Analysis

Israeli Elections 2015: It's Everyone vs. Netanyahu

PM knows this election will be about whether he deserves a fourth term.

Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened his election campaign Tuesday night with a televised speech in which he detailed, at excessive length, all his woes as head of a nasty government full of ministers who insulted him, provoked him and plotted a “putsch” against him. He described how they forced him to approve the zero-VAT bill and to approve criminal sanctions on draft-dodging yeshiva students.

We, in our innocence, thought he was strong. But on Tuesday night, we discovered we have a battered premier. His description sounded so wretched that we wanted to pat him on the head and comfort him.

Being the savviest politician around, Netanyahu took two steps over the last two days that essentially dictated the political chain of events. Monday night, there was the hazing he gave Finance Minister Yair Lapid at their meeting. And Tuesday afternoon, he fired both Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the leaders of two coalition parties.

It’s not clear why Lapid and Livni, who coordinate closely, didn’t resign Tuesday morning. Lapid surely should have resigned immediately after his humiliation Monday night.

Here’s a possible explanation: Livni and Netanyahu met at about noon Tuesday. Later that afternoon, Livni told various people she’d gotten the (mistaken) impression that Netanyahu didn’t want new elections – an impression she presumably shared with Lapid. So why resign?

In truth, it’s hard to blame Netanyahu for deciding to end the sorry joke known as his third government. This isn’t the government he wanted; it was forced on him. Lapid and Livni were bones in his throat, as he was in theirs. Now, they’re all free of each other.

The campaign opened with a tactical advantage to Netanyahu: He attacked first, they defended. But last night, some bad omens emerged: Polls published by television channels 2 and 10 found that most Israelis blame the government’s collapse on him, and most also consider new elections a waste. People don’t understand why this country, with all its problems, needs another election just two years after the last.

Netanyahu previewed his campaign Tuesday night: Anyone who wants a strong, stable, functioning government must vote for his Likud party. Like all the other players, he understands that the main question in this election is whether he deserves a fourth term. In the coming months, everyone will attack him – from the right, the center and of course the left. He’ll take fire from all sides.

And he has a problem: He has no banner to wave in this campaign. Iran will soon be nuclear. Hamas wasn’t defeated. The economy, as he himself admitted Tuesday, is in a bad shape, “due to Lapid.” Terror has resumed – and in Jerusalem, our united capital, of all places. Europe is turning against us, relations with the American president are at a nadir and the “peace process” is a bad joke, even if that’s not solely his fault.

In this situation, all Netanyahu could offer the public Tuesday night was memories of his previous government. And indeed, that government undeniably contained many high-quality, experienced, effective people: Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Michael Eitan, Gideon Sa’ar, Moshe Kahlon. But aside from the latter, who plans to head his own party this time around, none of those gentlemen will be in Netanyahu’s next government, if there is one: All have left politics, for well-known reasons. Netanyahu will be stuck with Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Orthodox.

Speaking of the ultra-Orthodox, at the Knesset Monday afternoon, an influential “source” in United Torah Judaism predicted that when Netanyahu met Lapid Monday night, he would propose that they scrap the zero-VAT bill and put the 3 billion shekels ($760 million) saved thereby to better use, like reducing value-added tax on staple foods. A few hours later, Netanyahu’s office released a press statement saying exactly that.

In short, the ultra-Orthodox, who coordinate with Netanyahu as closely as Jerusalem does with Washington on defense, knew how the coalition crisis would end. Mentally, they’re already in the next government.

The one who displayed stunning amateurism was Lapid. He missed all the warning signs and flashing red lights and walked straight into the ambush Netanyahu set for him. Didn’t he realize where their meeting Monday night was headed?

His associates say he figured it out minutes after the meeting began. So why didn’t he take the initiative, summon the media and make a statement blaming the government’s collapse on Netanyahu? That’s what an experienced politician would have done.

As for Netanyahu, he unblushingly included housing prices and the cost of living among his reasons for dissolving the government. But when, in the last 20 months, has he done anything about these issues? He’s held more cabinet meetings on Ebola than the cost of living. Yet suddenly he wants Lapid to abandon his flagship economic project, the zero-VAT bill, after Netanyahu and the entire cabinet voted for it? It was patently just an excuse – and a lame one.