Opinion

Israel Election Results: Netanyahu Suffered Defeat Despite the Center-left’s Abysmal Campaign Flop

Benny Gantz and his cohorts may have miffed a historic opportunity for fundamental change

Benjamin Netanyahu with other members of Likud after the release of exit polls in the early hours of September 18, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

It could have ended far worse. If Netanyahu had won a few more Knesset seats, he would have secured immunity from prosecution, set up the most extreme government in Israeli history and finished his demolition derby of the country’s democracy. A rare convergence of favorable circumstances – chiefly the uptick in Arab voter participation, the failure of Kahanist Otzma Yehudit and the indifference of Likud voters – combined to spare Israel from a disaster that would have changed the country forever. (Live election results - click here)

Netanyahu’s failure, however, does not prove the success of his rivals. They may take credit, pat themselves on the back and heap lavish praise on their supposedly brilliant election campaign, but the actual results point to the contrary. According to the currently known election results, the center-left bloc gained at most a lone Knesset seat more than in the previous elections. Excluding the Arab Joint List, Kahol Lavan and the entire “Zionist” center left actually lost two to three seats in comparison to their previous performance.

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So with all due respect to their understandable joy at Netanyahu’s defeat, the leaders of Kahol Lavan and their partners have few justifications to celebrate. In fact, they may have missed a historic opportunity for fundamental change. Netanyahu and the right sustained harsh blows, but are far from being knocked out cold. Were it not for their serial mistakes, gross miscalculations and over-demanding egos, Benny Gantz and his colleagues would now be building a new and radically different ruling coalition and the Netanyahu family would have started packing their belongings in the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.

Kahol Lavan, it should be noted, was spared the consequences of its April defeat as well as the prospect of exile in the opposition only because of Avigdor Lieberman’s abrupt decision to turn his back on Netanyahu and the right. Rather than learn their lesson, change their makeup or ditch their unsuccessful strategies, Gantz and Co. preferred to rest on laurels that were mostly figments of their imaginations. The state of emergency and danger to democracy they warned against day in and day out apparently obligated only their voters, not themselves.

A party that sees itself as the last bastion of democracy and sanity would have at least weighed the possibility of replacing the solid but uninspiring Gantz with the charismatic Gabi Ashkenazi, who enthralled voters on his campaign trail. It would have abandoned Gantz’s peculiar rotation agreement with Yair Lapid, which deterred many potential center-right voters. Kahol Lavan leaders opted to assuage Lapid’s fragile ego rather than act in accordance with their own dire warnings of impending catastrophe. They adhered to the same flaccid and ineffectual campaign strategy that failed them in April, and added to it with a sudden lurch to anti-Orthodox hostility, which probably cost them more votes than it gained.

And then there’s Labor leader, Amir Peretz, who spurned a chance to lead a unified leftist party in favor of pursuing his pipe dream of a social-oriented Labor that would attract voters from the disgruntled right. His folly was compounded by the unwarranted haste that led Peretz to execute his upheaval only a few days after his return to Labor’s top position and a few short weeks before the actual election.

After uniting with social activist Orly Levy-Abeksis without consulting his party, Peretz undermined himself with vague and undecipherable positions regarding a possible alliance with Netanyahu, sending masses of former Labor voters to look for alternatives. He and his aides then added insult to injury by trying to cover up Peretz’s abject failure by accusing their disappointed voters of racism.

Ehud Barak doesn’t get off scot-free either, less because of his actual performance in the campaign and more as a consequence of his past indiscretions. Barak deserves credit for injecting much needed verve and chutzpah into the lethargic center-left campaign, but his past dealings with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein sabotaged his ambitions and defanged much of his message. In the final analysis, Barak delivered only a small fraction of his promise.

Israel’s salvation came from other quarters. Kahol Lavan’s failure did not undermine Israel’s deliverance from Netanyahu’s potential harm. Americans believe that there’s no arguing with success, if the term is at all apt for the center-left’s performance, but one is also reminded of Pyrrhus’ famous dictum, slightly twisted to fit the occasion, about how “one more victory like this, and we are undone.”