Understanding Israel: Election: Part Five

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Can Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win this election even if he loses it? The short answer is “yes.”  Current polls still show his party trailing the Zionist Union, but because it’s all about forming a coalition rather than getting the most votes, he is likely to remain Prime Minister for what be a fourth term.  

But let’s back up a few days.  This week was certainly a momentous one for “Bibi” Netanyahu.  He addressed a joint session of Congress, defied an American President while heavily criticizing his policies, and continued his avowed goal of saving the Jewish people from the existential threat of Iran – the day before Purim, none the less.

The speech played well in Israel, despite being widely condemned by American Democrats and the Israeli left as an electioneering stunt.  Yet, post-speech polling shows that it provided hardly any pre-election “bounce” for Bibi’s Likud party.  Likud continues to trail the Zionist Union by a projected two Knesset seats.  Yet, those same polls indicate that the people want Bibi to continue as Prime Minister.  And they may well get their wish.  As I’ve explained previously and will elaborate upon next week, (Bezrat HaShem) it’s the candidate and party who can form a governing coalition, not necessarily the one who wins the most electoral votes, who becomes Prime Minister.  

But how did Bibi reach this politically enviable position, in which he may well keep his position as head of government, even if his party “loses?”  

I think there are four reasons.  

Reason #1 - Credibility. Bibi has credibility as a strong and experienced leader, both domestically and internationally.  In an historically and, certainly currently, volatile region, this credibility is either of supreme, or of nearly supreme, importance to the electorate.  As a young man, Netanyahu served in elite combat units and was twice wounded.  He spent six years of his youth in the United States – Israel’s most important ally – as well many later years there, including earning a Master’s Degree from MIT-Sloan, working for a prestigious management consulting firm, and serving four years as Israel’s ambassador to the U.N.  As a result, he speaks flawless, unaccented English. And, he has served in multiple cabinet posts and three terms as Prime Minister.  Quite simply, no other Israeli politician can match his credentials.  

Reason #2 - "It's security, stupid!" Bibi’s career-long focus upon national security is always at or near the top of the national agenda, especially among the right wing.  Every attack and bellicose pronouncement by the leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran – and even every actual or perceived anti-Semitic action abroad – reminds the electorate that Bibi’s priority need be theirs, and that, perhaps, only he can be trusted with their and their children’s security.

No matter how much the electorate may also care about the cost of living, housing prices, health care, religious control over secular life, government corruption, or peace with the Palestinians – natural security can never be far from the top of the national consciousness.  Bibi does his best to make sure that the public never forgets this, and that he is one most focus upon it and most responsible for their safety. 

Reason #3: Streetsmarts. Bibi is universally acknowledged as a shrewd and experienced politician strategist (although, of course, his opponents don’t mean this as a compliment).  He has been able to maneuver among and to manipulate other political parties to serve Likud’s and his own interests.  He has been heavily criticized as being without core principles (other than national security and his own personal interest), and being all too willing to act in contradiction to his own stated positions.   

The most famous example concerns peace with the Palestinians.  He was recorded saying that although he had announced support for the Oslo Agreements, he would actually work to undermine them.  On the other hand, he has lost support from the right for being willing to make concessions to the Palestinians, and for his 2013 Bar-Ilan University speech announcing his support for a “two-state solution.” At a 2011 summit, French President Sarkozy told President Obama “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar. Obama replied, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day.”  

Bibi also proved willing to expand social welfare programs for the “Ultra-Orthodox” in order to garner their support despite his own capitalist leanings, and we may see this again in the coming months.  He and his wife, Sara, have faced numerous and varied corruption charges.  An acquaintance of mine, who has known Bibi personally for most of his life, described him to me as exceedingly thin-skinned and obsessed with micro-managing everything around him, especially anything that could affect his public image.  

Many in the Israeli electorate share this view of Bibi as “slippery,” “vain,” and “shallow” – or worse – yet feel these are acceptable for a leader who will, or at least seems willing to, stand up to any threat to Israel’s security.  Indeed, for others, in a culture and region in which being accused of being a “frier” (sucker) may be the ultimate insult, the ability to outmaneuver (or sucker) others may actually bring grudging or open admiration.  

Reason #4: Party Positioning. Bibi’s Likud (“The Consolidation”) party, founded by Menachem Begin in 1973 as an alliance of right-wing parties, is well placed to form, keep, or as may be needed, reconstitute governing coalitions.  This was perhaps best demonstrated when Likud excluded its previous traditional coalition partners – the Shas and United Torah religious parties – and brought in in their place both another party to Likud’s right (Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi “The Jewish Home”) and from the left (Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid “There is a Future.”)  

Following this election, even if, as currently projected, Likud comes in second to the Zionist Union, Likud will nevertheless retain its more centrist position and will likely be able to choose whether to replace Yesh Atid with the religious parties.  Another possibility is a “unity government” with Zionist Union, but this might require Bibi to step down as Prime Minister in “rotation” with Zionist Union’s leaders, something he presumably would go to great lengths to avoid.

In 2013, Likud ran on a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is our Home”), led by the Russian-born leader Avigdor Lieberman, who currently serves as Foreign Minister.  Yisrael Beitenu is largely comprised of Russian speaking Israelis, who, like Likud’s core constituency, tend to be secular, economically conservative, and security-oriented.  Although Lieberman is often depicted in the media as a hard-line right-winger – and as an anathema to the international diplomatic corp, he is on record as supporting the relinquishment of territory to the Palestinians for formation of a state. Lieberman survived a corruption trial, during which Netanyahu “saved” his Foreign Minister post for him.  

In sum, whether his party does or does not receive a few more Knesset seats than Zionist Union, the Israeli Prime Minister will likely retain his post, to the disappointment of both the left and President Obama.  The majority of Israelis continue to see him as the best candidate for that position. Even more importantly, his party appears better positioned than their main rival, Zionist Union, to align with them the additional Knesset seats they’ll need to form a governing coalition.     

Next week, in the final pre-election segment, as promised, my vote.  

Thanks for reading, or listening to, this post.

I’m Rabbi Art Levine wishing you Shabbat shalom.  

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3