Bibi, Israel's comeback kid

The chosen: Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu pulled out all the stops to stay in power. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The chosen: Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu pulled out all the stops to stay in power. (Jack Guez/AFP)

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 his political instincts are unmatched. With a blitz of public appearances, he single-handedly convinced right-wing 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 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 government completes its four-year term, Netanyahu will surpass the founding father’s 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.

Open contempt
Last summer, however, his magic appeared to be waning. The relative security and calm under his rule was shattered in an indecisive 50-day 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 for the prime minister, portraying him as soft on Hamas. Likud operatives managed to elect the liberal Reuven (“Ruvi”) Rivlin as president over Netanyahu’s fierce objection. Surveys showed that voters cared mostly about social and economic issues, traditionally the Achilles heel of Likud.

Netanyahu reacted by turning rightward, pushing out his centre-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; it duly focused on his personality rather than his policy.

Herzog, the opposition leader, unexpectedly joined forces with Tzipi Livni, a peace-process champion recently fired by Netanyahu from the justice portfolio. They renamed the Labour party the Zionist Union – meaning “we’re centrist, not leftists” – and overtook Likud in the surveys. Given Israel’s tribal society and multiparty system, Herzog’s chances of forming a centre-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 by flying to Washington to rally Congress against President Barack Obama’s impending deal with Iran. But even this daring endeavour made no impression on the voters.

Well-tested trick
Fearing a collapse, Bibi resorted to his well-tested trick of being in power and in opposition simultaneously. Blaming a 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 no Palestinian state will be established under his watch, and there will be no more territorial concessions. On election day he warned “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 – Obama, the old leftist elite, the mainstream media, and former generals and intelligence chiefs who opposed him. It worked like magic. Herzog failed to formulate a decent response to Bibi’s smear campaign.

The election will end in forming a right-wing government, without the centre-left coalition partners of Netanyahu’s past two cabinets. There will be no peace process with the Palestinians, and 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 United States and Europe, and the Palestinians will move forward to promote their statehood through the United Nations, 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 limits of the Jewish majority’s tolerance. And Netanyahu will have to pay more than lip service to dealing with 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 only by 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. – © Guardian News & Media 2015


Election reflects an Israel divided

The first takeaway from Binyamin Netanyahu’s surprise victory is the least surprising. Nicknamed “Bibi the Magician” in the 1990s for his electoral skills, he not only knew what buttons to push to secure re-election but did so shamelessly, playing on the Israeli right’s anxieties. Conspiratorial, smacking of racism when he spoke of droves of Arab Israelis being bused to polling stations and playing on the idea of the right as a victim of an alliance of the left and foreign powers, it was a demagogic appeal pitched to be alarmist.

The result confirms a truism about Israel’s recent drift to the right that has seen successive Labour leaders – including Yitzhak Herzog, even in an alliance with former justice minister Tzipi Livni – fail to defeat a succession of right-wing governments.

But the result also reveals a divided Israel. Herzog’s still strong showing in defeat, especially when put next to the seats won by the new Joint Arab Israeli List, point to a large constituency in Israel opposed to all that Netanyahu and the right stand for.

Netanyahu might head up the next government but he must know he can’t lead all of Israel as he claims. That will increase pressure on him to coerce Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister and leader of the centrist Kulanu party, to join his coalition.

It seems certain that, at the end of a difficult year that saw war in Gaza, widespread unrest in occupied East Jerusalem and Israel’s increasing isolation internationally – including in its relations with the United States – the country faces a tense period.

Given the collapse last year of the peace process with the Palestinians, it will be difficult for Netanyahu to disavow his recent remarks promising he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state, comments that will set him on further collision courses with Barack Obama’s administration and the European Union.

Recently, Palestinian leaders made it clear they plan to take several cases against Israel to the International Criminal Court. With Israel blocking tax receipts to the Palestinian Authority for formally joining the international court of last resort, that move would trigger US Congress to order the freezing of US aid to the Palestinian Authority, a large part of which goes to supporting security forces.

Another potential consequence may be a renewed effort by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to seek recognition for a Palestinian state at the United Nations Security Council, a move that was blocked last year.

Without any commitment to a two-state solution and Netanyahu’s boast to continue building in occupied East Jerusalem, frustration with Israel is likely to increase.

That may see increased pressure – not least from Europe – for moves towards sanctions against Israel. – © Peter Beaumont, Guardian News & Media 2015

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