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Israeli voters upset with Bibi – but will they upset him back?

Make no mistake, regardless of whether Netanyahu has the pieces to cobble together a semi-stable government, the next Knesset will have a sizable cohort of 35-40 fighting progressives, perhaps even more — something Israel hasn’t seen in over a decade.

By Assaf Oron

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in the cabinet, Nov. 18, 2012 (Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Over the past couple of months, there seems to have developed growing disconnect between most of Israel’s political analysts – and the actual dynamics of the campaign for Israel’s general elections, which will take place tomorrow.

In October when the election was announced, there was near-universal agreement that it’s all going to be one big garbage time. Prime Minister Bibi will cake-walk it to a second consecutive – and third overall – term in office, and the Right-dominated Israeli status quo of the 2000s will continue. I tended to agree with this view, but with this caveat: in Israel, anyone who calls the election results three months in advance is a fool.

Then, from mid-November the campaign became more and more interesting by the week. By now, I must confess that for me it’s been one of the most entertaining campaigns to follow. As a non-state-emissary expatriate I cannot vote, and in the three previous elections during our stay here I was far less engaged. Maybe it’s Facebook, and the incessant stream of punch lines and visual memes from fellow Israeli progressives (check out the memes in my previous diary from December). Maybe.

But also, my eyes tell me that something is happening. And yet, the dominant pundit line (parroted all over the English-language news universe, too) has continued to be “garbage time, garbage time, the election’s in Bibi’s pocket, the Left’s finished, …. b-o-r-i-n-g ! …”


“King Bibi”? What a Joke.

First, the myth of “King Bibi” is once again (for the umpteenth time) proven baseless. Most Israelis really don’t like Bibi. The massive, unprecedented protests of summer 2011 (now, perhaps prematurely, seen almost as a “Midsummer’s Night Dream” with no sequel) were in a large part personally directed against him.

And now during the campaign itself, Bibi has become more and more vulnerable:

– He launched a bloody offensive on Gaza in mid-November, in a cynical transparent attempt to boost his electoral standing, but emerged with multiple eggs on his face.

– Immediately afterwards, Palestine was accepted to the UN as an observer state, with only Israel, the US and a handful of tiny US satellites voting no – an outcome that Bibi had spent immense diplomatic efforts over more than a year to prevent.

– On the “Bibi’s stable economy” front, the bad news just keep coming. The most recent: the budget shortfall in 2012 was $10B, or 4.2 percent of the GDP – far more than the government had previously reported. It is my contention, that Bibi’s main motive for calling elections a few months early despite a reasonably stable coalition, was the wish to get them over with – before the bad news and deeply unpopular austerity steps he’ll doubtlessly try to push through. Many Israelis begin to suspect that Israel’s surprising relative resilience during the global crisis, faring far better than most of its trading partners, might have been obtained using Lance Armstrong methods.

On top of this: nobody mentions that, but Bibi is a lousy campaigner. In four election campaigns in which Bibi led Likud, his party never emerged the largest. Even in 1996, the country’s first direct-personal elections to the prime minister in which he upset Shimon Peres 50.5%-49.5%, Likud came in second to Labor in Knesset seats (32 vs. 34, out of 120). Then, in 1999 Bibi was voted out, and Likud fell to 19 seats. He wouldn’t get his hand dirty sitting in opposition, so he “retired” right away… for a couple of years, that is. The next time he led Likud was 2006, and Likud came in fourth with only 12 seats. Last elections – 2009 – he managed to score a come-from-ahead upset loss to the center-right Kadima party (27 to 28), gaining the premiership only via dirty back-room maneuvers.

Zero out of four is not a coincidence. Not when your side of the political map is the one dominating the nation. Interestingly, the only thing that’s sure about Tuesday’s elections, is that this time – finally – Bibi will emerge as the head of the candidate list that wins the most seats.

How did he manage to guarantee that? In another signature back-room deal, he agreed with his deputy, Avigdor Lieberman (whose personality-cult party “Israel Beitenu” has cornered the market on the “Russian” vote in the past two elections), to run on a single list on a 2:1 alternating ratio. He didn’t bother to ask his party members, who were less than thrilled. Bibi – always the hysterical Basil Fawlty type of decision-maker – just couldn’t bear the thought of failing for a fifth time. Mind you, this is not a party merger: in another one of the endless string of news embarrassments Bibi has produced for himself this campaign, it became known that the parties split their ways, each taking its own marbles, the day after the election, and Bibi will have to negotiate with Lieberman almost like with any other party.

Anyway, together these two lovely parties won 42 seats in 2009. Given that Kadima had disintegrated to smithereens – and it’s a good thing, because it was always more hoax than genuine party, and given that further left, Labor is still picking up its own pieces – there is nothing nearly close to that size around.

But since its announcement, the Likud-Beitenu amalgam has been on a steady gradual decline, losing one to two seats per week. It is now polling mostly in the low 30s. Take out Lieberman’s cut, and come government-maintaining time, Bibi might have barely 20 seats to his name, with which to dominate a 120-seat chamber.

So the election’s real story is Bibi’s deep unpopularity, and the public’s general malaise.

Unfortunately, as I detailed in December, by refusing do draw a contrast with Bibi on any topic except the economy, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich has missed a golden opportunity. We might have been talking now about a tightening race; instead, we’ll likely have a fragmented Knesset parliament with no “King” or “Queen.”

Yes, Bibi is still the overwhelming favorite to be Israel’s next prime minister. But the odds now seem even greater that he’ll be much weakened, and will face a far more energetic opposition, than in the current term.

It’s all academic, some say; ending the Occupation is not on the menu anyway so the elections are just a game of distraction. I beg to differ. One of the hallmarks of uphill struggles against oppressive systems is that they seem dominant and even scornful of your feeble attempts – right until the last moment. Then some internal fault cracks open, and it’s over. See under Soviet Union. See under Apartheid. See under U.S. Slavery and segregation.

Similarly, an election whose results are humiliating for Bibi, and after which no one can set up a government that lasts very long, could be such a crack. And given the huge number of undecided or unsure – most polls quote 20%-30% – the crack might open with the bang of an election-night surprise.

Sticking to the headline, changing the bylines?

Pundits don’t like admitting they were wrong. So as the “King Bibi” meme crumbled, Israeli analysts stayed with the bottom line (“garbage time” etc.), but have changed the highlight. They’ve been trying two, in fact: “2013 will be the Right’s biggest victory” and “2013 will be the Left’s worst defeat.”

Wrong and wrong again. And again.

The fallacy in ‘2012-2013 is the year of the Right and settlers’

The solid Right plus Orthodox bloc of parties consistently emerges with a majority in all current polls. In some polls even 70-plus seats (even though most of the recent polls are closer to the halfway mark of 60).

The lazy Israeli pundits compare this to the 65 seats the same bloc had supposedly won in 2009 – at the time, the most ever – and just “do the math” to conclude that 2013 might mark a new record. But they willfully ignore the nature of that 28-seat behemoth of a “party,” Kadima, that is not counted with the Right.

Kadima was founded late 2005 by Ariel Sharon, at the time prime minister and leader of Likud. Despite adding to its ranks a few Labor figureheads (most notoriously Shimon Peres), Likud politicians have always outnumbered everyone else there combined, at least 2:1. Sharon’s successors at Kadima’s lead – Olmert, Livni and now Mofaz – all came from Likud. So in 2006 and 2009, Likud pulled the amazing feat of running under three brands: “classic Likud,” the Lieberman cult catering to “Russians,” and a moderate-posing “Kadima” brand (headed in 2006 by Tzipi Livni) catering to the Center and even (thanks to Livni’s gender and campaign style) to left-of-center. And the niche marketing paid off: the three arms combined won 70 seats (in 2006 the trio won “only” 52, then poached a few more in post-election wheeling and dealing).

That was the Israeli Right’s electoral high-water mark. I hope that in my lifetime I won’t see anything near that. Seeing two arms of Likud competing for the #1 spot, with one of them suckering votes from left-of-center, was downright sickening.

By 2013, Kadima has disintegrated. Its two remnants, running under Livni and Mofaz respectively, will be lucky to gather more than 10 seats together; quite likely less. And the number of genuine right-wingers who will enter Knesset under both combined, will almost surely be less than five. So compare barely 40-45 seats controlled by the various Likud factions, to 70 right now. And compare roughly 70 right-wingers expected in the next Knesset, with about 85 in the outgoing one. The Right has passed its undeserved zenith.

The only ascendant force on the Right this campaign has been the Orthodox-nationalist “Jewish Home” party, led by a fresh and charismatic face, Naftali Bennett (son to US immigrants who converted to Orthodoxy, the Jewish analogue of Evangelist Christians). He’s polling around 15 seats, and – together with Ayelet Shaked, the only secular on the list – successfully and effectively hide the remaining dozen-or-so unappealing or even hideous potential members of the next Knesset on their list (Here’s candidate #14 Gimpel, also an American, in a must-see clip designed to encourage the potential far-right nutcase willing to blow up the Dome of the Rock; Gimpel’s the one on the left). On merit, Bennett seems like a sleazebag who could sell anything to anyone, or at least try (that apparently is how he sold his start-up company and became a millionaire), and whose true views are far less user-friendly than his slang-sprinkled chummy talk.

Admitted, Bennett is a lucky shot for the Right-Orthodox parties, who for years languished under leaders with the charisma and general-public appeal of a rusty nail. But his rise is grossly over-hyped. His main electoral feat so far has been to bring back home the Orthodox votes that had preferred Likud, Shas or some other non-Orthodox party. He seems to be drawing some disaffected Bibi/Lieberman voters as well. My analysis (and also some recent on-the-ground reports) indicate that this is more due to Bibi’s weakness than to Bennett’s supposed magic.

In particular, the idea that Bennett’s popularity (and Labor leader’s Yachimovich’s cowardice about settlements) is an indication that settlers are now the new leaders of Israeli society, with their role widely accepted and respected – an idea promoted even by progressive analysts such as the 972 Mag website – is downright ridiculous.

A coalition of economically progressive NGOs has just commissioned a poll, asking Israelis what they would rather cut to resolve the huge budget hole. Here’s what they found: (emphasis mine)

According to the survey, which was conducted by the Panels research institute among 600 people, 81.9% think settlements should be the first source of budget cuts, followed by infrastructure (50.5%) and defense (40%)….

According to the Panels institute, the majority of respondents who characterized themselves as right wing also supported diverting funds from the settlements to help balance the budget.

Eighty-two percent. Far and away, the first thing nearly all Israelis (including a majority of right-wingers) would cut, is the subsidies to the settlements. So much for these times being “The Year of the Settler”.

Last but not least: The fallacy of “the Left’s worst defeat”

Granted, the Israeli center-left isn’t looking great these elections and is probably not ready to topple Bibi outright (even though this has become a distinct possibility according to most recent polls). There’s been too much fragmentation for that to happen. But the wailing as if this is a “worst defeat” of any kind, is seriously 180 degrees off mark. In fact, coming on the heels of the 2011 protests, these elections mark the continuation of the Left’s painfully gradual revival.

If this was the Left’s worst year, then for sure the only Zionist party openly running as Left, would have suffered, no? That party would be Meretz, who in 2009 fell to its lowest-ever mark with three seats. To make matters “worse” for Meretz, during the November mini-war it had the temerity to oppose, breaking an inglorious tradition of previous leaderships mumbling and reluctantly supporting Israel’s various military adventures. Surely, if this is “the Left’s worst year,” voters would be disgusted with such rampant Leftism, and will do away with Meretz once and for all?

Yes. In all recent polls, Meretz doubles its current strength, sitting on 6-7 seats – and still moving up from poll to poll. This, despite having no new faces and no campaign surprises (except the unplanned one of opposing the war).

The party that’s stuck in the polls is Labor, whose leader vehemently denied being part of the Left or even center-left, and refused to make the obvious settlement-economic connection that 82% of Israelis apparently can. It is no coincidence that Labor is stuck. Voters want a contrast, they want an opposition they can rally behind – not someone running away from herself.

But even so, Labor is polling around 16-18 seats vs. the 13 it won in 2009. And the incoming cohort is far more progressive and reliable than the outgoing one, five of whom (headed by Ehud Barak) are still shamefully sitting in Bibi’s coalition.

So no. 2013 is not a “worst defeat” year for the Left.

The Left’s worst defeat came some 12 years ago, when then-Labor leader, then-Prime-Minister Ehud Barak emerged from a failed round of negotiations with his “No Partner” lie, confirming the stereotype of The Arab as an illegitimate lying crook, and simultaneously letting the military unleash massive deadly fire on the riots that had started spreading. This watershed moment has hurled Israel-Palestine into an abyss, 12-plus lost years and counting. The Labor party, in particular, has yet to recover – and in classic Battered Wife Syndrome fashion it invited Barak to lead it into the 2009 elections again, only to be abused by him some more.

Israelis now know who Ehud Barak is: a serial liar, a personally corrupt, deeply unpopular man. Right now he still sits in the Defense Ministry, but he’s so unpopular that he gave up running again, and his joke of a “party” (basically, just a theft of five seats from Labor) has disbanded itself and will not disgrace the next Knesset with its presence.

Too many Israelis have a hard time letting go of the “No Partner” lie and can’t seem to connect the dots to what they’ve since learned about the man who invented it. So the road to a full comeback of the center-left camp, to a camp not ashamed to put ending the Occupation and a viable Palestinian state at the top of its policy agenda, is still a rocky uphill one.

But don’t mistake the direction. Regardless of whether Bibi will have the pieces to cobble together a semi-stable government, the next Knesset will have in it a sizable cohort of 35-40 fighting progressives, perhaps even more. Now, this is something Israel hasn’t seen in over a decade.

At last, the direction indicated by the Israeli voter seems to be up, rather than to dig further into the hole we’re in. Unfortunately, most politicians usually lag behind the public, but eventually they catch up. Here’s hoping it happens in Israel-Palestine sooner rather than later.

Assaf Oron works as a statistician and moonlights (voluntarily) as a human-rights activist and blogger. He arrived in Seattle from Israel in 2002 for studies. Assaf is webmaster for the Israeli human rights organization “Villages Group.”

This post was originally published on The Only Democracy. It is reposted here with the author’s permission.

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    1. XYZ

      “Most Israelis don’t like Bibi”.

      Here, for the umpteenth time, we hear a Left-Liberal-Progressive projecting THEIR beliefs on everyone else. If they don’t like Bibi, it just has to be that everyone else also doesn’t. Or we may view it as a matter of “those people who count-(i.e. those who think like me) don’t like Bibi.

      I don’t know if most Israeli would want him as a friend, but it is clear more people prefer him to be Prime Minister than any other possible candidate. That is the only thing that matters.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        I might add that if one looks objectively at the years he has been Prime Minister, they were the quietest in the security realm and with the most economic advancement of any government since the Oslo agreements in 1993. That is not to say everything is perfect or that there weren’t problems, but I think most voters are aware of this.

        Reply to Comment
    2. The Trespasser

      >sizable cohort of 35-40 fighting progressives

      Peretz, Livni and Yachimovitch.

      Oh yeah, bring ’em on!

      Reply to Comment
    3. I think the Likud-Beitenu marriage day divorce agreement and Kadima’s nova to dwarf trajectory show that an increasing proportion of the electorate is becoming dislodged from party identification. But, as well, from group formation and maintenance associated in the past with parties–as indicated by the strange disappearance of J14 as an apparent viable force. Neoliberalism seems to have alienated sustained political formation outside of the tiny elites. I have seen no evidence that this large neo-left opposition has articulated much of anything in common. And while the settlers may get a 20% protection rating in cuts, defense gets a 60%; settlers may morph into defense by the IDF.

      I think you have documented a sizeable detached electorate. But the sustained articulation of policy and belief is wanting; this the greatest lesson of J14. The non-right has yet to couragously state what it is and will be.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Piotr Berman

      My take is that Israel Beitenu and Jewish Home are parties created by former underlings of Netanyahu with smallish ideological differences. What is the effective difference between Bennett, Feiglin, Lieberman and Netanyahu?

      To me a moment of truth came on the issue of NGOs, when the Right wanted to hang the irritating traitors on the lamposts and tried to settle for draconian financial regulation copied from Belorus. When it came to voting, Netanyahu had to explain that it is very bad idea to actually pass such a low. And he did, and voting for the NGO law was abandoned.

      This is a smallish incident. But it show this: the ethos of Israeli politics is to push as far in the “good direction” as Israel can get away with it. But if it is clear that Israel can face large consequences, they fold. Israel is a small country after all.

      Starting from Labor to the right, the differences are not “what is good” (more territory and less Arabs, of course!) but how much can Israel get away with. Empirically, far right is currently wise because hitherto Israel got away with everything. Livni tries to warn darkly about possible sanctions that may happen, and then again, may not. Labor got out of prediction business.

      Reply to Comment