Netanyahu Is Praying That Israelis Won't Say 'Yes We Can'

Perhaps, at this point in his life, Netanyahu has decided that winning a confrontation with Iran isn't everything, it's the only thing.

His heart's not in it anymore.

There are days when you can see it in his eyes. The fire that was there, that fire that put him where he is, is banked. Some Sunday mornings, when Benjamin Netanyahu looks down the cabinet table, there's a weariness to him, a certain distraction.

You may hear it in his voice, too, when he talks about the business of running the country. That sense that he'd rather be somewhere else.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not now. The news was not supposed to be about people whose lives have fallen apart, hard-working people who've lost their jobs, their health, and finally their hope, and have opted for suicide. Who by fire and who by water. A new case every single day.

By rights, this should have been the full-bore home stretch of an electoral forgone conclusion. This should have been the height of a campaign in which a literally unrivalled incumbent prime minister steamed to certain victory in an election he himself called for September 4.

Israelis were not supposed to be talking about a flurry of disastrous errors in judgment by their prime minister. Netanyahu's prospective voters were not meant to be speculating on why, in the space of two months, Netanyahu has gone from the invincible King Bibi to a bumbling, comb-over King Lear, his electoral strength in opinion polls down some 20 percent in a matter of days.

You can feel it. He knows something. He knows how he could lose. He knows it because in 1996, he was a young, untried, wholly inexperienced candidate facing an unbeatable incumbent prime minister, Shimon Peres.

There was no way that Netanyahu was going to overcome Peres' 20 percentage point lead held in opinion polls. Unless in the months leading to the election, many Israelis who themselves had expected to vote for Peres, felt their lives and their country moving steadily downhill. Many, many of them, Labor voters to the core, could not bring themselves to cast ballots for the Likud and Netanyahu. So they stayed home. And, by a thin margin, Netanyahu won.

The terms of Netanyahu's first victory are, at this point, Netanyahu's nightmare. His core constituency, Israeli Jews who call the Likud their home with near-religious devotion, would no sooner vote Labor than convert to Islam. But they could stay home. And if they do, in an election that could come in February, Netanyahu could lose.

They could stay home because in 2009, candidate Netanyahu promised working and middle class Israelis, trickle-down prosperity and a 20 percent tax cut in four years. Three and a half years later, that promise was replayed on morning news screens, alongside a flurry of tax hikes that will hit middle and working class Israelis with immediate and stunning force.

Effective Monday, levies that amount to sales taxes on most goods and services will be raised to 17 percent. Taxes on gasoline, which already costs $8 a gallon, will further cut into shrinking incomes. Education, health, and welfare services, already on the verge of collapse in many areas, could take a new hit by announced across-the-board budget cuts.

Netanyahu's core voters could also stay home because the very rich, with whom Netanyahu is closely associated, are all but untouched by the austerity measures. The 1% has become the only class with working social safety nets - in their case, such welfare benefits as forgiven loans and deferred corporate taxes.

They could stay home because of the growing perception that Netanyahu cares more about striking Iran than he does about the dreary demands of running Israel. And the perception, growing in parallel, that fewer and fewer knowledgeable and shrewd senior defense officials share Netanyahu's apparent fixation with pressing such an attack, and/or an offensive over chemical weaponry in Syria.

They could stay home because a Tehran-born former army chief of staff and ex-Likud defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, having left the government, leveled an unprecedented accusation at Netanyahu after the prime minister's backroom offers to get Kadima Mks to defect to the Likud.

In a clear reference to a prospective Netanyahu-ordered attack on Iran, Kadima leader Mofaz told a press conference that, "Kadima will not go on operational adventures that will endanger the future of our daughters and sons."

"We will not be a partner to risking the citizens of the state of Israel."

They may stay home because as Israel faces a budding revolt over his broken promises on equalizing the burdens of military service, Netanyahu's mind is elsewhere. A thousand miles away, on the outskirts of Tehran.

When the considerable smoke of the Kadima debacle cleared, all that Netanyahu seemed to have done was to take on a wartime consigliere, Tzachi Hanegbi.

Perhaps, at this point in his life, Benjamin Netanyahu knows this. Perhaps he needs time to grieve for his father. Perhaps, at this point, given what an Israeli prime minister needs to do, versus what he's still willing to do, he's decided that winning a confrontation with Iran isn't everything, it's the only thing.

What will it take to make the next election a real contest? My wife said it this morning. "Someone has to stand up and say 'Yes We Can.'"

We have grown used to the idea that Netanyahu has no rivals. But even in an Israel that seems unchangeable, politics can turn on a dime. New faces are coming to the fore, new voices like those of Yohanan Plesner and others are cutting through the familiar dull hum.

Success has made Benjamin Netanyahu a prematurely old man. Failure is now making this worse.

He knows that a large portion of the potential voters whom his policies have alienated and broken, can be counted on to say to themselves, no we won't, and will simply stay home.

The last thing he needs now is a sizable group of young people taking the initiative and believing, in whatever terms Israelis will adopt, Yes We Can.