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Better Off With Bibi?

Despite all the petty politics and infighting, there are still reasons we shouldn't be so quick to assume that elections -- and (possibly) a new prime minister -- will solve Israel's problems.


Well, it looks like Israel is going to the polls. But will electing a new prime minister from among the likely electable suspects — let alone a new coalition — really make a difference?

Watching the political theater unraveling this week in Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which George and Jerry come up with the idea of producing a show about nothing. Many Israeli pundits think this call for elections is about petty politics, small issues, personal rivalries, and Netanyahu’s effort to gain an electoral edge by taking the initiative.

But if we make this assumption, are we being too quick to judge? Putative prime-ministerial candidate Tzipi Livni recently claimed that this upcoming round of elections is going to be about “whether there will be a Zionist or extremist country here.” After all, big issues are facing Israel: Iran, what to do about the Palestinians, and the Nationality Law. And Bibi has now been elected prime minster three times — in 1996, 2009, and 2013 (if you also count his first tenure). Maybe Israelis are getting tired of him. And not to use those two words from a certain U.S. president, but why can’t this be an election about “hope and change”?

With elections probably scheduled for March or April of 2015, there’s a virtual eternity of time between now and then that could produce all kinds of surprises. There are wild cards. Last year there was a credible report that Shimon Peres actually thought about resigning as Israel’s president and at age 89 running against Bibi. And there may well be a few power brokers like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and former Likud leader Moshe Kahlon, who is forming a new party, is popular, and could exercise real influence on who becomes the next prime minister. But going with probabilities in the Middle East rather than possibilities is always a safer bet. It’s more likely that constants, not contrasts, will prevail. Right now this election is Bibi’s to lose, rather than one that presages some sea change in Israeli attitudes. And here’s why.

Is There an Alternative?
Whether it’s U.S. politics or Israel’s, you really can’t beat somebody with nobody. The fact is, Netanyahu is more than a political speed bump. Now the second-longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, he has proved himself to be more than just a speed bump. And despite his declining poll numbers, the question is who would replace him or, more precisely, who could replace him? His numbers are bad until you look at the numbers of his competitors. According to a poll published in Haaretz on Nov. 30, Netanyahu’s approval rating is now as low as 38 percent, with 35 percent of those polled saying that Netanyahu is best suited to be prime minister. But, according to the Times of Israel, “The next-highest-scoring politician, Labor Party head Isaac Herzog, drew just 17% support …, followed by Avigdor Liberman (8%), [then Finance Minister] Yair Lapid (7%) and [Economy Minister] Naftali Bennett (6%).”

And let’s be clear, Netanyahu has run and been elected three times. None of his potential competitors can say the same — not Livni, not Lapid, and not Lieberman. Netanyahu is a smart pol with a proven track record and tough security credentials. No one else fits that bill.

Coalition Math Still Favors the Right.
The issue for the next election is clearly not who’s the fairest in the land, but who can put together a governing coalition. And despite Bibi’s imperfections, he’s still the go-to guy. One reason is that most of Netanyahu’s rivals — Lapid comes to mind — just can’t work with and won’t sit down in the same government with the religious parties that are going to be critical to the next coalition. This fact also makes it hard to put together a left-of-center coalition and pulls the center of Israeli politics to the right. To defeat Bibi, you’d need a huge wave of voters to reject him and then pivot toward some other persona and party that can attract religious and right-wing voters but still sit with the center left.

Where’s the Public?
There’s little doubt that Israelis are tired of hapless governance and failed politicians. The very fact that campaigns and elections are being scheduled at a cost of billions of shekels for reasons that are hard to divine or that appear to focus on petty politics and personal rivalries instead of big issues only reinforces the public’s cynicism. At the same time, however, there’s little doubt that Israel’s public has moved to the right (look at the last two elections) and that the current security environment and terrorism threat in Jerusalem will only highlight that anger and concern. If you had a pragmatic, security-credentialed, electable hawk, that is to say a Rabin-like figure whom Israelis trusted, you might even have a real election on some important issues. But right now you don’t.

As Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer observed, during the past 25 years at least four elections were waged at a time when Israelis felt insecure on their own streets. In three of them — Yitzhak Shamir, 1992; Peres, 1996; and Ehud Barak, 2001 — the sitting prime minister lost. Only Sharon in 2003 won a “terror” election. So the incumbent also has to bear the responsibility for the circumstances. But again, winning in an age of terrorism depends on a challenger who is perceived to have better security credentials and experience than the current prime minister. And there simply may not be such a candidate around.

Are the Big Issues Ready for Decision Points?
I would love to believe that this election will be fought over big issues and that there will be the moments of truth necessary to deal with the many challenges facing the state of Israel. The problem is, you have big issues but they don’t appear ready for prime time. Where to begin? Do we believe that anyone can frame this election around an impending agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority? Iran? Even if a nuclear deal is reached, it won’t play all that positively in Israel, which will continue to worry about the mullahs secretly pursuing the bomb. What about relations with the Arab world? Most of it is melting down or preoccupied with its own travails. Maybe the elections can be framed over the deteriorating relations with Washington?

The U.S. Role
And that brings me to the final point about the U.S. effort to somehow try to shape Israeli elections. The United States says it doesn’t intervene in Israeli politics, just like Israel says it doesn’t intervene in America’s. But that clearly isn’t true. I was a firsthand witness in 1991 and again in 1996 when Washington did try to influence the outcome — the first time with some success, the second time with none. When Shamir was prime minister, George H.W. Bush’s administration denied Israel housing-loan guarantees because of Israeli settlement activity, particularly as the Madrid peace conference approached, and it granted them to Rabin once he became prime minister. While this occurred well before the election was even scheduled, part of the reason Shamir lost was because of the perception that he had mismanaged the U.S.-Israel relationship, and this started long before the campaigning even began.

The second time the United States tried to sway an election was under Bill Clinton, when Peres faced off against, that’s right, Netanyahu, in the wake of Rabin’s assassination and Hamas suicide attacks. Then the United States tried to help Peres by deploying the most popular man in Israel — President Bill Clinton — to the Summit of the Peacemakers in Egypt in 1996 at which many Arab heads of state were also present. The point was to show that Peres had credibility, was a friend of Clinton, and could manage the United States and the Arabs during tough times. That one didn’t work, most likely because Peres didn’t run a good campaign and because Israeli Arabs stayed away from the polls as a result of Israeli policies in Lebanon.

I can only imagine what thoughts of a new Israeli prime minister are now dancing in U.S. President Barack Obama’s and Secretary of State John Kerry’s heads. And they may well believe that an ABB theme — Anyone But Bibi — is worth pursuing. But America’s great leaders should tread very carefully here before they start interfering in Israel’s politics. They may well get a new prime minister, but it may not be the one they want. A new poll shows that Naftali Bennett is seen to be the leader of the right in Israel, not Netanyahu. Indeed, given that the right’s bench is a good deal deeper than the center’s in Israel, once the election dust settles, Benjamin Netanyahu might actually not look so bad.


Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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