Something's in the Wind in Israel: A Change for the Better

When Netanyahu's running scared, he doesn't run smart. Even Israel Hayom's lead columnist calls his planned trip to address Congress 'grievous,' motivated not by concern for Israel, but for electoral gain.

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U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington October 1, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington October 1, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

In Israeli politics, it often seems, nothing ever changes.

Until it does.

It's a little like the weather. One of the many quietly extraordinary properties of the Holy Land is that, with a glance at the horizon, you can often see a change in the weather long before it actually reaches you.

So it is, as well, with the fortunes of Israeli leaders. When there's a drop in his political barometer, people can sense it at once.

Now, with less than two months to go before the election, the political climate here feels like it's beginning to shift. Something's happening to the prevailing wind. It feels like it's just starting to change direction. A change for something better.

On Monday night, an opinion poll showed Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni's Zionist Camp widening a lead over Netanyahu's Likud by a margin of 26 seats to 23.

For the time being, struggling to check his slide in popularity, Netanyahu has been banking on a worsening security situation in the north, coupled with growing disarray in rival right-wing parties, to turn the tide. Likud strategists traditionally view military threats as a circle-the-wagons diversion from Netanyahu's Achilles heel, domestic social and economic woes.

The prime minister's rightist rival parties have indeed played into his hands of late. Once the Likud's chief right-wing competitor, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party, has bitterly splintered in two, and neither half is now guaranteed enough votes to clear the minimum required to enter the next Knesset.

Netanyahu's newer political frenemy, Naftali Bennnett's powerhouse Bayit Hayehudi, took an unexpected hit just this week. Bennett, looking to tap new veins of support, support, shocked his own party by unveiling a secret aimed at the very heart and gut of generations of nothing-but-Likud voters: Beitar Jerusalem soccer icon Eli Ohana, catapulted by Bayit Bennett to the coveted 10th spot on the ultra-hardline party’s patchwork dream team.

The move came at a time when the Likud’s traditional power base, the once-unassailable Fortress Beitar, has already been badly eroded. The base is already shorn of both its pro-democracy wing (Reuven Rivlin, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor - all exiled by Netanyahu to insulting effect, with Begin recalled as a last-minute campaign stopgap); and of much of its anti-democratic, often openly racist far-right flank, many of whose fiercely tribal activists and soccer hooligans have defected to Bennett.

Almost at once, the third-place Bayit Hayehudi rose in the polls, improving its projected Knesset strength to 16 seats from 15. But, in a move which left the Ashkenazi-dominated Bayit Hayehudi open to stinging charges of racism against Mizrachim (Ohana is of Moroccan descent), party leaders staged an unprecedented mutiny against Bennett, demanding that he rescind the nomination. On Thursday, to Netanyahu's relief, Ohana announced that he was quitting the race. In other internal battles, additional prominent Bennett hopefuls, like senior settlement official Danny Dayan, quit this week as well.

For Netanyahu, nonetheless, the blessing is decidedly mixed. The more the right is seen by its supporters as dysfunctional, Likud strategists fear, the more prospective Likud voters are likely to decide that they have no one to vote for, and sit out the election altogether.

At the same time, the distress of another right-wing party, Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu, may prove to present Netanyahu with a thorny new problem. Gutted by a raft of corruption charges, Lieberman's party has plunged in the polls to dangerous lows.

This presents a huge incentive to Israeli Arab voters, whose turnout in the past has been tepid. Stated simply, if the vote for the new joint Arab list is high enough, it could help eliminate Lieberman's vocally anti-Arab party from the Knesset. In a particularly Israeli irony, it was Lieberman's party which proposed the electoral threshold law (parties which win the equivalent of less than four seats are dropped from the Knesset) - a bill originally aimed at removing Arab lawmakers from parliament.

Netanyahu knows that if Arab citizens - who represent fully one out of five Israelis - turn out in large numbers, they could also effectively topple him from the premiership and swing the election to Labor's new incarnation, the Zionist Camp.

The prime minister faces other challenges as well.

Consider, for example, the fracas surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu's scheduled speech before a Republican-dominated Congress, just two weeks before election day in Israel. The betting in the Prime Minister's Office and the Israeli Embassy in Washington had it that playing the Machismo Card – the scrappy little guy sticking it to the big man in the White House - would go over well with Israelis.

Now consider the view of Dan Margalit, premier columnist of the strongly pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper, speaking this week about the planned address to Congress:

"I believe that this trip is grievous," Margalit told Channel 10. "I believe that this trip is cynical. I believe that this trip is not being taken for the sake of the interests of the state of Israel, rather for the needs of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud, for the Likud election campaign."

Going behind Barack Obama's back was a move that was nothing short of "pasul," Margolit continued, using a word which connotes something abjectly unseemly, unfit, unacceptable, defective. Netanyahu should "certainly" cancel the trip, he said, adding "I don't ever remember anything resembling this."

"This is a rift not only with the White House, where Obama will be sitting for a long while yet to come, but a rift also with wings of the Democratic Party which are very important to us. This is unacceptable behavior. Things like this must not be done."

The polling numbers indicate that Netanyahu may have made a miscalculation much more serious electorally than the Congressional speech. Although he sorely needs to capture votes from Israeli centrists, his ferocious near-daily attacks on Herzog and Livni may be backfiring.

Far from projecting a statesmanlike image of a prime minister for all Israelis, Netanyahu has opted for machismo chest-beating and semaphore racism.

Try as he does to fight it, the guy can't help it: When Benjamin Netanyahu's running scared, he doesn't run smart.

He has relentlessly waved away Herzog as a loser, a nebbech, a henpecked lightweight, a child, not man enough for the big leagues (This from perhaps the most famously henpecked man in Israeli politics).

Netanyahu has pilloried the running mates of the centrist-to-a-fault Herzog and Livni as extreme radical leftists and "Anti-Zionist" - an astonishing characterization of the party of scions of Israel's two houses of political royalty, socialist Labor Zionism and rightist Revisionist Zionism.

In so doing, Netanyahu has put Israel on notice that anyone who, like Herzog and Livni, wants to see a two-state solution and opposes blanket support for settlements – that is to say, the majority – is Anti-Zionist.

By extension, of course, Netanyahu has also made the vast majority of American Jews into overnight Anti-Zionists.

This, then, is Netanyahu's direct message to an Israeli public which fights his wars, pays his taxes, suffers his disintegrating health and educational systems, bears his inaction on the housing crisis, endures his anti-democratic bills, despairs at his preference for settlements over negotiations: You have no place in my Israel, and no future here.

In the end, the Anti-Zionism charge may prove Netanyahu's undoing. Last week, after Bennett and Netanyahu suggested that only their own supporters love Israel, unlike other Israelis, Labor MK Stav Shafir, the youngest of Israel's lawmakers, took them on.

"Day to day, keeping each other safe, that's what it is to be Israeli, that is Zionism, to be concerned about the citizens of this country, in the hospitals, in the schools, on the highways, with welfare, that is Zionism. And you're taking it and destroying it," she declared in a Knesset speech which went viral.

"You forgot about the Negev and the Galilee, in order to transfer NIS 1.2 billion to the settlements in bonuses. You forgot Israel. You lost Zionism a long time ago."

Shaffir ended her speech with a plea for a politics of hope, having as its goals peace and equality of rights and resources, a politics "which believes that every single Israeli citizen deserves an equal portion, deserves to live a truly good life. That's real Zionism."

In all the many years Netanyahu has been in office, with all the enemies he has warned of and railed against, he has only managed to decisively defeat one of them: hope.

But even that victory may prove fleeting.