Judgment Day

03.15.15 4:40 PM ET

Bibi Faces Political Oblivion As Israel’s Election is Too Close To Call

Netanyahu is flailing, hurling accusations and increasingly seen as out of touch with the concerns of the average Israeli. Tuesday’s a must-win election for him.

With the final polls before Tuesday’s pivotal Israeli election showing him narrowly behind, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to choose a message to close on. Some candidates close on trust; others on change. Netanyahu is closing on chutzpah.

On his Facebook page (the main source of communications in Israeli elections), Netanyahu wrote on Friday: “Left-wing and media elements in Israel and abroad have conspired to bring [Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni] to power illegitimately, by means of slander at home and unprecedented money from abroad.”

When the anchor of Israel’s Channel 2 later stated the obvious and reminded Netanyahu that foreign money and media have also helped him over the years, Netanyahu replied: “That is not true.”

Not true? This from a man who routinely hires American political consultants who specialize in attack politics and who, in recent years, allowed himself to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the founder of a free newspaper—now Israel’s largest—devoted to relentlessly promoting Netanyahu and, well, slandering his opponents.

Israeli campaigns are traditionally waged and decided on security issues, which should work to Netanyahu’s advantage on Election Day. But as I learned after two weeks reporting in Israel, the March 17 election might be the exception that proves the rule.

Tuesday’s snap election was initiated by Netanyahu, who thought going to the voters would consolidate his power, not reduce it or risk total defeat. If he is forced into retirement, that decision will be seen as one of the greatest political blunders in Israel’s 67-year history.

While Bibi’s speech to the U.S. Congress on the Iranian threat made him a rock star for American conservatives, it gave him no bounce at home, where many voters are unmoved by his Churchillian rhetoric (which they’ve heard for years) and worried that he is antagonizing Israel’s most important ally. In fact, Netanyahu slipped in the polls after he returned from Washington, though there is likely no cause and effect.

A bigger problem for Bibi is that despite its extraordinary scientific and technological prowess, Israel is experiencing gnawing economic problems, with 40 percent of Israelis reporting that they had to borrow money last year, mostly to pay for surging housing costs. Daily street conversations about the election focus much more on domestic issues than foreign policy, in part because peace with the Palestinians seems so remote.

But even as Bibi Fatigue spreads across the country, the prime minister might yet be saved by Israel’s Byzantine parliamentary system. Because of the rightward tilt of national politics, he could win fewer Knesset seats for his Likud Party than “Bougie” Herzog’s Zionist Union (essentially the old Labor Party) and still have enough allies among smaller parties to be asked by Israel’s president to form a government.

That’s what happened when Livni “beat” Netanyahu in 2009 but didn’t become PM because he cobbled together the necessary 61 Knesset seats before she did, mostly thanks to support from small religious parties that later broke with him.

This time, Livni, whose negotiations with the Palestinians over the occupied territories failed last year (thanks in part to Netanyahu’s pandering to settlers), cut a deal with Herzog that allows her to rotate into the prime ministership in late 2017 if Zionist Union wins.

This will help Zionist Union but probably not enough for a clear victory. Neither of the leading parties is expected to win more than 25 seats or so. That means the real game is a Rubik’s Cube of various constituencies, ranging from parties on the right that want to expel Arabs from Israel, to parties on the left made up of Israeli Arabs themselves, who are expected to win about 13 seats in the Knesset but have no agreement on what—if anything—they could possibly do with their clout.

Sitting in between are parties like Kulanu, whose leader—Moshe Kahlon—helped bring cell phone bills down more than 70 percent when he used his ministerial position to encourage competition, a real crowd-pleaser with voters. With eight to 10 seats, he’ll likely see which coalition makes him the best offer, then play kingmaker in exchange for becoming finance minister, a position Netanyahu offered him Saturday. (Kahlon’s foreign policy adviser, Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the U.S., might also play a key role). Another wild card comes in the form of Yair Lapid, a moderate former finance minister and TV news anchor whose Yesh Atid party might join Herzog's coalition only if it makes concessions on limiting the power of religious parties—the same parties Herzog probably needs. Such are the de rigueur deals of Israeli politics.

Few analysts expect the election to be definitively decided on Tuesday, which will set off a furious round of politicking and coalition-building that could last for weeks and even bring another election within the next couple of years. The result could be a coalition government where Netanyahu and Herzog end up alternating as PM, though it’s hard to know how Livni would fit into that deal.

As in American elections, the key factor Tuesday is turnout. With Israeli polling notoriously unreliable, both major parties now have an incentive to say that Herzog is the favorite. Herzog needs to ride the momentum that’s clearly building for him, while Netanyahu must energize his base, which has been lethargic of late. His strategy for doing so is to frighten right-wing voters into believing that a milquetoast left-wing appeaser is about to sell out Jerusalem and destroy Israel’s security.

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This is a gross distortion of the stakes. Herzog merely proposes to “reignite” talks with Palestinians on the West Bank and freeze settlements outside the blocks of existing big settlements, a position with wider support in Israel than most Americans realize. He wants to strengthen bipartisan relations with the U.S. and see if the Iranian nuclear deal has “iron clad” inspection provisions before deciding whether to support it.

After joining other foreign journalists questioning Herzog at a Jerusalem hotel, the only other difference from Netanyahu that I could discern on Iran is that Bibi calls the regime an “existential” threat and Bougie settles for “very dangerous.”

Herzog is trying to reach what his consultants call “soft Likud voters”—those who voted for former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert before switching to Netanyahu in the last two elections.

Will that work? The Israeli armchair punditry I’ve heard most is: “You can’t beat something with nothing.” This reflects a worry on the part of even those who loathe Netanyahu that Herzog doesn’t look and sound like a prime minister.

He’s a bright and earnest 54-year-old center-left backbencher with a talent for coalition-building. Unfortunately, many ordinary Israelis think—as one security guard told me—that Herzog “talks like a girl,” a reference to a squeakiness that can be an occasional side effect of his allergies. Bougie’s handlers gave him a voice coach, got him out of his NGO outfits (just this side of knit ties and Hush Puppies) and cut an ad in February with him confronting the voice issue head-on.

“The Zionist Union is now the largest party in Israel according to the polls yet the reason some of you are undecided about whether to vote for me is my voice,” Herzog says directly to camera. The ad worked, mostly because he managed to look plausibly prime ministerial.

More broadly, Bougie’s mild-mannered, conciliatory, non-charismatic image seems better aligned with the public mood than Bibi’s apocalyptic rhetoric and tiresome family dramas. His wife, Sara Netanyahu, has been exposed in recent weeks as an epic schnorrer, sponging off the public by, for instance, pocketing the refund money from returned empty bottles and cans at the prime minister’s residence. Her dopey public comments about the importance of a nice official residence left her looking like a cross between Sarah Palin and an embarrassing Jackie Kennedy wannabe.

Herzog, by contrast, is a princeling, connected to a diminishing breed of what columnist Ari Shavit calls Israeli WASPs—White Ashkenazi Supporters of Peace. He told us with pride that his grandfather was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel; his father, Chaim Herzog, was president of Israel in the 1980s; his mother was an important environmentalist; his uncle was Abba Eban, a legendary foreign minister, orator, and intellectual; and his cousin is the American author and physician Oliver Sacks.

This venerable Israeli establishment—including those who fought in the 1948 War of Independence—is largely gone now, and Herzog’s efforts to reconstitute old-style Zionism aren’t likely to be successful even if he wins.

But Israelis are increasing fed up with the fear mongering of the last six years. “Every time the economy comes up, Bibi says, ‘Be thankful for being alive and stop complaining,’” says Stav Shaffir, an intrepid female member of the Knesset who at 28 would be the youngest Cabinet officer if Zionist Union wins. Shaffir, who has documented how right-wing members of the Knesset are secretly funneling money to settlers, told me that the growing socio-economic gaps are “especially risky for Israel—a small country that for security needs social cohesion.”

Fear of Iran is a surprisingly small theme in the election. After decades of immediate and terrifying existential threats—major armies massed on the border, determined to drive the Jews into the sea—Israel now has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and a common interest with Saudi Arabia in containing Iran. Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq—once fierce enemies—aren’t even coherent states anymore. ISIS is tied down in Syria and Iraq and doesn’t seem to be an active danger in the West Bank or Gaza, at least not yet.

As Noam Sheizaf, a left-wing journalist, told me, Bibi’s position on Iran is like trying to convince voters that the Cold War is 9/11: “If people felt this nuclear deal was Munich [where Neville Chamberlain appeased Adolf Hitler], everyone would back him. But they don’t.” When Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, and other former generals and national security experts first denounced Netanyahu last year, it didn’t have much impact. But in the glare of Bibi’s speech to Congress, opposition from the vast majority of the Israeli national security establishment has undermined the prime minister’s argument that he is the only one to save the country.

Even hawks are taking flight from Likud. Yuval Diskin, former director of Shin Beit, Israel’s internal security service, is angry that Bibi released nearly 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier; that he failed to decimate Hamas when it fired rockets into Israel last year; and that he mishandled peace negotiations with the Palestinians in ways that expose Israel to international boycotts. “Netanyahu failed in every field for the past six years, and a prime minister who failed so colossally has to go home,” Diskan recently told Yedioth Ahronoth, an anti-Likud newspaper.

Herzog agrees with much of that critique but seems more comfortable discussing domestic concerns. If he wins, the turning point might well have been a late February Comptroller’s report that said housing prices surged 55 percent between 2008 and 2013. With prices up another 15 percent last year, that’s 70 percent in increases on Netanyahu’s watch. Young Israelis see a shrunken future, which is never good for incumbents.

An American-backed digital grassroots group called “V15” (for “Victory, 2015”) could help bring younger progressive voters to the polls. Backed by two American liberals, S. Daniel Abraham, founder of Slimfast, and Daniel Lubetsky, founder of KIND Health Snacks and OneVoice, V15 hired Jeremy Bird, the mastermind of Barack Obama’s state-of-the-art field organization in 2008 and 2012. With such a short campaign, Bird’s company, 270 Strategies, didn’t have enough time to show Israeli activists how to build a major grassroots movement, but they are knocking on a quarter of a million doors and otherwise applying American micro-targeting techniques to convince young voters to join their Anyone But Bibi campaign.

“Bibi wants to talk about Iran and ISIS and Hamas, but for young people it’s all about their economic future,” says V15’s Nimrod Dweck, a 33-year-old Israeli tech entrepreneur who spoke to me in a Tel Aviv campaign office buzzing with energy.

Zionist Union is betting that such thinking proves decisive. Paul Begala, who with James Carville set up the Little Rock “war room” in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, is in Tel Aviv advising the Herzog campaign. One of the Israeli political consultants that Begala is working with (who doesn’t want his name used) told me that he thinks often of the famous sign on the war room wall: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Likud has its own American consultants, including Vincent Harris (most recently an adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz), John McLaughlin (who had a half-dozen GOP clients in the 2014 cycle), and the legendary Arthur Finkelstein, who has advised Netanyahu in the past but is working this year for Avigdor Lieberman, another right-wing candidate.

As usual, there’s plenty of foreign involvement in this year’s Israeli campaign on both sides, which makes Netanyahu’s claims that his opponents are “illegitimate” sound like the desperate flailing of a prime minister who fears he may be facing political oblivion.