People want to win elections. Victory isn’t a means to more effective government, it’s an end in itself. Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t invent the fierce passion to rule; there were others before him. But he changed one element: He eliminated the rules of the game. Every game has rules that must be followed. Otherwise we would have tennis without double faults, basketball without offensive fouls and soccer without penalty kicks.
Never before has Israel had a prime minister who turned the attorney general, a confidant whom he chose for the position, into a target for attacks by failed politicians. Never before was there a prime minister who assailed the country’s Arab minority and its elected representatives as if they were a gang of traitors. He has called the legal system “leftist,” and the media too, although most of it is in thrall to him.
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Netanyahu fights his rivals the way rivals always fought, but he distorted the voice of his opponents and neutered their messages. When there were game rules, the rivals battled one another like gladiators. There was a winner and a loser. When there are no rules, the arena is defective, the game is rigged. The gladiator isn’t himself. He’s what Netanyahu wants you to think he is.
Netanyahu has an achievable goal. His rivals: not so much. His rivals want a change in government. The change they are promising isn’t a radical one – not in the idea of the Jewish and democratic state and not in the program for a negotiated peace agreement – but they are united in their desire to oust a corrupt government, to restore the full range of democracy and the rule of law. To establish that the political game has rules.
This desire by Netanyahu’s rivals has come up against a paralyzing political stalemate. Breaking this stalemate will be much harder than analysts predict. Netanyahu prefers this tie to a weak victory; the tie is his triumph, and the failure of his opponents.
Another electoral tie could drag the country into yet another election, turning it into a ritual that Israeli teenagers will come to consider normal. In the event of such a tie, Netanyahu will remain a caretaker prime minister. There’s no future president who wouldn’t ask him to try to form a government. There are no no-confidence motions. Cabinet ministers will be appointed for no real purpose, since the way is open to perpetuating the tenure of the transitional government. U.S. President Donald Trump will visit Israel on the eve of the U.S. election. He will announce that our large city should henceforth be known as Tel Aviv, and not Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Netanyahu will roar on all the channels about another historic achievement.
Netanyahu’s working assumption is that Kahol Lavan will eventually fade away, and the ethos that created it will erode. There will be three, maybe four elections. Netanyahu will be beaten in all of them, but he will continue to rule, by dint of being the transitional prime minister.
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These forecasts must be foiled. To that end, Kahol Lavan must improve its messages. The left-wing parties are making a great effort to distinguish themselves, highlighting to potential voters the advantages they offer. Kahol Lavan must distinguish itself from Likud in the security arena, its determination to reach a just arrangement with the Palestinians. It must warn of the danger to democracy of electing a man who has been charged with corruption.
The latter doesn’t matter to Netanyahu’s large base, but it does to a large number of undecided right-wing voters who are wrestling with the question of replacing him. They, for whom sin coucheth at the door, are likely to understand.