hard core admirers are located far more in the American bible belt than in the Israeli hinterland: he can only dream of a reception from the Likud caucus in the Israeli Knesset that would come close to the wild cheers that greeted him recently from GOP lawmakers in Congress.

Right-wing and religious settlers know that Netanyahu’s brand of secular, right-wing, neo-conservative hawkishness is light years away from their own belief-based, land-loving absolutism; rank and file Likudniks from development towns and Israel’s poor neighborhoods are universes apart from the hoity-toity lifestyles of Sara and Bibi in their twin domains in Jerusalem and Caesarea. They used to vote for Netanyahu because he had more going for him than the party he represented; now it’s the other way round.

Israel’s proportional system has always been touted as purely ideological: I remember the days when this difference was highlighted in a condescending tone in comparison to the crass, “personal” nature of elections in the United States and Great Britain. Not that there aren’t clear cut ideological lines that delineate the 11 Israeli parties - out of a total of 26 - that have a chance of surpassing the 3.25 percent threshold on Tuesday and gaining an entry ticket to the next, twentieth Knesset. But the overriding factor that will decide who will be the next prime minister and who will be a member of the next coalition and what policies Israel will pursue inside the country and towards the outside world will be personal par excellence, and only one person at that: Benjamin Netanyahu, yes or no.

And that decision will be made by the small minority of voters who are not locked-in in advance to a party by virtue of race, creed or family background. Israeli Arabs, on Tuesday more than ever before, will vote for their Joint List Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox traditionally give 110 percent of their vote to United Torah Judaism, Sephardi ultra-Orthodox and traditional North Africans will split between Arye Deri and Eli Yishai, settlers and old-style national religious types will vote for Bennett and the Jewish Home, hard core hipster Ashkenazim will opt for Meretz, Russian immigrants clinging to their separate identities might still cast their vote for Avigdor Lieberman, elderly Mapainiks who have been voting for Labor since Ben Gurion won’t stop now just as Jabotynskite Revisionists who worshipped Menachem Begin won’t break their habit, even if they’re not enamored with Netanyahu.

This leaves less than a quarter of the electorate, roughly speaking, in play. Many of them will opt for Kaclon or Lapid because they can’t decide whether their dislike for Netanyahu is lesser or greater than their lack of enthusiasm for Herzog, others because Netanyahu is too right and Herzog is too left. If that’s what happens to the overwhelming voters who still haven’t made up their minds, we could be facing an unprecedented surge of the centrist bloc, perhaps even one that would propel one of their standard bearers all the way to the prime minister’s office.

If not, the resolution will be left to those who think at first that Herzog is too risky but then that it might be a risk worth taking if it means getting rid of Netanyahu. And because the decision will ultimately be such a personal one, it could very well be determined by very basic gut instincts that will only make themselves heard, loud and clear, at the very last minute, inside the ballot box.

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