Analysis

Israel's Shallow Election Campaign Ended as It Deserved: A Farce

Hard-line former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will make Netanyahu an offer he can’t refuse, the problem will be the price

Illustration
Amos Biderman

The election campaign for the 21st Knesset, which was moved up seven months due to the personal interests of a prime minister suspected of criminal wrongdoing, was largely shallow and extraordinarily insulting, not to mention the farcical handling by the Central Elections Committee. All eyes of course will now turn to ... Austria.

There on the banks of the Danube, with his phone in airplane mode, a man who has the final say is vacationing. He’s a man who was eulogized many times during the campaign; the polls predicted he’d have a hard time making it into the Knesset. But now he couldn’t be happier.

His Yisrael Beiteinu party won five seats, one more than the required minimum. He doesn’t need any more than that. With that modest bounty, Avigdor Lieberman possesses a lot more political power than he has ever had before. Without him, Benjamin Netanyahu has no coalition government.

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The Likud-far-right-ultra-Orthodox bloc has 65 of the Knesset's 120 seats, so do the math. Imagine the sweat on the prime minister’s brow as he tries again and again to get Lieberman on the phone. Needless to say, Netanyahu will give Lieberman anything he asks for. What’s less clear is what Lieberman will ask for.

He angrily left the cabinet as defense minister after an escalation with Gaza in November, when Israel didn't launch an operation to destroy Hamas, essentially surrendering, as he saw it. He’ll demand a policy change in exchange for his return to that office, an operation that could escalate into a war.

Also, consider the bill on drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the army that defense officials crafted at his instructions and was adopted by the previous military chief, Gadi Eisenkot. In the last Knesset it got shelved by the ultra-Orthodox.

For Lieberman, this is a red line that can’t be crossed. All his political and personal prestige has been staked on this bill. He’ll demand its swift advance without delay. The ultra-Orthodox, who are returning to the Knesset in greater numbers, firmly reject it. What will be the way out of this issue?

And take the legislation on conversion to Judaism that Lieberman  promised his voters, and other issues like civil marriage. And what about  stopping the flow of Qatari money to Hamas. And what else is on the list? There must be something.

In his speech Wednesday to party activists, Netanyahu roared: This was the night of a tremendous victory! Tremendous!

Well, yes, 36 seats is an unprecedented achievement for him. Lieberman was much more reserved that night, but it’s clear he’s the big winner of the campaign. Measured on the scale of Ariel Sharon’s sayings, he has won and also reaped the benefits. He’s a kingmaker, not like his old nemesis Naftali Bennett, the troll in the cabinet whom he can’t stand and who forced him to resign. Well, that high-tech veteran is now looking at his next exit.

The depth of trouble

Political campaigns are based on thorough research. They’re the North Star of every party, every candidate. After the birth of Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, Likud ordered a large survey to pin down the weak points of a rival that suddenly appeared threatening. The finding that stood out pointed to the public’s great fear of a “left-wing government.”

Gantz was seen as a complete left-winger, and the same went for that other former military chief toward the top of the ticket, Gabi Ashkenazi. It didn’t go, however, for the third former army chief at the top of the ticket, former Likudnik Moshe Ya’alon.

Then there’s Yair Lapid, who later would have been prime minister in a rotation with Gantz, the only experienced politician in the top four. He roused all the fears of the soft right, the voters wavering between Likud and the generals’ party. Lapid – or more accurately the rotation deal – was noted as the Achilles’ heel of the enterprise.

Netanyahu instructed everyone a million times a day to memorize the expression “left-wing government, left-wing government.” People on the right imagined a God-help-us government based on a committed Arab voting bloc, Meretz and the Labor Party.

Such a vision cured anybody suffering from “oy, not Bibi again.” The weariness with Netanyahu felt by some Likud fans (three to four Knesset seats worth according to the pollsters) tapered off.

The vast majority of Israelis are right-wing, people who disdain anything with a whiff of the left. If you add to the 65 seats the wasted votes for three parties – Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut and Oren Hazan’s Tzomet – and add Kahol Lavan’s right-wingers, you get 75 seats. This is going to be the most right-wing Knesset ever.

The misgivings about the left overcame all of Netanyahu’s weak points: his 13 years in office, the hearing that awaits him because of the draft corruption indictment, the new investigation into stock he owned, his problematic personality, the security blows dealt by the recent incidents with Gaza. All this disappeared into thin air.

It seems needless to repeat how Netanyahu is slyly talented. In the 36 hours before the polling booths closed, he lived on his Facebook page, posting video after video, threatening and warning, terrifying and sowing fear against the you-know-who. Only the years-long campaign of fear against the Iranian nuclear program can compare to what we saw this week.

Contrary to the assessment that has become a cliché, this election wasn’t a “referendum on Bibi.” It was mainly about left vs. right. The right, what can you do, is larger. Right-wing voters punished everyone who dared not to toe the party line.

Take Feiglin, who refused to say whether he would recommend Netanyahu or Gantz as prime minister. Seventy percent of his potential voters came from the right, and at the moment of truth they feared taking a chance with this strange guy and returned to the mother ship. The nauseating foot-massage video sealed the fate of someone who had been dubbed an election surprise. The meteorite crashed and burned.

But Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu repeated the same refrain throughout the campaign: We'll only go with Netanyahu and Likud. They survived the storm.

Netanyahu can view the election results as an unqualified vote of confidence. Everyone who voted for the right, the ultra-Orthodox parties, Lieberman and Kulanu did so with the full knowledge that their leaders would be clasping hands with Netanyahu.

It didn’t go this way in 2015. Kahlon refused to commit ahead of time to support Likud and even hinted at a desire to see Labor chief Isaac Herzog become prime minister. Lieberman also didn’t tie himself to anyone in that campaign and chose to remain in the opposition for the government’s first year. This time around, these experienced politicians realized what their voters expected of them.

Only an arrogant Feiglin, buoyed by the polls, the praise heaped on his campaign and the mad hype both here and abroad, behaved differently. And he got a slap in the face in return. Well, he’s used to that.

Drowning in numbers

A few days after Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael party joined forces with Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Ya’alon’s Telem, the four leaders and their spouses met (sans the low-key Ada Ya’alon) at the home of Gabi and Ronit Ashkenazi in Ra’anana. They were in a good mood. “You know what, if this had taken place in 2015, Netanyahu wouldn’t have been elected,” Ashkenazi said.

There were nods of agreement at the table. The subtext was that Herzog and Tzipi Livni lost because of their lefty-Ashkenazi-civilian-dorky-anti-security image. They were everything that this group in Ashkenazi’s house wasn’t. Two months later, reality smacked them in the face, too.

Kahol Lavan entered the race in almost optimal conditions: Facing Netanyahu and Likud stood a dream team that the left wishes it could muster. The right was fractured in comparison to the rival camp’s closed ranks. Livni had left the race in deference to the bloc, the old Green Leaf party left the grassy field, and left-wing Bibi nemesis Eldad Yaniv gave up his dream to become the Knesset’s bad boy. The center-left camp came late to the party, as always, while on the right three new parties arose, Feiglin’s Zehut, Bennett and Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash and Hazan’s Tzomet.

A nearly perfect constellation shone down on Gantz and his friends as they set out on their journey. At the outset of their campaign they held a strategy meeting to map out their front lines. Mark Mellman, Yesh Atid’s pollster since its founding, brought a slide show. The bottom line was that in the eight years he’d been doing detailed polls for Lapid, he had never seen so many positive signs for Netanyahu. “He’s stronger than ever,” he told them.

After the ticket lost some momentum in the polls, the Gantzes saw they had no chance to defeat Netanyahu on the electoral battlefield. The Likud-far-right-ultra-Orthodox bloc would always be in the lead. They decided to tackle the problem politically.

The tactics they adopted were undoubtedly original. At first they slowly cannibalized their sister parties, Labor and Meretz, reaching a peak in the last week of the campaign. By growing at the expense of these smaller parties, they would force Netanyahu to sweep up seats from his partners, too. Since the right always had three or four parties just shy of the electoral threshold, Kahol Lavan hoped that Netanyahu’s tactics would lead to the disappearance of two or three of them. In this way he would lose his bloc.

Kahol Lavan’s target number in the polls was 37 to 38 stable Knesset seats. If it had achieved that target in the last two weeks, Netanyahu would have panicked and destroyed all his partners, or so they hoped. They anticipated a suicide attack.

But neither of these things happened. Kahol Lavan didn’t rise above an average of 32 seats, and Netanyahu stemmed the rise of his satellite parties, just in time. Once this strategy collapsed, the chances of a center-left government approached zero.