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.
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:
Netanyahu’s blood is already in the water & the sharks are circling. He’s almost certainly regretting calling elections. But still too early
— Anshel Pfeffer (@AnshelPfeffer) December 7, 2014
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).