Waiting for the Suckers' Punch

Before embarking on war, the country must protect the home front, develop a deep-running alliance with the West, and have a stable coalition. Netanyahu has done everything topsy-turvy.

The messianic right at the Likud convention were going wild from the scent of victory this week. And it's easy to see how the V-for-victory sign made by Hagai Amir upon his recent release from prison perfectly reflects the current political situation. (Hagai was the partner-in-crime and brother of Rabin assassin Yigal Amir. ) Even the most religious, rightist coalition is not enough for the messianic train speeding along from one victory to the next. But, seemingly paradoxically, those who saw the rightists going wild must have realized that it is not certain Benjamin Netanyahu will win the next election.

Conventional wisdom holds that to win the race for prime minister, a candidate must be held in high regard and viewed as a potential winner. But as is the way of conventional wisdom, that's not really the case. Someone who meets those criteria, as Yitzhak Rabin did, is preferable but is not the only kind of candidate capable of winning the race. There have been other prime ministers who won without these traits, like Menachem Begin.

In 1981, Begin was at his best giving speeches in the city squares. But in 1977, when he was elected prime minister, the manic politician who held audiences captive was nowhere to be seen. Begin closeted himself inside his home, leaving Ezer Weizman to run the Likud campaign. Few voters at the time saw Begin as a realistic candidate for prime minister. Likud's victory, an electoral upheaval that overturned decades of rule by the Labor Party and its predecessors, was achieved by protest votes.

And in 2006, the non-right won its largest victory since 1969, securing 70 seats in the Knesset. It was just a negligible minority that actually wanted Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz or Rafi Eitan to lead the country. But the votes against the religious right were enough to sweep them into power.

If the non-right bloc gets 61 seats in the coming election - a simple majority - it's not certain that a member of that bloc will become prime minister. The outcome depends on the wisdom of party leaders Shelly Yacimovich, Shaul Mofaz and Yair Lapid. They have an interest in selecting one from their ranks to serve as prime minister, so there is a reasonable chance they will be able to reach an agreement. But even if Netanyahu will successfully hang on to power, if the religious right bloc loses its majority the country will change dramatically as soon as that bloc breaks up - and the chances of that happening are not to be dismissed.

In the last national election in 2009, the largest party was the party of the nonvoters. Some 750,000 eligible voters exercised that right regularly until 1999, and then stopped going to the polls. The voter turnout prior to that year is astoundingly high - 77 percent to 78 percent in every national election, which is an actual rate of more than 90 percent if you factor in the ineligibility of one-tenth of the voters (because they either left the country or were temporarily abroad during the election ).

But after 1999, the dwindling of hope created the party of the nonvoters. This isn't the apathetic nonvoting of a disengaged populace, but an angry and involved protest that manifests itself in abstention. Some 13.5 percent of citizens have stopped voting - that means one-fifth of voters who used to vote regularly until 1999 have, in despair, stopped voting. The vast majority of nonvoters are not ultra-Orthodox, settlers, religious Zionists or immigrants from the former Soviet Union; those groups have continued to vote, mostly for right-wing parties. Most of the missing voters do not have rightward tendencies.

There are three reasons they may well be coming back to the polls, in a big way. Most important is the protests that began last summer; voting is the logical continuation of arising out of apathy to demonstrate in the streets. This message is starting to be put across on social media, and there is a good chance that people will hear it.

The second reason is the backlash against the power that the religious-Haredi-messianic world has in the government. The success of the "suckers' protest" thus far stems from the interest of the majority, the nonreligious extremists, to reclaim their lives in their country. When 52.5 percent of first graders classified as Jewish attend subsidized religious Zionist or Haredi schools - closer in their viewpoints to Hagai Amir than to Rabin himself - now is the last chance for everyone else to leave their homes and head to the polls.

The third reason is the factor that prompted former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin to refer to the country's current leaders as messianists. This week Netanyahu crossed every line of rational thought regarding war with Iran. His view is that the window for war is between mid-July and mid-October. Setting the election for that period is the most reckless of messianic gambles. A leader who talks about the risk of a holocaust cannot initiative, for his personal gain, an election at such a time. This is the most opportunistic of pranks.

Before embarking on war, the country must protect the home front, develop a deep-running alliance with the West, and have a stable coalition. Netanyahu has done everything topsy-turvy. It's reckless if the war - which we can expect to be long - begins right before the election, and it's at least as reckless to wage war right after an election, when the country is ruled by a transition government. And Netanyahu could end up losing.

The goal of moving up the election is to postpone revenge votes after the war with Iran, giving the surviving voters four years to cool down. An existential element has now been added to the motivation of the citizens who stopped voting - those suckers used by the messianic, opportunistic regime. It looks like we may be on the way to those 61 majority seats needed for change after all.