Bibi will be the lamest of ducks in his next and last term as PM. Hold the applause, though – what’s rising up to take his place is worse.
If, as expected tomorrow, Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu gets in the low-30s in Knesset seats, this election will mark the beginning of the post-Netanyahu era. Bibi will remain as prime minister as long as the new government survives, but he will be a lame duck, helpless to rein in the demagoguery and wild initiatives of the quasi- and not-so-quasi-fascists in his coalition. He will watch the chasm widen between Israel and the West, Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Egypt, Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, and be unable to slow things down with some phony ameliorative. Whether there will be a full-blown confrontation between Israel and any of its adversaries during Netanyahu’s coming term, I don’t know, but I feel pretty sure that one of the things that will fall into that chasm is his political career.
Why do I say this? Because winning in the low 30s in Knesset seats – or even in the mid-30s – means a huge defeat for Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, which went into the campaign with 42 seats combined. Joining the two parties on one ticket was Bibi’s doing, he ran a one-man campaign (again), so the electorate’s verdict stands as a rejection of him personally, and the bitterness inside Likud for all the Knesset seats they didn’t win and all the party hacks who didn’t get elected falls on him, too.
As the old L.A. Lakers announcer Chick Hearn used to say when a player tried to get too fancy and ended up losing the ball, the mustard’s off the hot dog. Bibi, whatever anyone could say about him as a statesman, knew how to appeal to the public, to attract support and votes – but even this is gone now. His handling of the 2013 election campaign will go down as one of the worst political performances by an Israeli leader ever. Yesterday’s pathetic attempt to win back Mizrahi votes by rolling out the popular Likudnik Moshe Kahlon is just the latest example.
Bibi, 63, is now the second-longest serving Israeli prime minister after David Ben-Gurion. After tomorrow’s expected debacle for Likud-Beiteinu, he will no longer be considered an electoral asset by his subordinates. What’s more, he will be lagging behind them politically; with the arguable exception of Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, every single Knesset member in Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi – the presumed bulk of the next coalition – will outflank Bibi on the right. He will be the new government’s “liberal.” (Which pretty much says it all about the political mentality around here).
Adding it up, this means that unless Likud-Beiteinu wins close to 40 seats, a seeming impossibility, the battle in Likud to succeed Netanyahu begins right after tomorrow’s votes are counted. And the way Likudniks compete with each other is by seeing who can be more pro-settler, pro-war, pro-“Jewish values,” and more anti-Arab, anti-leftist, anti-dissent, anti-Supreme Court, anti-Europe and (more subtly) anti-Obama. Again, Netanyahu will be powerless to restrain them – and if he tries to throw a sop to the U.S. and Europe by, say, playing along with some diplomatic process with Mahmoud Abbas, his party won’t support him.
So how will Bibi try to save himself? He’d like to start a war with Iran, but so long as military chief Benny Gantz and the other heads of the defense establishment oppose it, there will be no such war because no ambitious cabinet minister will want to answer for it afterward. And I don’t see Gantz and his colleagues changing their minds; like the rest of the sane world, they understand that Iran is strictly Obama’s business.
So no war with Iran, no move toward peace with the Palestinians – what’s Bibi going to do, then, in his third and final term as PM? What he’s been doing in his second one – struggling to survive, only this time he won’t make it, he’ll be overrun by the far-right. If I had to guess who the first post-Bibi prime minister will be, I’d say it’s a fight between Likud ministers Gideon Sa’ar, Moshe Yaalon and Moshe Kahlon, and maybe Naftali Bennett. What a lovely spectacle that’s going to be.
One last thing: As Bibi’s junior partner in this election, the not-so-quasi-fascist Avigdor Lieberman isn’t coming out of it too good, either. But then he faces a strong possibility of being banned from politics altogether for seven years in his upcoming trial. Three months ago, when Likud-Beiteinu was born and Lieberman’s legal troubles seemed about to dissipate, everyone thought he was Netanyahu’s sure successor as Likud leader and prime minister. No more. He could very well be history, too.