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The news that Israel is heading for new elections – confirmed on Tuesday with the sacking of both Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from the cabinet – has been greeted with a collective groan, especially on the left. The justifications for the early ballot are flimsy, commentators have noted, and the results are known in advance. The conventional wisdom that prevails has already been summed up by the biblical Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”; and Benjamin Netanyahu will be elected prime minister, once again,
Everything certainly seems to point in that direction. Even if Israelis are tired of Netanyahu, there is no one who can compete with his national security credentials, no battle-trained IDF general like Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak who swept the Labor Party to its only two victories in the past 40 years. Livni was foreign minister for a while, but she has lost much of her previous popularity, while Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Lapid have not spent a minute in any ministerial position focused on defense or foreign affairs, a seeming prerequisite to electoral victory.
And it goes without saying that the Israeli electorate has shifted to the right in recent years, a process that has even accelerated in the wake of the last Gaza war; or that demographic realities continue to work their wonder with more and more obediently single-minded religious voters and less and less secular and moderate Israelis going to the polls.
So the thought that a candidate to Netanyahu’s left can be elected prime minister is almost universally treated as no more than a pipe dream. Or is it?
After all, in 1977 no one in the world believed Likud would win for the very reason that it had never happened before. As Thomas Hardy wrote (in the admittedly different context of the Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid): “Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change.” A major upset will shock everyone, by definition, but with the benefit of hindsight it will be deemed to have been perfectly predictable. If that happens, these are probably some of the top reasons that will be cited in post-mortem analyses:
1. Netanyahu overstayed his welcome. After 26 years in politics, 14 years in the cabinet and almost 9 years as prime minister, Israelis are on the lookout for someone new. The slogan “anyone but Netanyahu” seemed to work the last time Netanyahu lost in 1999; it may be due for a comeback.
2. The downward spiral in Netanyahu’s approval rating could turn out to be a harbinger of things to come. Netanyahu has dived from 77% approval in early August to 38% in last week’s Haaretz poll, with no guarantee that he has hit rock bottom. His misplaced sense of timing may have brought Netanyahu to call early elections just as the public’s fatigue from his leadership reached a critical mass.
3. The seeming inevitability of Netanyahu’s reelection, on the one hand, and the widespread disapproval of his performance among voters to his right, on the other, could drive many right-wingers to vote for his ideological alternatives, Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. And while Israeli law does not mandate that the person chosen to form a new government be the leader of the party with the most Knesset seats – it’s enough if he enjoys the support of a majority of the overall Knesset – if the Likud gets significantly fewer seats than other parties Netanyahu’s position will grow precarious. And the Likud, mind you, only has 18 of 120 seats now.
4. And while Bennett has nowhere else to go – he is angling to be Netanyahu’s defense minister in the next cabinet – Lieberman is more of a wild card. He has close links with some of Netanyahu’s fiercest enemies and seems to enjoy tormenting his former mentor and boss. He might not resist the temptation of withholding his recommendation of Netanyahu as the next prime minister, or, if he wants to go in for the kill, teaming up with one of his rivals.
5. All of which could pave the way for one of Netanyahu’s worst fears: that President Reuven Rivlin gets the excuse he needs for sweet revenge and proceeds to hand the task of forming a new government to someone completely different.
6. In order to preempt such a move, Netanyahu has been busy cementing his ties with Bennet, who now says he has an “alliance” with the prime minister, as well as with the ultra-Orthodox parties. But this cohesion could be Netanyahu’s undoing: many otherwise right-wing Israelis could be turned off by the prospects of a coalition dominated by religious parties and opt to strengthen a centrist alternative instead.
7. One of which is likely to be the party being set up by the popular former communications minister, Moshe Kahlon, a son of Libyan-born immigrants. At a time of brewing discontent over the growing gap between rich and poor, Kahlon could seem like a viable alternative for many traditional Likud voters who would want to see him replicate his success at dramatically lowering cellphone charges in other consumer related areas. And Kahlon could find himself fitting in more easily with a coalition to his left rather than to his right.
8. Netanyahu is likely to try and steer the election campaign to issues of Iran, terror, security and Jews vs. everyone else, which are considered to be his forte. Nonetheless, he is entering the campaign at a time when the economy is slowing, the budget is straining and the high cost of living of everything from apartments to chocolate Milky puddings is as infuriating as always. Netanyahu will try to pin the blame on Lapid, who will return the favor, but the opposition could try to rekindle the spirit of the mass social protests of 2011, which catapulted Lapid to national prominence in the first place.
9. Some “knights on white horses” are waiting in the wings to plunge into politics while other potential saviors could face significant political and personal pressures to get off the fence to “save the homeland.” Most of the potential candidates for such a move – former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, for example, or former military intelligence head Amos Yadlin – won’t be joining Netanyahu or the Likud but his rivals to the center and left. This could create the impression that Netanyahu and his Likud are stagnant while the force and momentum are with his rivals – especially if these are pressured to team up, as befits a time of “national emergency” that they claim is upon us.
10. The same kind of “last chance to save Israel” approach could play a major role in reversing one of the left’s perennial disadvantages: voter apathy. Instead of the traditional disclaimers “my vote won’t make a difference” and “I’d rather go to the beach”, some clever campaigner could find a way to make the trip to the ballot box fashionable again. In a close election, legions of bored millennials, pooh-poohing punk rockers, and hoity-toity hipsters who are voting for the first time in their lives could make the difference.
11. This is truer ten times over of Israeli Arabs, whose participation in Israeli elections has declined from almost 90% in the 1950’s to about 50% today. Their growing alienation from Israel could lead to an acceleration of that process, but might also actually reverse it. If the Arabs succeed in putting together a credible joint list – as they must in order to overcome the new threshold needed for Knesset entry – and if their outrage over Netanyahu’s Jewish nation-state law or Lieberman’s offer to “take the money and run” from Israeli citizenship are funneled into going to the polls, the Arab vote could make a game-changing difference. Instead of the 13 members of Knesset their parties now have, they could elect as many as 20, thus tilting the scales decisively against the Likud and Netanyahu.
12. Obviously, the Obama administration and European countries will be rooting for Netanyahu’s defeat. If they make their preference too obvious, it will work in his favor. Among other things, however, the White House could discreetly dispatch some of the data crunchers and get-out-the vote experts who helped Obama win in 2008 and 2012 to assist Israel’s center-left in making the most of its dwindling electorate.
13. Arab terror attacks could play a role, as it did when an attack on a bus near Jericho a day before the 1988 elections killed four Israelis and probably gave the Likud the extra push it needed to eke out a victory. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would no doubt prefer to see Netanyahu replaced, but his Hamas partners might think that an obstinate Israel under the Likud serves their political purposes better than a conciliatory Israel under a more moderate leader. Interestingly, Iran, which probably concurred with the Hamas view in the past, could see things differently now in light of its ongoing nuclear negotiations with the United States. Tehran might even decide to rein in Hamas and Hezbollah, at least for the duration of the campaign.
14. Traditionally, after cementing his right-wing “base,” Netanyahu lurches to the center in the final weeks before elections, as he did in his victories in 1996, 2009 and 2013. But that avenue could be closed for him this time around: because there won’t be enough time, because he has maneuvered too far to the right in recent weeks and because, after his performance in the past year and a half, for him to claim that he is the candidate who will bring “peace with security” stretches credibility to a breaking point. And because his close association with the unpopular Sheldon Adelson, which has yielded so many dividends, could come back now to haunt him, if his opponents play their cards right.
15. Because given enough reason, when push comes to shove, Israelis will choose to step back from the brink, from international isolation, from confrontation with Israeli Arabs, from estrangement from American Jews, from a moribund peace process, from a return to Orthodox hegemony, from a government dedicated to the advancement of settlements beyond its border rather than the towns and villages within. Instead of voting for a candidate who promises that things won’t get worse, they could opt for one who pledges to make them better; instead of settling for what they already know, they might set Israel on a new course, towards a future unknown.
Stranger things have happened, though not too many, it’s true. But let’s face it: if you want to enjoy yourself in the next few months, there’s no point in assuming that there’s no point in the elections. The key, as Journey famously sang, is simple: “Don’t stop believing.”
Chemi Shalev writes for Ha’aretz, where this article originally appeared.