The law for the direct election of the prime minister, which within five years got Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon elected one after the other, stipulated that if a person managed to serve as prime minister for seven consecutive years, he or she would not be able to run in the following election. Along with the clause allowing a special election for prime minister without dissolving the Knesset, and allowing candidates who were not MKs to run in such an election (so that some Israeli De Gaulle might come save the nation during a crisis), this seven-year term limit was the most interesting innovation of the law that didn’t last very long.
The law somewhat imitated the American constitutional situation and reflected the reality of the Israeli experience. There is no prime minister whose term was so successful or so justified that his strength would not begin to wane by the end of seven years. And indeed, except for David Ben-Gurion, the longest-consecutive-serving prime ministers have served six years, more (Menachem Begin) or less (Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Shamir); the exhausted Ben-Gurion retired in his eighth year, after a break of two years.
Netanyahu, who during the formation of the next government will mark six consecutive and wasted years as prime minister, has exhausted his meager benefit to the state, to the government and even to his party. He has brought all of them from bad to worse. If he had been a company CEO or coach of a sports team, the shareholders or team owners would be replacing him with a fresh face.
A boxer like Chaim Herzog, who was an Irish bantamweight champion in his youth, could tell his son, Isaac, that Netanyahu is the soft underbelly or fragile jaw of Likud. Even right-wing voters no longer feel committed to him. Netanyahu – everyone is sick and tired of him.
The terms “left” and “right” are simplistic and problematic, of course. Leftist socioeconomic agendas have often intermingled with rightist diplomatic-security agendas, and vice versa, posing internal contradictions – for example Ahdut Ha’avoda. The National Religious Party had been moderate diplomatically until the Six-Day War, after which it adopted a Greater Land of Israel stance and morphed into Gush Emunim and Habayit Hayehudi. And what was Ben-Gurion’s Mapai? Left? Center? Center-left?
But if for the purposes of argument the Labor Party represents the left and Likud the right, precedents indicate that Tzipi Livni’s hooking up with Herzog is important both symbolically and substantively, and significantly increases the likelihood of Netanyahu’s downfall. In general, rightward defections heralded the rise of the Likud – as supporters of Moshe Dayan (and after Begin’s victory, Dayan himself) and the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash) party proved. Leftward defections lead to the election of a Labor prime minister – around every 15 years.
In 1984, Ezer Weizman, the former head of the Likud election staff and defense minister in Begin’s government, gave Shimon Peres the three seats of his Yahad party and was swallowed up by Labor. In 1999, David Levy joined up with Barak and three senior Likud figures – Dan Meridor, Roni Milo and Yitzhak Mordechai – made a pit stop in the Center Party. A decade-and-a-half later, Livni is with Herzog. If Herzog will add Shaul Mofaz, another former Likud defense minister like Weizman and Mordechai, the precedents of 1984 and 1999 will echo even more strongly. Herzog and Livni, however, might be overdoing it if they present Mofaz as their candidate for defense minister rather than, say, Amram Mitzna, since if Herzog and Livni will be rotating between the premiership and the Foreign Ministry, one assumes that the defense portfolio, like the treasury, will go to a coalition partner.
Netanyahu now heads a particularly vulnerable Likud, which has lost the popular vote not just to Barak in 1999, but to Ehud Olmert of Kadima and Amir Peretz of Labor (in 2006) and to Livni (in 2009). Now he is once again pushing the MKs leftward, and they are liable to be followed by the voters. The curtain may well be coming down on Netanyahu’s worn-out performance.