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The Last Days of King Bibi
From the Galilee to the Negev and Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel awaits the results of today's election with bated breath. Likud strongholds are swaying, Arabs are uniting, and the campaign is getting ugly.
TEL AVIV, Israel — It felt a bit like a festive street fair, except for the giant “death to terrorists” banner looming overhead. Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in Rabin Square on Sunday night to show their support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party, pulled out a guitar. Someone was handing out glow sticks.
This was the Israeli right-wing’s final show of force ahead of Tuesday’s election — their answer to an anti-Netanyahu rally held in the same square eight days earlier. The mood was confident, brash, aggressive. “Leftist! Come down here and face us,” one man yelled up to a balcony, where a woman was unfurling a banner for the liberal Meretz party.
No one seemed worried about the outcome of Tuesday’s election, even though Netanyahu himself warned the crowd there was “real danger” of a left-wing government taking power. “Don’t believe the media, don’t believe the polls, this is the real Israel, the real national camp,” said a supporter of the far-right Yachad party. “The leftists will never have a majority.”
Such sentiments seem hard to reconcile with the prevailing mood in the country. The final batch of pre-election polls all showed Netanyahu’s Likud Party trailing three or four seats behind its main challenger, the Zionist Union, a coalition led by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. The final survey released by Channel 10 gave Likud just 20 seats, its poorest showing yet, and the party’s internal polling suggests it could slip further—down to 17 or 18. Commentators are talking openly about a post-Netanyahu Israel, something hard to imagine even a few months ago. Retired generals and security officials are in open revolt against the prime minister. A well-funded activist group has run a savvy media campaign against him, and their aggressive get-out-the-vote effort amounts to the left’s most effective ground game in years.
The prime minister seems like a man possessed. On Friday night he posted a long screed against Noni Mozes, the wealthy publisher of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest paid daily, accusing him of “leading a timed and orchestrated campaign against the Likud, and against me.” Hours earlier, during a public question-and-answer session, he warned darkly that “the governments of Western Europe, especially in Scandinavia, are funding the campaign that is designed to oust me from power,” a plot also aided by millions of dollars in foreign funding.
It didn’t have to be this way. If it hadn’t been for Netanyahu’s decision to call early elections, he would be comfortably ensconced in the prime minister’s office for another two years. But in November, Netanyahu announced that he would bring a controversial Basic Law, the equivalent of a constitutional amendment, labeling Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people” to a Cabinet vote.
The decision to push forward the law prompted resistance from Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who voted against the law after a theatrical four-hour debate: Ministers pounded tables and screamed at each other for the benefit of the reporters gathered outside. Netanyahu fired them. The polls showed Likud with a strong plurality, so the prime minister gambled that he could return to power with a more amenable coalition.
The man once hailed as “King Bibi,” Israel’s second longest-serving prime minister, seems in real danger of losing his throne in a ballot that has become largely a personal referendum. His face is everywhere, on billboards, bumper stickers, social media, often next to the slogan “nine years of nothing.”
The prime minister is a towering figure, but also a small one, a deeply reactive politician prone to zigs and zags. He sits firmly on the right, of course, but his true ideology seems to be self-preservation. Despite the illusion of stability, voters are deeply unsettled — about the unsustainable cost of living, their increasingly fractious society, a deepening strain of nationalism and racism, and Israel’s growing international isolation. Netanyahu’s tenure looks like something of a lost decade, a period of prolonged drift. And yet his challengers are mostly unable to articulate an alternative, offering few solutions during what has been a deeply personalized, ugly campaign.
One campaign ad asked, “Who did Bibi hurt for nine years?” A succession of ordinary Israelis — students, soldiers, pensioners — answer the question: “Me,” they tell the camera, playing off the prime minister’s nickname. “Bibi hurt each one of us,” the ad concludes.
Seen from afar, this may seem an odd claim. When Netanyahu started his second term in early 2009, the world economy was deep in recession, and Israel had just ended its first war against Hamas in Gaza. Soon, Egypt would be plunged into revolution and years of political chaos. Meanwhile, a catastrophic civil war broke out across the northern border in Syria.
Israel weathered all of this fairly well. The economy kept growing, by 5 percent in 2010, and 4.6 percent in 2011, despite stagnation in its largest trading partners. Unemployment hovered around 6.5 percent, lower than many other advanced economies.
On the security front, the army fought two more wars in Gaza, “lone wolves” carried out a spate of attacks in Jerusalem, and there were occasional flare-ups of violence in the north. It may not have been quiet, but in relative terms it was peaceful, given the ominous constellation of forces gathering all around: the Islamic State, al Qaeda, jihadists on the Sinai Peninsula, a strengthened Hezbollah.
Netanyahu, in other words, can plausibly claim to have steered Israel through a turbulent time in relative peace and prosperity. Yet more than half of the country wants him gone.
The economy is an oft-cited reason, because years of strong macroeconomic growth did not help most Israelis. Average wages in 2013 stood at about $28,800, more than $10,000 below the median in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a bloc of advanced economies to which Israel belongs. However, it’s far more expensive to live in Israel than in other OECD countries: The price of basic consumer goods here is 12 percent higher than the average, while the average Israeli needs 191 monthly salaries to buy a five-room apartment, according to OECD data — compared to 90 in France, or just 60 in the United States. More than 40 percent of Israelis say their bank accounts are “regularly overdrawn.”
Likud offers these voters little; indeed, the party has not even bothered to publish an economic program. Reports of the Netanyahus’ personal corruption have also fueled the perception that he is indifferent to regular Israelis’ economic concerns. The state comptroller reported last month that the first couple’s expenses at the official residence were beyond “proportionality and reason”: The Netanyahus spent two-and-a-half times the amount budgeted for hairstylists and makeup, and tens of thousands of shekels to clean their private home in Caesarea, where they spend only a few days each month.
“Trust me, I know what happens next. They’ll start buying golden toilets,” an Iraqi Jew in southern Israel told me, only half-joking.
But it’s not only economics that divides the Israeli electorate today — it’s dueling images of Israel’s place in the world. On the campaign trail, center-left voters fret about Israel’s deteriorating image in Europe and the United States, and its growing religiosity. “I can’t travel abroad without feeling embarrassed,” one woman told me.
The right fears the opposite — that Israel is too deferential to world powers, and that the judiciary blocks the Knesset from imposing religious and nationalist legislation. “The State Department is breathing down our necks,” a man complained at a Jerusalem event.
Is Israel Jewish, democratic, or both? Is the Palestinian minority equal to the Jewish majority, or is it a dangerous fifth column? Should Israel patch up its relations with the West, or go it alone?
Netanyahu cannot answer these questions; indeed, he doesn’t even try. He has barely even run a campaign, appearing only with pre-selected audiences of sympathetic Likud activists. He speaks only about Iran and security matters.
“The debate has gained a new feature, which I would say is universal values, the way Israel is connected to the world,” said Tamar Hermann, the polling director at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Is it important for Israel to be part of the democratic, liberal world? Or should it look for its identity in Jewish morality? It’s not about specific issues, but about which kind of society we want to see.”
It was an unseasonably warm spring evening in Tel Aviv, an hour after Shabbat, when the anti-Netanyahu protesters began streaming into Rabin Square. The cafes and restaurants along the fashionable Rothschild Boulevard were overflowing. Further down the road, in stark contrast, a few dozen Israelis camped in the median, trying to recreate the tent city that became the nucleus of the 2011 protests over the high cost of living.
The March 7 rally would be the city’s largest political demonstration in four years. The keynote speaker was Meir Dagan, a former Mossad chief turned savage critic of the prime minister. He seemed out of place amidst a sea of flags for the dovish Meretz Party; former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, after all, once said that the spy chief’s specialty was “separating an Arab from his head.”
Today, however, Dagan sounded like a man of the left. He warned the crowd that Israel will become an apartheid state if it does not reach an agreement with the Palestinians, choking back tears as he spoke.
“Israel is surrounded by enemies,” he said. “Our enemies do not scare me; I’m worried about our leadership. The crisis we are experiencing today is the worst I can remember since the founding of the state.”
In the diaspora, and what remains of Israel’s old left, there is a sense that Tuesday’s vote offers Israel a last chance to salvage the two-state solution. That might be true: Hermann has long conducted a monthly survey called the “Peace Index,” which found in late December that 56 percent of Israeli Jews “strongly” or “moderately” in favor of negotiations with the Palestinians. Ten years earlier, it was 75 percent. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of the Jewish public believes that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will lead to peace in the coming years – a figure that has dropped from 46 percent a decade ago.
However, it’s by no means clear that Herzog’s Zionist Union can offer an alternate vision for how Israel should grapple with the Palestinian issue, its Arab neighbors, or Iran. While the Zionist Union has promised to renew negotiations with the Palestinians — a contrast with Netanyahu, who recently disavowed his own 2009 speech endorsing the two-state solution — it’s not as if Herzog has offered a clear path to reach a two-state solution. His nebulous peace plan envisions at least five years of talks, he vowed that Jerusalem “must remain united as Israel’s capital,” and promised not to concede the Jordan Valley. The differences, as journalist Barak Ravid wrote in a recent column for Ha’aretz, are more style than substance.
Even Herzog himself has seemed skeptical on whether his efforts can succeed. “I don’t want to build expectations,” he said at a recent campaign stop.
The electorate is skeptical too, and few Israelis even want to discuss the subject. A month before the rally, a few hundred people packed into a hangar at Tel Aviv’s old port for a debate on foreign policy and security issues. The debate included a broad spectrum of Israel’s main Zionist parties, from Meretz to Jewish Home. It was also conducted in English — a hint as to the intended audience.
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and now a candidate with the centrist Kulanu party, told the audience it might take “two or three generations for a Palestinian leader to emerge and sign a deal with us.” Hilik Bar, the Labor Party’s secretary-general, joked about a recent trip to Northern Ireland. “They told us it took 700 years to resolve their conflict,” he said.
Nor is Herzog promising a clean break from Netanyahu on other security issues. The prime minister’s opponents panned his controversial Iran speech in Washington, but they broadly agree with his Iran policy. In January, when Israel and Hezbollah seemed close to a war after tit-for-tat attacks on the northern border, Herzog rushed before the cameras to announce his support for Netanyahu. “There is no coalition and no opposition,” he declared.
Indeed, by the end of the debate, the audience had grown bored. Attendees started asking questions about gay marriage, the cost of living, the status of asylum-seekers from Africa — anything but security.
“In this election, in this campaign, I think it’s the first time that the word ‘peace’ doesn’t exist, in any party’s slogan. No one talks about peace,” said Ayelet Shaked, a prominent member of the right-wing Jewish Home party. “And I think that, in reality, most of the public acknowledges that we cannot make peace, even in the far future.”
Sderot translates to “boulevards,” but the city of 24,000 people in southern Israel is better known for the bomb shelters that line its streets. It becomes a focal point for the media every few years when Israel goes to war against Hamas: The city sits just a few miles from the border with Gaza, and more than 8,000 rockets have landed there over the past decade, according to the mayor.
In peacetime, Sderot is just another working-class locale in the underdeveloped regions away from Jerusalem and the coastal plain. More than half of Sderot’s residents live under the poverty line; salaries are well below the national average. It is also a Likud stronghold: 37 percent of Sderot voters opted for Likud in 2013, compared to 23 percent nationwide.
Today, though, many lifelong Likudniks in Sderot say they have soured on a party that has become so closely identified with one man. Some will vote this week for Kulanu, led by popular ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, or simply not vote at all. “I’ve always voted for Likud. My parents voted for Likud,” said one man. “But he hasn’t done anything for us…He says he’s a strong leader, but he’s just verbally strong.”
Last week Netanyahu toured Mahane Yehuda, a teeming market in Jerusalem that lies in a traditionally Likud area. He didn’t take the media along, citing security concerns. There were none. The real concern was political: Vendors say they are also leaning toward Kulanu. Netanyahu had to cancel a rally in Ashdod, another Likud stronghold, when party activists could not find enough warm bodies to fill the event hall.
For all the Netanyahu fatigue, however, voters are not crossing the partisan divide to back the Zionist Union. The center-left party has plateaued in most surveys at around 24 seats, just one-fifth of the Knesset. That may be partially due to Herzog, the man at the helm: The Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit wrote a fawning profile but nonetheless described him as a “bar mitzvah boy” — the mild-mannered opposite of the brash combat veterans who dominate Israel’s political life. His running mate, Livni, is one of Israel’s least popular politicians, seen as a self-interested carpetbagger now on her fourth political home. Just 29 percent of the public holds a favorable view of her.
The result has been the deepening fragmentation of the Israeli electorate. Labor and Likud, the traditional stalwarts of center-left and center-right, will win just two-fifths of the vote. The rest will go to four religious parties, two centrist parties focused on the economy, a secular right-wing party for Russian speakers, a secular left-wing party, and an Arab list that includes communists, Islamists and secular nationalists.
The confusion has helped to resurrect a number of politicians that had been left for dead. A large poster featuring Amir Peretz, a former defense minister who is deeply unpopular due to his role in formulating the disastrous strategy in the 2006 Lebanon war, graces the Zionist Union headquarters in Sderot. He grew up in Sderot, and the party hopes the personal appeal will help. The ultra-Orthodox Shas, which caters to mizrahi Jews, faced its own crisis when a video of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, leaked, in which he attacked one of the party’s two leaders, Aryeh Deri, for corruption and said he was unfit to lead the movement.
Rabbis set the agenda for ultra-Orthodox parties, but they rarely do so from beyond the grave: Yosef died in 2013. No one took credit for the leak, but it was believed to have come from Deri’s rival for control of Shas, Eli Yishai. Deri briefly stepped down, a political stunt that ended when the Shas “council of sages” begged him to return. The party has rebounded in the polls since then, focusing its outreach on working-class Israelis who feel ignored in the socioeconomic debate.
“People are confused with their options,” said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political analyst. “Voter turnout is going to be lower than usual because of the general sentiment of disgust.”
The sun was setting over Yarka, a Druze village in northern Israel, and hundreds of people—local politicians, religious leaders, ordinary residents — were thronged outside a wedding hall to welcome a man most hadn’t even heard of until January.
The one fresh face in this election is, surprisingly, Ayman Odeh, a 41-year-old lawyer and activist from the city of Haifa. He was previously a city councilman and a low-ranking candidate with Hadash, the joint Jewish-Arab communist party. He was catapulted onto the national stage after being chosen to head the Joint List, a coalition of the four parties that traditionally represent Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up one-fifth of the country’s population.
On Friday he was crisscrossing the Galilee. His campaign managers, in an endearing bit of naivete, scheduled four rallies in four hours. The Yarka event alone ran for almost three.
This is the first time the Arab parties have run together. It was a decision born out of necessity: Last year the Knesset passed a “governance bill,” promoted heavily by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, that raised the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent. The Arab parties rarely clear that line; some, if not all, would have been forced out of government.
So they joined forces — an unwieldy marriage, as Odeh and other parliamentarians admit. The list’s candidates cover the spectrum from communists to Islamists; there is a women’s rights activist, and a polygamist. Some of them had not spoken in years owing to longtime rivalries.
For now, though, the Joint List has injected a degree of enthusiasm into Israel’s Arab political landscape. Voting has always been a fraught issue: activists call for a boycott ahead of every election, arguing that participation in Israeli politics gives an implicit endorsement to Zionism. About 55 percent of the community voted during the last election, well below the nationwide turnout of 68 percent.
Party strategists think turnout could climb above 60 percent this week, and they are aiming for 15 seats in the Knesset, which would likely make them the third-largest bloc in Israel’s fragmented political landscape, behind Likud and the Zionist Union. Tamer Nafar, one of the founders of the popular Palestinian rap group DAM, released a song over the weekend announcing that he would vote for the first time. “Across the Arab world, sectarianism is raging, so we, the Muslims, and the Christians, and the Druze, we’re joining hands in one home,” he sang.
Odeh might consider sending flowers to Lieberman. Arab Israelis often cite the foreign minister’s overt racism as a reason for voting. Lieberman’s campaign slogan, “Ariel to Israel, Umm al-Fahm to Palestine,” is a blunt call for ethnic cleansing: “swapping” the Arab city into a future Palestinian state, in exchange for the Jewish settlement in the West Bank. He recently proposed beheading “disloyal” Arab citizens with axes.
Perhaps the ugliest moment was a small phrase he muttered during a televised debate last month. He launched a personal attack on Odeh, calling him a terrorist and asking why he wasn’t debating from “a studio in Gaza.” Odeh responded calmly, pointing out that Arabs make up one-fifth of the population. “For now,” Lieberman responded.
Odeh has cultivated a mild-mannered, friendly image, and avoids controversial issues. Asked about Hamas, for example, he stresses the need for Palestinian unity — and quickly pivots to talking about the economy, an issue that resonates with everyone, and about equality, often citing Martin Luther King, Jr. in speeches. He released a kitschy but well-received campaign video last week that showed him winning over voters at a Shabbat lunch in Tel Aviv. When Amos Biderman, the Ha’aretz cartoonist, drew a caricature of the candidates dressed in costume for Purim — the Israeli equivalent of Halloween — Odeh was Mickey Mouse.
It seems to be working. Many Jewish Israelis, perhaps a bit patronizingly, describe him as likable, “the guy next door.” They contrast him with outspoken parliamentarians like Knesset member Ahmad Tibi and Hanin Zoabi, who was suspended from the Knesset last year because she refused to describe the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank as “terrorism.” The wife of a Likud minister recently fretted on Channel 10 that Odeh was “a very dangerous person in my eyes, because he conveys a message to which you can connect as an Israeli.”
In a sharply divided electorate, the Joint List offers a rare hint of unity. But here, too, problems lurk. The coalition could fracture again after the election; party leaders duck questions about how long their shotgun marriage will last. “It took a lot of negotiation to get here, and right now we’re focused on the election,” Tibi said.
On the issues, the Joint List seems like a natural fit for a Herzog-led coalition, and their seats would be enough to ensure a center-left government. Historically, however, Arab parties have refused to sit in the government, arguing that they cannot join a Zionist cabinet, and cannot be responsible for settlement construction or another war in Gaza. The party says it will stick to this position, even though a recent poll showed a majority of Arab Israelis disagrees with it. “Every Israeli government, from Bougie to Bibi, they’re all the same thing,” said Abdullah Abu Marouf, a Joint List candidate, referring to Herzog and Netanyahu by their nicknames.
The most they will do, Odeh and others say, is provide backing from outside the government. There is historical precedent for this: After then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in 1994, support from the Arab parties allowed him to survive a no-confidence motion.
If Netanyahu and Herzog are forced to form a unity government, a very real possibility, Odeh would become Israel’s first Palestinian opposition leader. He downplays that, too. “We shouldn’t be talking about Arab or Jewish,” he said. “We should be talking about citizens.”
The simplest way to sum up Isaac Herzog, after weeks of watching him on the campaign trail, is this: The man is the antithesis of Benjamin Netanyahu. He is an unlikely challenger, little known until last year despite his pedigree — son of former Israeli President Chaim Herzog, and grandson of former chief rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog. His fratricidal Labor Party has cycled through seven leaders during 15 years largely spent in the political wilderness. Yet for an exhausted electorate — weary of Netanyahu, who has loomed large for so long — he is the only plausible alternative.
Herzog’s demeanor is quiet and reserved, his voice reedy. The campaign hired a voice coach to improve his delivery, and now he tries to stride around the stage, punctuating his words with chopping gestures, but he still comes across as a bit soporific. He barely mentions Iran. There is no talk of existential threats or the Holocaust, no rhetorical bombast. He prefers to focus on gay marriage, solar energy, and making it easier to get a mortgage.
He even offers an olive branch to the Jewish diaspora, which has found supporting Israel increasingly troublesome in recent years, evidenced in the flood of anguished commentary by liberal Zionists. “The impact on the Jewish community is not discussed enough in the corridors and halls of power in Israel,” he told me. “I think it should be taken into account.”
For years, the left-right divide in Israeli politics was viewed through the lens of the Palestinian conflict. This is becoming a blurry, even meaningless distinction; the occupation will soon turn 50 years old, and most Israelis believe, to use the customary Hebrew birthday greeting, that it will live to 120. Herzog calls for engaging the Palestinians — but was quick to temper expectations of a speedy breakthrough. “I do not know what kind of mood I will be faced with from the Palestinian leadership, because they have fallen in love with unilateralism, but I believe Livni and I are the only ones who can rally the international community behind us,” he told me.
Instead the divide between right and lift has become one over what, exactly, it means to be a Zionist. The Labor Party, which dominated the first three and a half decades of Israel’s political existence, saw itself as tough but also secular, worldly, pragmatic; Likud, which has predominated in more recent decades, championed a vision that is more religious, more aggressive and nationalistic.
Herzog sits firmly in the first camp, and he spent much of the campaign trying to reclaim “Zionism” from the right — indeed, even putting it in his coalition’s name. Two months before the election, the party released a campaign spot entitled “What is Zionism?” It looked a bit like an educational video shot in the 1980s: One by one, candidates appeared in front of a fluttering Israeli flag to explain their thoroughly banal views of Zionism. “For me Zionism is a house, allowing security for all the citizens of the state,” Herzog explained.
“Zionism is to maintain that no one can transfer our money under the table,” added Stav Shaffir, a Labor MK who rose to prominence as a social activist and fought in the Knesset against funneling money to illegal settlements. “Zionism is responsibility. Responsibility of the state for education, for livelihood, for healthcare—for all of us,” said Shelly Yachimovich, the previous Labor chairwoman.
While his right-wing rivals hold to an almost messianic idea of Zionism as the redemption of the Jewish people, Herzog sees it as forging a country with transparent accounting and universal healthcare — as if Israel were Switzerland.
The problem for Herzog, of course, is that it is not. Israel is a country with no fixed borders, it is persistently on the verge of conflict with many of its neighbors, and it oversees a seemingly permanent domination over another people. The “peace camp” is a shell of its former self; poll after poll shows that younger Israelis hold more hawkish and nationalist views than their parents. Netanyahu built a political career on leaving these issues unresolved. Herzog may try to address them, but the winds are blowing against him. “The fear is that he will dilute his views, blur his views, to act like a prime minister for all Israelis, and this will lead to a further deterioration in the legitimacy of the political system,” said Hermann. “People will feel betrayed, especially those who crossed the lines.”
Almost everyone agrees that tossing out King Bibi would bring a breath of fresh air. Two days before the election, atop a Vietnamese restaurant on Rothschild Boulevard, the offices of V15 are buzzing. It is a grassroots organization, born in December with a Facebook post, which has since recruited tens of thousands of volunteers to mount the largest get-out-the-vote operation in Israeli history. Campaigners have knocked on more than 150,000 doors across Israel, urging voters to change the government. They plan to return to each one on Tuesday.
“He’s done nothing on the economy, he ignores the Palestinians, he tells us there’s no solution to Gaza, that we just have to accept another war every two years,” said Nimrod Dweck, one of the founders. “He’s had nine years. It’s enough. If you have no ideas, it’s time to step aside.”
Herzog does have economic ideas, which call for billions of dollars of additional spending and an expanded role for government. On the deeper issues, though, he speaks only in generalities. He largely ignores the Palestinians, too, and does not offer a solution for Gaza. He can seem like a vestige of an older Israel, when the political consensus was more settled and more liberal. If he manages to win, he will take over a country that has moved sharply to the right — and one that has fractured during Netanyahu’s tenure. He can usher in a rhetorical change, a sense of normalcy — but real change will remain elusive.
“All parts of our society are simmering from within,” Herzog said. “My role as a leader is to unite everybody… if I’m strong enough, I’ll be able to lower everyone’s prices, and move toward a coalition that will move Israel in the right direction. And that’s all I can say.”
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