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Pundits’ consensus: Netanyahu is vulnerable

Are we nearing the end of King Bibi’s reign? Much of that depends on his allies, his rivals and the determination of international actors to address the disastrous trends on the ground.

In 2009 and 2013 it was easy to call who the next prime minister would be a month before the polls opened in Israel. Netanyahu underperformed in 2013, when his bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties ended up winning 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, the minimum number that could prevent any other politician from forming a government. But he did win, as most people expected.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)

Things are far from being that clear this time. The right is still polling over 60, but there are indications that Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman may defect from the right, and together with Tzipi Livni, Labor’s Isaac Herzog, Yair Lapid and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon (who will head a new party), form a centrist government that would send Bibi back home.

Nearly every political pundit in Israel was mulling these options over the weekend. Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth, Ben Caspit in Ma’ariv, Channel 2 news. In Haaretz, columnist Uri Misgav already predicted that Isaac Herzog will be Israel’s next prime minister (way too early, I believe). Only among the pages of Sheldon Adelson Yisrael Hayom Netyanyahu is still the sun, the planets and everything around them. This is how Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer summed it up:


Rumors abounded that Netanyahu might try to have the ultra-Orthodox parties enter his government and prevent the elections, only to be torpedoed by Liberman. In a press release earlier today, the foreign minister made it clear that he will not be part of such a coalition, and that we are indeed heading for elections. This only added to the speculations that Liberman also senses the end of King Bibi’s reign, and is not ready to save him. Not this time.

How likely is such a scenario? In my view Netanyahu is still a favorite in these elections. But it is also clear that he is vulnerable, even without a strong alternative that can unite the opposition, the way Rabin was to Yitzhak Shamir in 92 or Barak was to Netanyahu in 99. The elections are about Netanyahu, not about the alternative.

In fact, even the primaries in the Likud are beginning to look like a serious hurdle for Netanyahu, rather than the formality everyone expected them to be. A poll in Ma’ariv found that former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), is polling better than Bibi among the general public. Sa’ar is yet to announce his candidacy, but if he does, there will be many Likud members who may be tempted to see him as the future of the party, while viewing Bibi as a man of the past. They might be right: I think that Sa’ar is a stronger candidate for the right than Netanyahu is.

My only note of reservation is not about the likelihood that Netanyahu surges in the polls – the best he can hope for is a narrow victory, like his three previous ones – but in the misplaced expectations regarding his departure. Netanyahu led an awful government – as bad as I can remember. But in many ways he and his coalition were both a product of an era and of the circumstances in which Israeli leaders operate: absolutely no accountability for the occupation and the human rights abuses that come with it; when even diplomatic consequences of Israeli actions are not quite felt.

If Bibi does fall, much will depend on the identity of the person who takes his place, as well as the coalition he or she assembles. Even more important, however, is the behavior of international actors and their determination to address the disastrous trends on the ground. Politicians avoid making difficult or revolutionary decisions when they can, and so will the next Israeli prime minister, whatever his or her name will be (Mairav Zonszein has more on this).

Israel’s elections: A referendum on Netanyahu
‘Anyone but Bibi’ isn’t the point: Pre-election postulations
Moshe Kahlon for prime minister of Israel

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    1. Lo

      We should be wary of the over-personalization of politics. Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, but that’s more of a function his own craven maneuvering than any endorsement of him. If he is replaced, the political superstructure remains to shape whoever follows. If he stays, then he is just as bound by it.

      No one up for vote is willing to make the political sacrifices necessary to move the situation with the Palestinians in a positive direction. Progress on domestic issues (such as decreasing the inequality gap) is similarly moribund.

      Until basic structural factors about what the Israeli public will tolerate have changed, I see no reason to be optimistic about this or any other election in the near future.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Yeah, Right

      Forget Sa’ar – he has far too many skeletons in the closet.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Pedro X

      How vulnerable is Netanyahu?

      The answer is that he is not very vulnerable from his own party. He is a three time sitting Prime Minister, elder statesman, leading his party towards re-election. Many ministers and candidates who want to be placed high or in reasonable positions on the Likud list or stay as ministers in the new government are unlikely to challenge Netanyahu and support another candidate. If they do, and Netanyahu wins, they can kiss their seat in the Knesset or minister-ship goodbye.

      This is not a likely scenario.

      2. The likelihood of Herzog winning are small. Polls are calling for the right to take 75 of the 120 seats. Liberman is unlikely to jump ship from the right unless the left has a reasonable chance to form and keep government.

      3. Netanyahu is vulnerable to unforeseen events, such as an IDF operation going wrong. Today Israel hit and destroyed a number of Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria. If an air force pilot was shot down or killed the public might hold Netanyahu responsible. Hamas bombed Shimon Peres out of office in 1996 and Hamas or Fatah may try to reek terrorism on Israel to affect the election results. How Netanyahu responds will affect how the electorate reacts.

      4. The best strategy for Netanyahu is to promise nothing different than which he has done to date. All he needs to do is to maintain security and the status quo.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        PedroX – “All he needs to do is to maintain security and the status quo.” It seems maintaining security does not improve security and maintaining the status quo has brought us to this sorry pass, where the SOI is steadily alienating its erstwhile allies. Maintaining security seems to be an excuse for failing to deal with Israel’s major problems of social inequality, failing education, and sacrifice of international prestige. Surely there is a huge peace dividend to be achieved from scaling back the military, ending the outrageous subsidies to a small minority of settlers, and investing in security walls.

        Reply to Comment
        • PedroX

          What we are talking about is what Netanyahu has do over the course of the next four months to not lose the election. As captain of the state Israel, he has steered Israel through murky and turbulent waters. All he needs to do is show Israelis he is still at the helm of the state guiding it while other ships of state flounder on the rocks.

          Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            In undemocratic states all the leader has to do is cling on to power; in a democratic state a leader is generally expected to exercise vision and strategy; to identify issues critical to the welfare of citizens and to propose an appropriate and attainable programme for addressing these issues. No change, nothing to address issues of social justice, continued occupation and dispossession and continued demonisation of straw men opponents would not in any other country provide a worthy agenda for reelection. But then Israel is not any other country.

            Reply to Comment
      • “Netanyahu is vulnerable to unforeseen events, such as an IDF operation going wrong.”

        I’m not accusing but wondering – are you suggesting the IDF “operation” last July-August went right?

        Stand up comedy Ex – that’s you’re God-given talent.

        Reply to Comment
        • PedroX

          Israel’s operational aims of the action were achieved. Hamas lost over 1,000 militants, lost high ranking military leaders, expended 80% of its rocket arsenal without any major success, its tunnels were destroyed, and its military infrastructure was significantly harmed.

          Hamas has not attained its aims, it has no seaport or airport, the blockade remains in place, it is still alienated from Fatah and the PA and its relations with Egypt continue to sink lower and lower. Gaza’s economy is in tatters. Hamas’ tax base has been severely limited and Hamas does not have money to pay its employees. They cannot even afford to pay hospital cleaners part of their measly wages of 700 NIS a month resulting in another strike. Large numbers of Gazans are still dislocated or homeless. Gazans only get electricity for a fraction of the day. Without Israeli coordination and international welfare Gazans would starve.

          Rockets are not being fired into Israel. Israel’s unemployment rate is low. Life goes on much the same as before the war.

          Reply to Comment
        • Sluggo

          Yes, Mondoweis spent weeks convincing each other that Hamas was the victor. While Israel lost too many valuable lives, it is ludicrous to think that Hamas came out stronger

          But Annie, stick to the party line!

          Reply to Comment
    4. Yeah, Right

      Does it matter?

      If Bibi’s Brain were to go and emulate Sharon’s Brain-Freeze(tm) then it wouldn’t matter one little bit.

      Nobody who replaced him – not Herzog nor Livni, certainly not Bennett and definitely not Leiberman – would make the slightest move to change the status quo.

      And without doing that then Israel is destined to continue on a slow slide into the abyss.

      At worst (Bennett, say) the Israeli govt would actually take a running, flying leap into that abyss.

      At best (e.g. Herzog) the Israeli govt would simply scrabble furiously at the dirt as Israel toppled over the edge, and all the while shouting “It’s not fair! We’re not like Likud!”.

      The end result would be the same, it’s just a matter of how long it takes before the Body Politic goes “splat!” against the bottom of the ravine.

      Remind me again who started the settlement enterprise?

      Answer: Not Likud.

      Remind me again what Livni ever did to really change things for the better when she was in So Many Coalition Govts?

      Answer: Nothing at all.

      Nobody who could prevent Israel’s self-destructive path will ever get to be included in any Israeli coalition.


      It’s just a matter of choices, but the choices are these:
      Thugs who hide their true faces behind masks, or
      Thugs who can’t be bothered even trying to hide their thuggishness.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Bryan

      American presidents are of course now limited (wisely) to two terms, but recent British experience (Thatcher, Blair) suggests that electorates get profoundly sick of the growing arrogance and disconnection of their PMs after three terms. Perhaps that’s good news, but unfortunately the alternatives to Bibi don’t look more attractive.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Brian

      Kobi Niv in Haaretz:

      “…until the “Zionist left” realizes that it has to build up the Arabs not just as a force to obstruct the other side, but really join with them as full partners, in a single political bloc – until then, things will stay as they are, and the next government and the ones that come after it will be just like their predecessors and even worse, until one of them realizes its goal and destroys the country.

      So please, let even one of the leaders of the “bloc that pursues equality and peace” get up and announce that he will welcome the Arab parties in the coalition that he forms – just like Bougie, the leader of the “left” in the next government, ha ha, got up and announced that he would not disqualify Bibi from serving in his government.

      Can’t do it, can you? Not capable of it, are you? So what, exactly, is the difference between the “right-wing bloc” and the “left-wing bloc” – that they are benighted racists and you are enlightened racists? A yawning gulf indeed. So you just rush off to the polls now.”

      Reply to Comment