Israeli election campaigns always end with surprises, exposing the weakness and uncertainty of pollsters and pundits. The unexpected gainers are usually newcomers whose anti establishment freshness enchants voters. Tuesday’s election followed the trend with one notable exception: the unlikely winner was not a new face, but the veteran prime minister. After lagging behind throughout the campaign, all but succumbing to voter fatigue, Binyamin Netanyahu has won a decisive victory. In the final days before the vote, “Bibi” proved that his political instincts are unmatched. Through a blitz of public appearances, he single handedly convinced rightwing voters to ditch the far right and religious parties, and come back home to Likud. The effect was dramatic and unprecedented. The final opinion polls, published last week Friday, gave his opponent Yitzhak Herzog’s Zionist Camp the lead by four seats. The count ended with Netanyahu leading by five seats.
Bibi has ruled Israel for nine years- between 1996 and 1999, and since 2009. Only David Ben-Gurion spent longer at the helm; if the new goverment completes it’s four year term, Netanyahu will surpass the founding fathers’ longevity in office. Netanyahu was never a mainstream politician, relying on his right wing base to stay in power, but in recent years he appeared irreplaceable to the majority of Israelis. Last summer, however, his magic appeared to be waning. The relative security calm under his rule was shattered in a 50-day indecisive war against Hamas in Gaza. Likud leaders and their far right frenemies- like minded ideologically but competing for the same voters- showed their open contempt to the prime minister, portraying him as soft on Hamas. Likud operatives managed to elect the liberal Reuven Rivlin as president over Netanyahu’s fierce objection.
Netanyahu reacted by turning rightward, pushing out his center-left coalition partners and calling a snap election. Cutting his government’s term after less than two years appeared desperate- but, lacking a serious opponent, Bibi was slated to win. From the outset, the election was practically a referendum over Netanyahu’s rule, and it duly focused on his personality rather than his policy. Herzog, the opposition leader, unexpectedly joined forces with Tzipi Livni, a peace process champion who was recently fired by Netanyahu from the justice portfolio. They renamed the Labour Party The Zionist Union- meaning “we’re centrist, not leftist”- and overtook Likud in the surveys. Given Israel’s tribal society and multiparty system, Herzog’s chances to form a center left government appeared slim at best; but despite lacking charisma or experience in high cabinet jobs, he positioned himself as an alternative to Bibi. The next blow came from a former chief housekeeper at the prime minister’s residence, who was fired and sued for damages. Netanyahu and his wife Sara, were notorious for their stinginess, billing of personal expenses to taxpayers, and abuse of their servants. But the new revelations were more damaging than ever before, and were followed by an official investigation. Netanyahu tried in vain to shift the public attention from his wife’s skimming of recycled bottle deposits to the safer ground of national security- flying to Washington to rally Congress against President Obama’s impending deal with Iran. But even this daring endeavour made no impression on the voters.
Fearing a collapse, Bibi resorted to his well tested trick of being in power and in opposition simultaneously. Blaming cabal of “foreign money,” the Obama administration and a hostile media for “aiming at ousting him and electing a leftist government relying on Arabs,” Netanyahu appealed to the primal fear of his political base. You don’t have the luxury of voting for small parties, he told them, it’s me or the left. On election eve, he buried his alleged support for a two state solution, vowing that no Palestinian state will be established under his watch, and there will be no more territorial concessions. On election day he warned that “masses of Arabs” are rushing to the polling stations to vote out the right. This was vintage Bibi, instilling fear and anxiety, retreating to outright racism against Israel’s Arab citizens, portraying his opponents and critics as traitors, and standing up to the powers that be- President Obama, the old leftist elite, the mainstream media, and former generals and intelligence chiefs who opposed him. And it worked like magic. The well mannered Herzog failed to formulate a decent response to Bibi’s smear campaign. The election will end in forming a right wing government, without the center left coalition partners of Netanyahu’s last two cabinets. There will be no peace process with the Palestinians, and there will be further efforts to curb democracy at home in favour of strengthening what he sees as Israel’s Jewish character. West Bank settlement expansion will be contingent on external pressure from the US and Europe, while the Palestinians move forward to promote their statehood through the UN, arguing they have no Israeli partner for peace.
Israel’s Arab citizens, who united before the election, and expanded their Knesset caucus, will launch an equal rights protest campaign to test the limit of the Jewish majority tolerance. And Netanyahu will have to pay more than lip service to dealing with social affairs such as housing. But still, at least for now, Netanyahu is immune to pressure from the right as much as he can ignore the left. The election was his referendum and he won it on his own, backed by only Israel Hayom- the free paper owned and paid for by his US backer, the gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson. The ultimate comeback kid of Israeli politics has just completed the masterstroke of his life, and he is going to enjoy every moment of it.