Netanyahu Won, but He Lost His Image as National Leader

What the prime minister lost in his successful bid to survive, and what his rival won.

Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav
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A Netanyahu campaign poster declaring that "it's either us or them."
A Netanyahu campaign poster declaring that "it's either us or them."Credit: AFP
Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Herculean effort to keep his seat was translated into an impressive electoral success, but it cost him his image as a national leader. The man who began his political career with the slogan “Netanyahu is good for the Jews” ended it last night with a video clip warning that “Arabs are heading for the polls in droves,” and later, had a confrontation with the chairman of the Elections Committee (an Arab, of course). Gripped by survivalism run amok, he took support from the right in recent days, not from the groups disappointed by him or the floaters in the center, thus gaining the seats he needed to surpass the Zionist Union.

In the last election, the right-wing-ultra-Orthodox bloc reached 61 seats. This time it will be smaller. Once the dust settles, Netanyahu may well wind up with a very narrow coalition, probably not big enough to continue claiming to be the prime minister of all of Israel.

Ahead of flying to Washington, Netanyahu compared himself with David Ben-Gurion, and not the Ben-Gurion standing on his head doing yoga. He began his last day as elected prime minister, as usual, with his wife, at the voting booth at the Jerusalem school named after Paula Ben-Gurion. A key word that Paula’s husband introduced to the Israeli public sphere is “statesmanship.” In the last election, Sara’s husband brought statesmanship to new lows. There may have been prime ministers worse than him; that isn’t for sure. But there’s certainly nobody who reaches his ankles when it comes to non-statesmanship.

In the absence of the absolute pretension of being – even in appearance alone – prime minister to all, Netanyahu compared the attempt to replace him – through the election he himself initiated – as a putsch. He compared his rivals with ISIS [Islamic State] and his opponents to Hamas. He growled his rivals’ names with contempt, warning time and again against a “left-wing government supported by Arabs,” and in practice, identifying anybody not supportive of him as “left.” In a recent survey, only 8% of Israelis defined themselves as left-wing, yet a far greater proportion than that turned its back on Netanyahu yesterday.

Isaac Herzog never had pretentions of being a particularly charismatic candidate. His pride is and was mainly based on his abilities in mediation and diplomacy. Likeable and modest, Herzog took pride throughout his career in one thing – the potential to sit conflicted parties around a table and forge connections between them. In the campaign, when the gaps between him and past candidates like Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak, who were more gripping and confidence-inspiring seemed unbridgeable, Herzog offered a different model for inspiration: Levi Eshkol, one of Israel’s best and most forgotten prime ministers. Eshkol was famed for one miserable stutter at the wrong time; but first and foremost, history portrays him as a doer. A bureaucrat; a minister; and finally a prime minister who got things done and whose wondrous ability to bridge and compromise were just a means to the end.

“I never compromise out of forgoing my original objective, but only as a transitional stage, as a tactical step towards achieving it,” he once explained. “I compromise and compromise until I achieve what I want.”

That sums up Herzog’s career so far pretty well.

At the time, Eshkol had to step into Ben-Gurion’s huge, intimidating shoes. Although many had thought otherwise, Netanyahu’s shoes aren’t looking for a new owner this morning, but in any case, they’re sullied with mud. Herzog would do well to eschew joining a unity government with a man who symbolizes everything except unity. If he does join it, he too will sink deep in the mud.

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