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Israel Is No Worse Off, So Why Are Voters Ditching Netanyahu?

With polls predicting Likud's decline, Netanyahu pleads for national unity; early elections seem to be off the table for now

Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu take a selfie in London, as Miri Regev looks on.
Illustration: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu take a selfie in LondonCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter

In first class on the way to London on Wednesday evening, over a glass of wine, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had time to mournfully ponder the public opinion polls reported by the commercial television channels before he had boarded the plane. Numbers like these could wreck any trip, even a fun-filled, relaxed junket with a loose schedule such as he’d arranged for himself and his wife, Sara, who by coincidence, will celebrate her 59th birthday far from the abusive Israeli media. And not in some restaurant in the Levant, but in the Savoy Hotel.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who joined them mainly in order to cheer up “the Lady” – who is licking her wounds after being sued by Shira, the cleaning lady – has her work cut out for her. Three or four surveys conducted in the past two weeks – since the Knesset reconvened for the winter session – seem to indicate a shift: In all of them, Likud is weakened. In all of them, the right-wing bloc is slipping. In all of them, Yesh Atid and Zionist Union, who until now were doing a kind of tango – one step back, two steps forward around a combined 35 to 36 seats; now one leading, now the other – are now above 40 seats between them.

Zionist Union is hovering at the 20-seat level. Its new leader, Avi Gabbay, must be doing something right, despite the sounds of leftists’ clucking. He’s willing to relinquish a certain number of hard-left voters to Meretz, and recruit voters from the soft right – from Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, or even Likud. The latest numbers suggest that this is happening. Meretz is holding its own in one poll and is significantly strengthened in another. The artificial scandal over the question of whether Meretz is Zionist dissipated without causing damage. 

When Gabbay brutally boots Arab-Israeli MK Zouheir Bahloul out of the party following a not-so-outrageous remark the latter made (explaining why he wouldn’t be attending the Knesset event marking 100 years of the Balfour Declaration), he is not just signaling to the right that he can and wants to do business with them. He’s sending a message to the dormant land mines in his party – to MKs Merav Michaeli and Yossi Yonah, to Stav Shaffir and their ilk – to keep quiet. Gabbay will probably pay in the next election campaign for the damage Michaeli caused with her talk on Australian TV about dangers posed by the nuclear, traditional family – the “core” family, she called it – to children.

The seemingly invincible barrier to a centrist-leftist coalition, with the solid majority held by the right wing plus the ultra-Orthodox, Haredim, now looks like a flimsy reed. From this point of view, Shas, hovering around four seats – the minimum needed to enter the Knesset , with its 3.25 percent electoral threshold – is a genuine catastrophe. Things get even worse, though, because the alternative – a party led by former Shas minister Eli Yishai – would also not receive more than four seats, according to the polls. Without six or seven seats from the Haredi Sephardi party in his coffers, and with only 25 seats for Likud, Netanyahu is history. 

That could account for the theatrical call for “national reconciliation and brotherhood” that Netanyahu aimed at Rabin, Jr. in the Knesset on Wednesday, after the latter attacked him head-on at the state memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Yuval Rabin touched on the prime minister’s most sensitive point: He drew a comparison between his late father and Netanyahu on the issues of leadership and integrity. If he’d wanted to be really cruel, he could have mentioned his father’s noble resignation as prime minister in 1977 after it was revealed that his wife, Leah (Yuval’s mother), had an illegal account in a Washington bank.

When Netanyahu sees his handiwork sinking into the abyss, he sometimes reveals the responsible side of his character. Just before the fall of his first government, in December 1998, he took to the Knesset floor and suggested to then-opposition leader Ehud Barak, who already palpably felt his coming ascension to power, that they form a national unity government. “Too little and too late,” Barak replied. For the old-timers among us, the call this week for national reconciliation evoked that event to a degree.

On the other hand, with this current scenario, the possibility of early elections – which been hovering over the political arena – also becomes history. There’s no more effective medicine for pushing back elections than a forecast of losing power.

The governing coalition partners will now close ranks, link arms, leave their petty quarrels by the wayside and focus on approving the 2019 budget proposal. They, too, have no wish to test their power at the polls.

Since there has been no worsening of Israel’s foreign affairs, or economic or security situations, the reason for the right wing’s decline must be sought in more prosaic realms: for instance, the mounting revulsion due to the police investigations of Netanyahu, and the repeated legislative assassination attempts the prime minister’s envoys are perpetrating against law enforcement agencies. Those efforts have apparently stimulated the gag reflex in the sane right.

Then there was Netanyahu’s hamutzim speech at the opening session of the Knesset’s winter session, and the online photo showing him with a large can of pickles – representing the country’s “sourpusses” – in his office. The majority of the public was turned off by the whole vulgar spectacle. Likud voters, too, believe that what happens in the vegetable market should remain in the market, and that the Prime Minister’s Bureau, where fates are decided, is not a pickle stand.

He always had France

While we’re on the subject of produce stands and revulsion, every time MK David Amsalem (Likud) finishes an interview, leaving behind an aroma of market-style haggling mingled with contempt for every state norm, an unknown number of mainstream Likudniks – fed up with the crud – shake their heads in disbelief and vow never to vote Likud again. Disgust is starting to overcome party loyalty.

We’ve never experienced a situation such as this, in which a duo like Amsalem and MK David Bitan (Likud) are running the coalition de facto and de jure, paralyzing it and setting in motion, without even making an effort to hide their motive, the extrication of the serial suspect, Benjamin Netanyahu, from the grasp of police investigations.

If the proposed law according to which serving prime ministers will be immune from police investigations – dubbed “the French law” – doesn’t help, we’ll whip out legislation that will prohibit the police from providing a summary of the investigation file they hand over to the State Prosecutor’s Office. If that encounters difficulties, and there already are a few, have no fear: The trickster brain will come up with a new gimmick. David Amsalem-Bitan & Co. will come up with some putrid legislative concoction in a back room for the Boss. It won’t be a surprise if, as part of the moves toward national reconciliation Netanyahu is promoting, a suggestion will be made to pardon prisoners and block investigations of premiers. Sounds far-fetched? Nu, and the French law is realistic?

Some believe in the theory that the proposed law prohibiting the investigation of a serving prime minister was only a ruse, intended to advance the substitute in the form of “a law against police recommendations” concerning indictments. (The police don’t “recommend” anything, but let’s not be confused by the facts.)

But a very senior figure in the coalition who was involved in the frantic efforts to get the French law passed claimed this week that Netanyahu was “red hot” over the legislation. He pinned his hopes on it, like someone drowning in the sea who spots a lifeboat and swims doggedly toward it. To his displeasure, the coalition partners sank the lifeboat.

And for those who think this is a new ploy, here’s a reminder. In the spring of 2009, in the midst of the contacts to form the second Netanyahu government, Prof. Yaakov Neeman, the designated justice minister, put forward the following idea to the prospective coalition partners: to enact the so-called French law. It came out of the blue.

Those who heard Neeman got the impression that the proposal was the designated prime minister's idea. Yes, as far back as 2009 – before the “gifts” were allegedly received from Arnon Milchan and James Packer; before the alleged bribery talks with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes; and when submarines were still just part of a Beatles song – Netanyahu already wanted to immunize himself against the option that fraud squad investigators might want to talk to him. In his heart, in his gut, if not in his head, he apparently knew why.

His colleagues in Likud at the time were stunned. They had just objected to a similar proposal put forward by members of the close circle of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was just as afflicted by investigations as his successor is today. They didn’t just object, they manned the barricades. Were they now supposed to do a sudden about-face because there was a new premier? The dialogue concerning the proposed legislation was serious and prolonged, but took place in backrooms. For some reason, it died out. Until the present day, when the situation worsened.

Netanyahu undoubtedly regrets not having been more insistent then. It would have been relatively easy to enact the legislation in an atmosphere untainted by investigations, at the start of a new term of office and as the head of a government in which the Labor Party, with its history of koshering the impure, was a central player. Today, not only have the horses bolted from the stable – the stable itself no longer exists.

As serious as it gets

MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) is a veteran Rabinist. After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, she became the CEO of a nonprofit, Shalom Haver, which commemorated Rabin, and organized dozens of memorial assemblies and similar events. In the past 22 years, she hasn’t missed a single official commemorative ceremony at Mount Herzl or in the Knesset – most of the time from the visitors’ gallery, and lately as a parliamentarian.

In this year’s graveside speech by Netanyahu on Mount Herzl, she discerned a different tone: more conciliatory, more moderate, less complaining. A few hours later, at the Knesset event, amid a political environment and following Yuval Rabin’s tough comments, she expected Netanyahu to take off the gloves or offer an icy response. Instead, he was even more conciliatory, softer and, in his words, “took up the gauntlet” and issued the call for national reconciliation and brotherhood as a response to Rabin, Jr.’s harsh attack on him.

Nahmias-Verbin considered the idea of going over to Netanyahu after the session. “I thought about his shocking ‘sourpusses’ speech,” she told me. That was about 10 days beforehand and was still giving her indigestion. In the end, she did go over to him. “Tell me,” she asked the prime minister. “Did you mean what you said?” “No!” he said sarcastically. “I didn’t mean it! Of course I meant it, I’m serious.”

“You understand that I have doubts about you, after everything that’s happened, after the ‘sourpusses’ speech,” she said to him. “You understand that it’s hard for us.”

“I understand,” he replied, “and I mean what I said.”

Nahmias-Verbin went on her way, reflecting on what she had heard. Watching events from the side was MK Yehudah Glick (Likud), who is deeply entrenched in the reconciliation, brotherhood, love-and-hugs scene. Glick went over to her and persuaded her to go back to Netanyahu with him, to strike while the iron of national reconciliation was hot. The two of them told Netanyahu they were willing to be part of the initiative, if he was serious.

“Yes,” the prime minister replied. “Bring in plenty more MKs.”

I asked Nahmias-Verbin whether, after half a term in the Knesset and three decades of flopping around in the political mire alongside leaders, the time hadn’t come to abandon the naveté. “I don’t rule out that possibility,” she replied, “but we have to try. And I put aside in advance the corruption and the investigations and the sourpusses. There was something different in what he said, both at Mount Herzl and in the Knesset, and I can’t ignore that. I’m a nave sourpuss,” she sighed.

Yuval Rabin at a memorial service held for his father Yitzhak Rabin, October 31, 2017.
Yuval Rabin at a memorial service held for his father Yitzhak Rabin, October 31, 2017.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Group gripe

“The list of traitors grows longer by the day,” Yuval Rabin observed correctly at the Mount Herzl ceremony. In the twisted nature of things, the “traitors” – whose numbers have swollen in the period of the Netanyahu governments, particularly during the present one – belong to two groups: leftists and Arabs.

Ongoing incitement, instigation and hunting efforts via legislation on the part of Netanyahu with his Bitan- and Amsalem-style cohorts, along with other politicians (from Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, for example) are definitely leaving their mark.

In the past year, a comprehensive survey was conducted in Israel by an European Union body called European Social Survey. The survey, which also encompassed all the countries of the EU, asked a sample of 2,557 members of the public, “Would you describe yourself as a member of a group that is discriminated against in Israel?” The poll was conducted over the course of five months, from September 2016 until January 2017; it was administered in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian. The respondents were categorized according to how they voted in the 2015 elections.

The group that feels most discriminated against is Israeli Arabs who voted for the Joint List: 81 percent of them felt they were being treated unfairly – a huge leap from the 62 percent of the 2014-2015 survey. (The government was more moderate then and included Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid.)

The next group, albeit with a tremendous gap, is Ashkenazi Haredim who voted for United Torah Judaism. In the current poll, 43 percent feel discriminated against, up from 32 percent – also a significant leap.

Next come those who voted for Meretz: 29 percent, as compared with 25 percent two years earlier. And then, in descending order, those who voted for Shas, Habayit Hayehudi, Kulanu, Zionist Union, Likud, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu. Only 5 percent of the voters for the latter party, led by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, feel discriminated against – down from 15 percent in the previous survey. They identify with their leader’s legendary description of Israel: “Paradise plus plus.” Perhaps Lieberman’s appointment to a senior cabinet post also enhanced their self-image.

A few additional conclusions: The Arabs, leftists and Haredim consider themselves to be the most discriminated-against groups in Israel. No explanation is needed for the first two. Part of the explanation appears earlier in this column, and any addition is superfluous. It’s not pleasant to be an Arab/leftist in the Israel of 2017. Sometimes it’s even a bit dangerous.

The voters for Likud, the ruling party, feel great. Only 8 percent of them report symptoms of discrimination, the same proportion as in the previous survey. This is worth pondering. These particular citizens have a leader, Benjamin Netanyahu by name. From dawn to dusk he whines, complains, accuses one elite or another of persecuting him, of trying to topple him (“Me, you, us”), of besmirching him and plenty more.

In every meeting, speech, tweet and post, his texts reflect a sense of persecution, self-defense, discrimination – as though he’s fleeing for his life. At every opportunity, he tries to entwine his gloomy subjective situation with that of his voters, as though he’s being persecuted (by the left and the media) not because of his faults and failures, but as the representative of a broad public.

It’s not working. The victimization message isn’t trickling down.

As for the Haredim, they certainly can’t have any complaints against the government of which they’re a part, and which pads them with huge budgets and coveted jobs for their elected officials. Their sense of discrimination apparently derives from the attitude of the secular majority toward them. If they are suffering from exclusion, it’s an exclusion they impose on themselves, such as on the issue of the compulsory army draft.

Lior Sheffer, a political science doctoral student at the University of Toronto, who sent me the results of the ESS poll, is a researcher of elite political behavior. Sheffer also drew my attention to another point: Shas voters, who are also Haredim, don’t feel as discriminated against as their Ashkenazi brethren (22 percent vs. 43 percent).

So, another bit of conventional thinking is seemingly shattered: the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin) no longer feel they’re being screwed.

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