Analysis

Israel Election Results: Center-left Doomed by Netanyahu’s Killer Campaign – and Its Own Crippling Complacency

Champions of Israel’s liberal democracy must now tap their inner rage to avert imminent extinction

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles after first exit poll results for the Israeli elections at his party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 2, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles after first exit poll results for the Israeli elections at his party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 2, 2020. Credit: AP/Ariel Schalit
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Throughout the last election campaign, Benny Gantz and his colleagues in Kahol Lavan strenuously fended off Benjamin Netanyahu’s allegations that they would hook up with the Joint List to form a coalition. The Joint List, they asserted, was beyond the pale. They pledged to form a government supported by a “Zionist majority,” which is a convenient euphemism for “Jewish majority.”

Disregarding the fact that the results of Monday’s election indicated that Gantz and his party can’t form a coalition with anyone, if one adopts Kahol Lavan’s own yardstick, and after due deduction of the 15 or 16 lawmakers of the untouchable Joint List, the outcome is as follows: Of the 105 remaining “Jewish” seats in the Knesset, Netanyahu’s right wing bloc took 59 and the center-left bloc that includes Kahol Lavan and the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance but excludes Yisrael Beiteinu – the party of the mercurial Avigdor Lieberman, who can hardly be viewed as an integral part of the group – won a grand total of 40 seats, at best.

Bibi went gunning for his only real rival

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Thus, if one hoists Gantz and his allies on their own petard, the results of the exclusively “Jewish” election in percentage terms was 58%-39% in favor of the right. Seen in this light, the center-left wasn’t narrowly defeated in Monday’s election: It was decimated, devastated, routed and humiliated. Small wonder that in their efforts to mitigate the scope of their debacle, the Joint List has suddenly been certified as kosher and annexed to a so-called anti-Netanyahu bloc, allowing Kahol Lavan leaders to claim, hypocritically, that their bloc actually won 61 seats, compared to Netanyahu’s 59. Hooray for victory!

True, if Netanyahu fails to climb beyond 58 or 59 after all the votes are counted, his stupendous victory Monday could amount to naught: Unless he carries out a full-scale putsch in the next few days against the legal system, Netanyahu’s majority won’t suffice to scuttle the start of his criminal trial in the Jerusalem District Court in two weeks.

Center-left apologists also point out, correctly, that when the right-wing party’s over, Netanyahu and his bloc will find that the March 2020 ballot ended with more or less the same outcome and the same stalemate as the April 2019 ballot, the first of Israel’s three elections within a year. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

And there’s also no denying that Gantz, his party and his allies faced off against grand wizard Netanyahu, undisputed King of Comebacks, Kaiser of Campaigns, Sultan of Spin, Master of Manipulation, Duke of Dirty tricks and Baron of Bile all rolled into one. And while Gantz and his allies surely prayed for victory, Netanyahu was fighting for his life, not only for the future of his career but for his personal freedom as well.

The immediate analogy to Netanyahu’s latest poll-defying, come-from-behind coup is his 2015 campaign, infamously remembered for his Election Day alarm against Arabs flocking to the polls, which yielded six last-minute Likud Knesset seats and confirmed his reputation as the ultimate comeback kid. The more accurate comparison, however, is to Netanyahu’s first great come-from-behind upset in the 1996 elections in which he overcame the stigma of his perceived incitement preceding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which was supposed to render him virtually unelectable.

Benny Gantz stands next to Kahol Lavan co-leaders Yair Lapid and Gaby Ashkenazi at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel March 3, 2020.
Benny Gantz stands next to Kahol Lavan co-leaders Yair Lapid and Gaby Ashkenazi at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel March 3, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Corinna Kern

But just as he’s done over recent months with his three criminal indictments Netanyahu transformed his perceived handicap 24 years ago into a strategic asset. He melded the establishment’s outrage over his personal conduct onto the right wing’s indignant repudiation of the left’s efforts to blame it for nurturing and encouraging Rabin assassin Yigal Amir. It’s not me they’re really after, Netanyahu persuaded his flock, it’s you.

Netanyahu’s prospects in the May 1996 ballot improved after he successfully leveraged Hamas suicide bombings to shake public confidence in Shimon Peres and his Oslo peace process He would have probably lost nonetheless, were it not for the late Arthur Finkelstein’s imported, arguably racist, made-in-America slime-slinging campaign strategy, meticulously reprised in the 2020 ballot, and without Netanyahu’s ingenious metamorphosis into the embodiment of his so-called coalition of the downtrodden and its long-held grievances against the leftist-secular-Ashkenazi elites and their long record of exclusion and discrimination.

Just as he did in 1996, when he harnessed the right’s simmering resentment in the wake of Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu, emperor of political alchemy, turned his current criminal charges of corruption into a sweeping indictment of the legal system and its leftist-secular-Ashkenazi officers. Jesus-like, Netanyahu convinced hitherto apathetic right-wing voters that he was suffering on their behalf, a victim of a vast conspiracy hatched by their own age-old oppressors.

Netanyahu stirred primeval tribal instincts, galvanizing his right-wing flock to fight for his life as if was their own, but his victory may still have been preventable had he not faced such an inept, irresolute and amateurish center-left rival that compounded its deficiencies with glaring complacency.

Excuses for the center-left’s unequivocal thumping at the hands of Israeli voters are coming thick and fast from the moment the first exit polls were published on Monday night: Gantz was an imperfect novice, Netanyahu the consummate conniver; Kahol Lavan’s campaign was a joke, the Likud’s a lean and mean killing machine; Kahol Lavan is run by a four-man so-called cockpit overseeing a hodgepodge of egos and ideas, Likud a disciplined legion at their supreme leader’s beck and call. Gantz and his allies played checkers, Netanyahu incinerated them with targeted character assassination and lethal political bombs. And while Netanyahu mastered the art of hyper-targeting with a sophisticated, privacy-invading app dubbed Elector, Gantz and Co. had no app. If they did, it would probably have gone by the name Self-Destructor.”

None of these valid claims, however, can mitigate the harsh blow inflicted on the so-called center-left, which purports to champion the values of the good, old, liberal democratic Israel. Nor should they be allowed to obscure the bitter truth behind the dry voting statistics: The center-left is a distinct minority in the arena it chose to play in, the Israeli Jewish electorate. If it doesn’t regain its bearings, it could soon face extinction.

Kahol Lavan’s entire credo was based on a common aversion to Netanyahu and a shared concern for the future of Israeli democracy. It includes doves and hawks, liberals and conservatives, capitalists and social democrats, ethnocentrists and advocates for complete equality: The war of salvation against Netanyahu overrides the need for a common and coherent ideology, or so they thought. That niche was slated to be filled by Labor-Gesher-Meretz, but judging by the results it represents no more than 5 percent of voters – a negligible minority that, at the current pace, could soon evaporate into thin air.

Gantz could have relied on the precedent set in 1992 by Rabin in the wake of his victory over Yitzhak Shamir. Rather than cower, like Gantz, in the face of the rabid right’s blistering broadsides, Rabin reached agreements with Arab parties that secured their external support in exchange for efforts to correct decades of official discrimination.

But it’s not only the Arab minority the center-left shuns: It has also failed to mount a successful incursion into traditional Likud strongholds, including Ethiopian and Mizrahi Jews. It made no effort to court other distinct electorates, including younger voters and women, whose initial glaring underrepresentation in the original Kahol Lavan slate was never corrected, despite two possibilities to do so.

Ayman Odeh of the Joint List with other alliance leaders at their electoral headquarters, in northern city of Shfaram on March 2, 2020.
Ayman Odeh of the Joint List with other alliance leaders at their electoral headquarters, in northern city of Shfaram on March 2, 2020.Credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

The center-left deluded itself into believing that the unacceptability of Netanyahu remaining in office while facing a criminal trial was a self-evident truth that would suffice to sway wavering voters to its side. The complacency of Netanyahu’s opponents expressed itself in the lack of any opposition whatsoever to Gantz’s repeated appointment as leader of the pack, despite his previous failures. Kahol Lavan’s entire election campaign ran on clueless and rudderless automatic pilot.

Unlike the jacked-up, raring-to-go divisions on the right, the center-left brigades remained cool, calm and collected. They lack the enthusiasm and dedication of their right-wing counterparts as well as their ruthless dedication to seizing power by any means possible.

Center-left voters may rail against Netanyahu’s transgressions in their social meetings and fulfill their civic responsibilities by coming out to vote like conscientious citizens but that is the extent of their commitment to a battle they claim is existential, determining their own futures and that of the state. Judging by the depressed voter turnout in center-left strongholds, the mere effort of going to the polls was apparently too much for many potential anti-Netanyahu voters.

Most critically, the center-left lacks access to the main source of energy that drives many successful campaigns: outrage. Netanyahu, they claim, is undermining democracy and demolishing the rule of law, never mind lying, cheating and defaming his way to reelection, but when life is good, nothing can spark the necessary inner anger.

Thus, despite their self-declared state of national emergency arising from Netanyahu’s naked efforts to escape the law, center-left voters didn’t take to the streets, mounted no significant protests and failed to produce the requisite hordes of volunteers willing to go door-to-door to target and motivate potential voters. With no seething minority to champion, middle-class and well-to-do center-left voters – that is, most center-left voters – were deprived of the vital energy source that could have mobilized the full potential of their bloc.

A political movement with no ideology, no direction, no inner rage and no will to sacrifice is destined to whither and die. In this regard, it’s a shame Netanyahu seems unlikely to secure his coveted absolute majority of 61 Knesset seats, which would have allowed him to have his way with Israel’s liberal democracy and to push it forward to a stifling autocracy.

Only if the flames of Netanyahu’s incitement, division and hate-mongering get too close for comfort, appearing to threaten their own freedom and well-being, might center-left voters be jolted out of their complacency and connected to a fury borne of frustration. Perhaps they might then anoint a leader who will cultivate their chagrin, inspire them to do battle and dispatch them to the front brimming with determination and vigor. Like Netanyahu, perhaps, but without his self-victimization, lethal venom and gutter political instincts.

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