By Jonathan Cook – 17 March 2015
Over the final fortnight of Israel’s election campaign, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has gone from being celebrated for slaying President Barack Obama in the US Congress to looking and sounding more like one of Obama’s least-loved predecessors: Richard Nixon.
Tired, confused, desperate and paranoid are just a few of the epithets that have been hurled at Netanyahu in the last days of the campaign.
With his ratings sinking as the final polls were published at the end of last week, he raced to offer interviews to every media outlet that would host him. On Sunday night, Netanyahu held a last-minute rally in Tel Aviv organised by the settler movement to try to revive his flagging fortunes.
According to polls, his Likud party is likely to be beaten into second place on Tuesday by the Zionist Union, a centre-left coalition jointly headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
In response, Netanyahu has concentrated on what he does best: fear-mongering.
Warning that the whole of the right will fall with him, if he is defeated, he ascribed his difficulties not to personal failings but to a sinister plot by “foreign groups”.
They have supposedly been helping his opponents – not only the Zionist Union but also the Joint List, a united front of Arab parties representing Israel’s large Palestinian minority that are running together for the first time and currently polling in third place.
In a comment worthy of Nixon at his most insecure, Netanyahu warned that there was “a huge, worldwide effort to topple the Likud”. Illegitimate funding from “European states” and “leftwingers overseas” might “get the Arab [Joint] List up to 16 seats, thereby determining the overall result of the election”.
His main campaign ad featured a foolish Israeli liberal offering directions to a truckload of armed Islamic State jihadists trying to find the road to Jerusalem. “Turn left,” the Israeli man told them.
Aside from the lack of evidence for a foreign plot, either by leftist Europeans or Jew-hating jihadists, Netanyahu’s chutzpah has plumbed new depths.
Media reports have noted that he has received more funding from overseas – chiefly from Jewish tycoons in the US – than any candidate in Israel’s history. If foreigners are indeed meddling in Israeli politics, it is on Netanyahu’s behalf.
Complicated electoral maths
Nonetheless, even should he fail to rally supporters, Netanyahu’s path to the opposition is far from obvious. Many voters are undecided and their last-minute decisions will shape the result.
In Israel’s complicated electoral maths, a poor performance will also not necessarily block Netanyahu from forming the next government. That will depend on horse-trading to win the support of smaller parties.
Another possibility, if the result is inconclusive between the right and the centre, is that Netanyahu and Herzog may agree to a national unity government.
But equally, if Netanyahu’s tally of seats falls much below his currently predicted 20, he will struggle to hold on to his position as Likud party leader. Party elders are already describing the campaign as a “colossal failure”.
Netanyahu’s troubles reflect two trends that have come to the fore in this election.
The first is that the Likud’s traditional position at the heart of the nationalist camp is no longer assured. As Netanyahu has pushed rightwards, the party has splintered in ways that have weakened its standing and shrunk its support base.
The settlers have preferred a far-right party, Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, dedicated to their own discrete interests. Unlike the equivocating Netanyahu, Bennett is outspoken in demanding that Israel annex most of the West Bank to secure the settlements.
Other elements of Likud have moved towards what Israelis call the centre.
This process began with Ariel Sharon and Tzipi Livni nearly a decade ago, when they broke away to form Kadima after carrying out the so-called “disengagement” from Gaza that Netanyahu and others in Likud opposed.
Kadima itself gradually collapsed following the loss of Sharon, but its successors may prove more durable. At the most recent election, the glamorous TV news anchor Yair Lapid emerged as a surprise success story with his new Yesh Atid party.
In this election he has been joined at the centre by Likud renegade Moshe Kahlon, who set up the Kulanu party.
Lapid and Kahlon largely ignore the “regional threats” that obsess Netanyahu and instead talk about the economy. They promise to break up monopolies controlled by a handful of wealthy families and return money to ordinary Israelis’ pockets.
Separately or together, they could turn out to be this election’s kingmakers, deciding whether Netanyahu or Herzog is crowned. Both have decidedly frosty relations with Netanyahu.
Unlike his centrist rivals, Netanyahu has come to be seen over the course of the campaign as too closely aligned with the families that dominate the economy, and unwilling to confront them.
Accusations that he and his unpopular wife, Sara, indulge in a lavish lifestyle and bully staff have been swirling around for many years. But at this election the mud has finally stuck.
In Israeli politics, seemingly marginal incidents often accrete larger significance. Revelations during the campaign of the enormous sums the Netanyahus have spent on their entertainments bill and of Sara Netanyahu personally pocketing loose change – amounting to hundreds of dollars – in deposits on returned bottles appear to have cemented an image of the Netanyahus as corrupt.
Netanyahu has responded by focusing on his favourite topic: security.
That was partly why he trooped off to Congress this month to warn of the dangers of a deal with Iran, and why last week his party implied that he was revoking his 2009 pledge to Obama that he would back a two-state solution.
According to Netanyahu, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would suck in groups from Iran to the Islamic State group, creating a “terror state” next door.
But the scare-mongering may be falling flat in part because the centrist parties are not offering a much more conciliatory message on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The views of the so-called “peace camp” in Israel have been articulated on billboards across the densely populated centre of the country by a group named the Association of National Security Experts, headed by relatively dovish former army generals.
Their posters, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname Bibi, warn: “With Bibi [and] Bennett, we’ll be stuck with the Palestinians forever.”
In their view, the solution is to cut off the occupied territories like some gangrenous limb.
But compared to the centrist parties, even this message is radical. Herzog, Lapid and Kahlon have all suggested that there is no “partner” on the Palestinian side for a peace agreement.
That hopeless diagnosis appears to be shared by a majority of the Israeli public. Some 70 percent of Israeli Jews believe peace talks are futile, and 64 percent say that it makes no difference which party leads the country on the Palestinian issue “because there is no solution”.
In such circumstances, the centre has benefited by focusing on social and economic hardship.
The White House, fearful that its role as guarantor of an endless peace process is in jeopardy, broke its own promise not to intervene in the election by insisting last week that the next Israeli government must join it in renewing peace talks.
Blast of fresh air
If Jewish politics is committed to the status quo on the defining political challenge facing Israel, the Joint List has arrived for most of Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens as a blast of fresh air.
It is a united front of usually disputatious Arab parties ranging from socialists to Islamists and democratic nationalists.
Led by Ayman Odeh, a personable lawyer who is new to Knesset politics, the List has largely avoided dealing in specific policies to concentrate on reversing the growing disillusionment of the Palestinian minority in the Knesset.
The previous two elections have seen barely more than half the Arab electorate turn out. Polls predict the Joint List could nudge its tally of seats from the current 11 shared across three parties to as many as 15.
Of the three main post-election scenarios, two suggest that the Joint List – if it can hold together – might carry some political weight in the Knesset.
A right-wing Netanyahu government will mean no change, apart from a probable intensification of anti-Arab legislation.
The Joint List has rejected joining a Herzog-led government, but it would probably agree to support the centrists from outside, as a way to prevent Netanyahu’s return to power.
That would require payback from Herzog, probably in the form of increased budgets for Palestinian communities in Israel.
The third scenario is the most intriguing. If a national unity government is formed, the Joint List might accept the position of the formal opposition. That would provide it – for the first time ever – with regular meetings with the prime minister and the chair of several major committees.
But the latter two scenarios also expose the Joint List, and the wider Palestinian minority, to a backlash from the right, which can be expected to step up Netanyahu’s ugly insinuations of “foreign” interference.
Last week, to barely any protest inside Israel, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman called for disloyal Palestinian citizens to be beheaded.
This from a man who has called the Joint List a “terror organisation” and Odeh, who is committed to Jewish-Arab cooperation, a “fifth column”.
His campaign slogan has been “Umm al-Fahm to Palestine”, calling for the inhabitants of large Palestinian communities in Israel to be stripped of their citizenship.
The danger is that the right – from Lieberman to Netanyahu – may be content to have the various Arab parties in one list, exploiting that unity to paint them all as traitors, meddling in the affairs of a Jewish state.
The greater the Joint List’s success and influence, the more it is likely to face claims that it is really a fifth column in the Knesset.