Analysis

Top 12 Reasons Netanyahu Will Lose the Upcoming Early Elections

He probably won't but from now until Election Day hope springs eternal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, November 18, 2018.
Emil Salman

The headline above is pure click-bait. In today’s Israel, forecasting the end of Netanyahu’s political career is so outlandish, it attracts attention. After all, we’ve been there and done that: Convinced ourselves that the signs point to a Netanyahu loss only to find out that the Israeli public didn’t see them and voted him into office. The collective memory holds that Netanyahu is perennially written off up until the polls close, at which time it turns out that reports of his political demise were premature.

History, on the other hand, has a different version of events. No one can take from Netanyahu either his phenomenal rise from UN ambassador in 1988 to prime minister in 1996 or his lock-hold on power and trifecta of electoral victories since 2009. But Netanyahu is far from invincible: He lost badly to Ehud Barak in 1999, was trounced by Ariel Sharon in the Likud primaries in 2002 and was drubbed by Ehud Olmert and Kadima in the 2006 elections, in which his Likud mustered a measly 12 seats in the Knesset. So it can be done.

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Now that we’ve established that a Netanyahu defeat is not a physical impossibility, we can approach the task at hand. His “Call me Mr. Security” address to the nation on Sunday night showed that despite his best efforts, Netanyahu realizes that his efforts to save his right wing coalition have failed. Elections are likely to be held within six months, probably at the end of March.

Prudence and experience caution us to steer clear of firm assertions, so let’s just say that in the unlikely chance Netanyahu does fall in the elections, these will be the cardinal reasons:

1. Because enough is enough. After a decade in office, the Israeli public is suffering from creeping Bibi-fatigue. He leads in the polls because he seems entrenched at the top and many Israelis can’t imagine life without him, but inside the ballot box they will realize that it’s time for a change. In 1999, Barak rightly predicted the late swing against Netanyahu that cost him the elections: Barak described it as the cherry-blossom. As luck would have it, the cherries are scheduled to blossom in 2019 at the very same time that Israel will most likely go to the polls.

2. Of all his previous electoral confrontations, 2019 is most reminiscent of 1999. After his first three years in office, Netanyahu was up to his eyeballs in scandal, police investigations and attorney generals’ reports; he was despised by the Likud old guard that he had displaced and distrusted by the right-wing in the wake of the Wye River agreements; and even though he’d been prime minister for only three years, the media’s fixation with him made it seem like thirty.

All that was needed was a viable alternative, provided at the time by former chief of staff and “Israel’s most decorated soldier” Barak. See below about the possibility of a 2019 version of Barak, which may turn out to be none other than Barak himself, 20 years older.

3. Because Netanyahu is about to reap the whirlwind of the evil winds he’s sowed throughout his life. After years of relentlessly pushing the Israeli public to the militant, anti-democratic right, Netanyahu will fall prey to the forces he unleashed. He will be outflanked by parties even more xenophobic and intransigent than he is and his Likud will be cannibalized from both ends, center and far right, rendering it incapable of forming a coalition.

4. Because he’s lost his mojo. If I may, my incisive daughter Tal Shalev, who is diplomatic and political correspondent for Walla News, reckons Netanyahu began to lose it two months ago, on the day the Russian Ilyushin II-20 reconnaissance aircraft was downed over Syria. The tragedy not only undermined Israel’s freedom of action in Syrian skies, it demolished Netanyahu’s aura as the diplomatic whiz who had Vladimir Putin eating out of the palm of his hand. Putin, for his own reasons, used the aircraft incident to cut Netanyahu back to his original size, puncturing his aura of diplomatic omnipotence in the process.

5. Because Netanyahu won’t be able to escape the deadly spiral of last week’s flare-up in Gaza.  Either Hamas won’t give him valid grounds to retaliate in a way that would erase the image of feebleness and indecisiveness that he projected this week, when Israel failed to hit back after Hamas launched 450 rockets at Israeli towns in less than a day – or they will, in which case Netanyahu will be accused of risking the lives of Israeli soldiers for political gain.

6. Because, in a development that many will view as poetic justice, his BFF in Washington, Donald Trump, could make things much worse for Netanyahu. Trump will refuse to retreat from presenting his ultimate, best ever, never seen before peace plan, and Netanyahu will immediately be caught between a rock and a hard place: He won’t want to say no to the president he describes as Israel’s best friend ever and he definitely won’t want to say yes to a plan that will include, come what may, Israeli concessions that will be uniformly rejected on the Israeli right.

The conventional wisdom will be that Trump and his Middle East advisers did not appreciate the damage that a peace plan might do to Netanyahu’s electoral chances. The truth might be more Machiavellian: One of the immediate beneficiaries of Netanyahu’s efforts to maneuver both for and against the Trump peace plan would be Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. Bennett is said to be the current darling of Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who fell out with Netanyahu over his alleged collusion with Noni Mozes, the publisher of the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, purportedly at the expense of Adelson’s Yisrael Hayom.

So if Adelson, whose deep pockets fuel GOP politics and whose wife Miriam was awarded this week with the Medal of Freedom, urges Trump to publish his peace plan without delay, one can assume that Trump won’t turn him down. Trump might not realize what he’s doing, but Adelson will exact his revenge.

7. Because by the time elections come around, Netanyahu will be helplessly trapped in the web of the suspicions, investigations, findings and potential indictments that have dogged him throughout the past two years. By the time elections are held, the police will have recommended that Netanyahu be charged with at least three counts of bribery as well as a several lesser crimes. At best, from his point of view, his fate will hang in the balance.

Netanyahu’s loyal base may view him as a victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy that includes everyone from Barack Obama to George Soros and is being hatched in the halls of academia, the corridors of justice and the studios of the broadcast network, but most people will come to believe that where there’s smoke there’s fire. Guilty or shmulty, Israelis may reach the conclusion that the country is better off with a leader who doesn’t have such a heavy legal cloud hanging over his head.

8. Because the entire Israeli establishment will line up against Netanyahu, from far left to moderate right. And while Netanyahu has beaten the combined forces of Israel’s elites in the past, he will be less equipped to repel the fury of the forces that will face him in 2019. Netanyahu has been in power so long that he now embodies the establishment and the status quo; enough voters will see through his efforts to portray himself as the scrappy outsider coming to drain the swamp. In 2019, the swamp has Netanyahu’s name written all over it.

9. Because the nation state law will emerge as an albatross around Netanyahu’s neck. It won’t bring him any more Jewish voters, who have mostly moved on from the fierce debate over the controversial law, but could very well drive the Druze away from their traditional pro-Likud vote and make Netanyahu’s despicable 2015 deception come true four years later: This time, the Arabs will indeed come out in droves to vote, and Soros will actually fund the buses that will bring them to the polling booths.

10. Because Netanyahu has suddenly cast doubt on the traditional loyalty of North African Jews for the Likud. The combination of his reprimanding a heckler in Kiryat Shmona as “boring” with the public protests in southern towns like Sderot and Netivot, which feel themselves abandoned by the government to face the Hamas rockets alone, could push the predominantly North African development towns to seek comfort elsewhere. They have several potential escape routes: the ultra-Orthodox Shas, Kachlon’s Kulanu, Lieberman’s cutthroat militancy, Bennett’s self-righteous quick fixes or the promise of electoral superstar Orli Levi-Abekasis, a Lieberman refugee with solid social credentials.

11. Because Netanyahu has built up enough bad will and resentment among his current coalition partners that some of them will jump on the first opportunity for payback. If there is a viable center left option that will be seen as a legitimate alternative to Netanyahu and the right, wily politicians such as the resigning Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon and even Shas’ Interior Minister Arye Deri could find an excuse to bolt and to crown Netanyahu’s rival as prime minister.

12. But the previous stipulation is the big IF, without which none of the nine preceding factors will matter. As things currently stand, Netanyahu’s rivals don’t include a charismatic leader who can energize center-left Israeli voters, end their traditional indifference, take them to the streets or motivate the legions of indifferent Millennials and other malcontents who claim to see no difference between Netanyahu and everyone else.

For this to happen, there must be a Big Bang. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid or the Zionist Camp’s less than dynamic duo of Tzipi Livni and Avi Gabay aren’t up to the task: None of them spark that kind of fire, and the parties behind them even less so. It would be good if the center left came out with new ideas to replace the old and the stale, it would be better if the parties that oppose Likud and Netanyahu reorganize under a large-tent anti-Netanyahu alliance and it would be best if they succeed in anointing a new king to lead them to battle.

As things stand now, the enigmatic former military chief Benny Gantz is the only name in town, whether he runs independently or is recruited by Zionist Camp and others. But many Labor Party stalwarts will hesitate before handing over their troops to an untested commander who has kept his cards so close to his chest that he could very well wind up as Netanyahu’s number two, in which case all bets are off and it’s game over.

An alternative scenario sees the left uniting at the very last minute under their feisty elder statesman, Barak, who has emerged in recent months as Netanyahu’s most acerbic critic. If there is a sense of real movement, Barak might be able to enlist other public figures, including his archenemy and electoral asset Gabi Ashkenazi, another former IDF chief of staff itching to jump into the ring. A triumvirate of Barak-Gantz-Ashkenazi is probably Netanyahu’s worst nightmare.

And then, all that will be needed is a collective prayer, by everyone who believes it’s time to bid Netanyahu farewell, for the cherries to come out in full blossom this year, at the exact right time. Easy peasy.