Two months ago, the biweekly magazine Jerusalem Report cover story was “Netanyahu’s Gamble.” Two days before the Israeli election, it looked as if Netanyahu was about to lose that gamble.
Many consider Netanyahu the ultimate politician, a master of the art of getting elected. So how did he get into that position, fighting for his political life?
It all started when he fired two of his most powerful opponents from the cabinet, because of their outspoken opposition to some his policies. It did not seem terribly risky at the time—Tzipi Livni (HaTnua) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) were rivals of each other. There was no danger of them getting together to form a united opposition. When they left the government, they took their parties with them. Within a few days other members of their parties resigned and the governing coalition crumbled.
What came next was a surprise to many. Livni joined with Buji Herzog (Labor) to form a new party, HaMachane HaZioni (Zionist Camp). The Zionist Camp quickly became the party to beat. Weekly polls showed them either even with Likud (Netanyahu’s party) or a few percentage points ahead. Since percentage points mean Knesset seats, it looked like Likud was on the skids. And in a bold step, the party leader dropped his childhood nickname—he is no longer Buji, but Yitzhak Herzog, or simply Herzog. This fact did not deter some journalists, who continued to refer to him as Buji. In his campaign Herzog frequently referred to his family’s long history of service to the country, citing his grandfather Yitzhak Herzog, the first chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, and his father Chaim Herzog, the sixth President of the country. Having a family that has served the country is good background, but it says nothing about his plans for the future.
The major Zionist Camp issue was economic, particularly the lack of affordable housing. They also advocated giving up parts of Judea and Samaria, including East Jerusalem. Jewish access to holy places would be limited, if not cut off entirely, as it was from 1948 to 1967. This position rankled many, because even people who do not care about Hevron or Ariel care about Jerusalem. To many, giving up Jerusalem is anti-Zionist.
Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) immediately appealed to the official elections committee. They claimed that the new party had chosen a fraudulent name—it was not Zionist. The Zionist Camp shot back with its own complaint that Bayit Yehudi’s name was fraudulent—it was not truly Jewish. And in one of those “only in Israel” moments, both complaints were thrown out by the election committee chair, an Arab Supreme Court judge.
The Arab parties did something unexpected—four of them united to form one party, called the “Joint Arab List.” By campaigning together and pooling their votes, they could earn more votes (= Knesset seats) than as four separate parties fighting each other. In doing so, they would gain influence on the choice of Prime Minister, and perhaps even become part of the governing coalition as ministers in the cabinet.
The Knesset has almost always included Arab members. Arabic and Hebrew are both official languages. Stories are regularly published about a Jewish Knesset member making remarks in perfect Arabic and being answered by an Arab in impeccable Hebrew.
The number of Arab legislators has always been small in comparison to the proportion of Arabs in the population, for several reasons. Many Arabs choose not to vote, because doing so gives legitimacy to the Jewish state. Despite living in Israel and benefiting from Israeli health care, education, and utilities, they do not recognize the state. In some Arab towns there is little recognition of an election campaign even taking place. Jewish candidates do not visit because of physical danger and Arab candidates do not feel those towns are worth their time.
Some Arabs claim they cannot vote because they do not possess an Israeli passport. This is a misconception. Any official ID—Israeli ID, which every citizen has, driver’s license, or passport—can be used at the polling place. And in some places, polling stations are simply not near. This last is a somewhat circular reason. People don’t vote because there are not enough polls, and polls are not in their area because people don’t vote.
Israel, with all its diversity, spawns multiple political parties. As a result, no party has ever received a majority of votes. Therefore, the government has always been a coalition, cobbled together by the head of the party that receives the most votes. In times of crisis, a unity government is called for by the President or Prime Minister, and the head of the opposition joins the cabinet. That is how Menachem Begin, the head of the opposition under several Prime Ministers, first became a member of the government, in May 1967. If the head of the leading party cannot get enough other parties to join a coalition within three months, the President invites the head of the second party to try. In 2009. Kadima won the most seats, but its head, Tzipi Livni, could not negotiate an agreement to create a majority coalition in the Knesset. So the President asked Netanyahu, head of Likud, to form a government. Livni ended up head of the opposition for the following three years.
In the two weeks before the election, the Zionist Camp pulled ahead of Likud. The last pre-election polls, published Friday, showed Zionist Camp winning 24 seats to Likud’s 20. By law, no pre-election polls may be published in the four days before the election, but that’s when things here got really interesting.
Sunday evening Likud and Bayit Yehudi held a giant rally in Tel Aviv. They proudly filled Rabin Square and streets around the square with supporters, demonstrating the power of the Right. They drew many more supporters than the Leftist parties had pulled a week earlier. In Israel, election laws are very strict. No rally or political activity may feature an entertainer. So Naftali Bennett picked up his guitar and led the crowd in singing “Jerusalem of Gold.” Bennett may be a good politician, but a singer he is not. I doubt anyone who listens to the YouTube recording of his rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold” would classify it as “entertainment.”
Monday evening, Tzipi Livni announced she was withdrawing from one of the key conditions of the agreement with Herzog. The two of them had agreed to rotate as Prime Minister. Herzog would be PM for two years, followed by Livni as PM. Apparently, a private poll found the party would earn two additional seats if only Herzog would serve as head of the government. So less than 12 hours before the polls were to open, Livni renounced her claim to the prime minister’s chair.
And then there was the Obama factor. He is rumored to be the moving force behind V15, a group of Americans who poured money into a campaign to influence the election. Their unofficial slogan was “Anybody but Bibi.” Because of President Obama’s lackluster statements about counter terrorism, withdrawal of support for Israel, and his comments about Israeli policies, there is much anti-Obama sentiment in the country. So his unspoken support for “Anybody but Bibi” may have actually helped Likud’s campaign.
Election day was warm and sunny. Voter turnout was the highest in years. Exit poll results were announced after the polls closed at 10 PM predicting the Zionist Camp would end up with the most Knesset seats. Herzog, Livni, and the left celebrated. Then the official results were released.
As predicted by the earlier polls, Zionist Camp had 24 seats. But Likud, to the surprise of almost everybody, had 29 seats. The Joint (Arab) List had 14 seats, the third largest number. Ten parties will be seated in the 20th Knesset in two weeks.
The only official task the President of Israel has of real significance is inviting someone to form a governing coalition and become Prime Minister. By tradition, he invites the head of the party with the most Knesset seats. It is taken for granted that Netanyahu will be Prime Minister. Everyone is busy guessing who he will choose to be in his government. All he has said so far is that he expects to have it in place in a month.