The Israeli center-left, to cite the immortal words of U2, is stuck in a moment it can’t get out of. What’s worse, the moment recurs regularly, as if Election Day is Groundhog Day. The torture begins right after generous television exit polls give the left a fighting chance. Refusing to learn from bitter experience, expectations then climb sky-high, the party faithful break out in spontaneous dance and their leader comes forth with a victory speech, which is forever premature.
Then the exit polls are adjusted, joy begins to wither and hopes are slowly lost, while dread and nausea take their place. In the end, like clockwork, Benjamin Netanyahu comes on stage to tumultuous cheers, flush with victory and driven by revenge, and kisses his wife Sara. The center-left then wakes up in a cold sweat, once again, to the dawn of an old day, even darker than before.
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It happened in 1981, when Shimon Peres rushed to be anointed “the next prime minister of Israel”; in 1996, when Israel went to sleep with PM Peres and woke up with PM Netanyahu; in 2009, when Tzipi Livni declared that “the people have chosen Kadima, and no one will deny them their choice”; in 2015, when Netanyahu garnered six crucial Knesset seats overnight; and once again on Tuesday night, after Channel 12’s exit poll gave Benny Gantz a four-seat advantage over Likud as well as a 60-60 tie between the two political blocs.
Gantz, true to the hasty traditions of his predecessors, rendered yet another faux-victory speech that, barring a last minute response to his prayers, will also be inducted into the pathetic pantheon of public addresses that live on in infamy.
There are myriad rationales and explanations, many of them undoubtedly correct, for Netanyahu’s string of unlikely victories, of which the latest is the most glorious of all. The left is listless; the public leans to the right; the voting is tribal; the urge to buck the elites and establishment is as strong as ever; and Netanyahu is undeniably a super-campaigner in a league of his own. He cast a giant shadow over the election campaign and emerged from it awash with the glowing aura of triumph.
Netanyahu proved once again he is a virtuoso without peers, an advantage compounded by the instant-party with zero experience and a muddled campaign that challenged him. He plays on the heartstrings of his constituents like Itzhak Perlman on his Stradivarius and leads them to vote Likud like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Many of his voters know that his years in power have been too many and that the cloud of suspicions enveloping him has grown too thick, but Netanyahu transcends the barriers of their minds and injects his message directly into their veins. Gevalt, he cries, the town is burning and the barbarians are at the gate. He knows that the very thought of the smug smiles and smirking Schadenfreude of the despised media and their leftist backers will suffice to drive his supporters in droves to the polling booths, because loyalty to the tribe comes first.
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Netanyahu’s joyous victory speech in Tel Aviv, at 3 A.M., sounded earnest and heartfelt for a change. In his eyes, and in the eyes of his adoring fans, Netanyahu vanquished the forces of darkness that conspired against him. He began his campaign with an albatross of criminal charges concocted by the left and the media weighing him down, but turned them into a rallying cry for his redemption. He proved once again that he is one of a kind, a political genius among lesser men, a Gulliver who easily shakes off the dwarfs trying to tie him down and subdue him.
The problem is that when the party’s over, and despite his momentous achievement, Netanyahu will soon find out that, on the face of it, nothing much has changed. The ultra-Orthodox were fruitful and multiplied; the Arab minority cut off its nose to spite its face; Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked could find themselves ejected from the Knesset; and the Labor Party nearly dissipated into thin air. Nonetheless, the expected incoming right-wing government is nearly identical to the outgoing one, in a slightly more radical and nationalist version. Over the coming days, as the evidence suppressed by the attorney general before the election is gradually leaked in its aftermath, Netanyahu will realize that his demons haven’t dispersed and his enemies are still trying to depose him, as if his victory never was.
The last time he confounded his critics, in the 2015 election, Netanyahu was infused with a rage and lust for revenge that pushed him into the arms of the rabid right. This time around, his righteous indignation could consume him completely. Not only does Netanyahu see himself as an innocent victim wrongly hounded and unjustly persecuted, but he returns to the prime minister’s office with what he regards as a binding public acquittal. If he had any remaining inhibitions, they are bound to fade away, and if he harbored any lingering doubts they will now be erased.
In his holy quest to escape the long arm of the law, Netanyahu will be willing, to quote John F. Kennedy wildly out of context, to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” meaning his own.
The demands of his “natural partners” will determine Netanyahu’s future course. If they commit to legislating his way out of prosecution, even the sky won’t limit the scope of his concessions. But the more they balk, the more Netanyahu might be deterred from establishing another ethnocentric coalition that will garner world condemnation — perhaps even a slight nod of disapproval from U.S. President Donald Trump — and possibly reenergize the left to return to battle earlier than expected. The temptation to call on Gantz to join him will gradually grow, boosted by the hope — which many dismiss — that by doing so he will placate the elites and spur them to press for his exoneration.
A party such as Kahol Lavan and a candidate like Gantz, who adopted the motto “Israel before all else,” will find a Netanyahu offer hard to resist. The pressing need to save Israel from the clutches of the rabid right will supersede the embarrassment of reneging on their vow to never join a Netanyahu-led government. Kahol Lavan would thus show its true center-right colors rather than the hard left which Netanyahu diabolically and counter-factually attached to the party.
If a broad-based Netanyahu-Likud alliance is established, the left will be left alone and isolated, with its miserable showing in the election crystal clear for all to see. This could very well be the last chance for the movement that founded Israel to take stock, change paradigm and take a long hard look at its Achilles' heel: Its estrangement from frustrated minorities, be they Russians, North Africans or Arabs, that can supply the anger, drive and enthusiasm needed for victory.
Otherwise, the center-left will disappear, along with Israel’s once-cherished liberal democracy. In its stead, Israel will be Bibistan, a country with an unbeaten leader whose word is now law.