National Security & Defense

Netanyahu’s Precarious Position

Voting in Jerusalem, March 17, 2015 (Lior Mizrahi/Getty)
If he loses the election today, it will be because he neglected Israelis’ economic worries.

Today’s Israeli elections are the culmination of one of the most dramatic, emotional, intensive, and fascinating campaigns that has ever taken place in the country. They will determine who will head its government and what direction the Jewish state will take on key strategic issues such as relations with the United States, negotiations with the Palestinians, and the struggle to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb. These key issues are some of the most serious and momentous Israel has ever faced. Therefore, today’s elections are drawing unprecedented attention in both Israel and Washington.

The latest polls taken on Friday (Israeli law prohibits polls from being taken in the last few days before an election out of fear that they will influence people’s votes) put Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party with a predicted 21 seats as second to Yitzhak Herzog (Labor party) and Tzipi Livni’s (HaTnu’a) newly unified Zionist Camp party, which is expected to receive 25 seats. But since these polls were taken, the Likud party organized a mass rally of supporters in Tel Aviv, which could bring back some traditional Likud voters who were considering abandoning the party. In response to this move, Tzipi Livni, who managed to negotiate a rotation agreement with Herzog which, if the Zionist Camp party wins, would make her prime minister for two years after Herzog served in the same post for two years, announced yesterday that she is willing to give up on their rotation. The unpopular Livni is such a political liability on her party that this last-minute announcement is actually expected to increase the number of voters to her camp.

If the polls are correct, then Israel is expected to experience on Tuesday what Israelis call a Mahapach (revolutionary political change). Netanyahu’s possible loss and the rise of Herzog to the position of prime minister will fundamentally change Israeli politics. After serving as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu continuously served in the position again from 2009 until the present. During those long years, the Israeli Left shrank politically and its positions lost popularity after repeated hostilities and missiles from the West Bank and Gaza. The events of the Arab spring, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the rise of Muslim radicalism in the region were further viewed by many Israelis as affirming Mr. Netanyahu’s hardline positions.

Most of his supporters viewed Netanyahu as “Mr. Security,” the responsible and experienced adult who would protect Israel and navigate it safely through the stormy waters of an increasingly dangerous Middle East and international politics. Because questions of security normally tromp every other issue in the Israeli political agenda, these qualifications were sufficient to keep Mr. Netanyahu in power all these years.

But Netanyahu’s image as the hard-liner guardian of Israel’s security had started to crumble during the war in Gaza last summer. His decision to end the war before achieving a decisive Israeli victory caused many to question his strategic judgment. The fact that high-ranking military officials have been warning the public in recent months that the Palestinians have dug dozens of new tunnels from Gaza into Israel and that missile attacks would probably be renewed after April all added to the frustration with the shortcomings of the last Gaza campaign. Israelis have been asking themselves why so many soldiers were killed and wounded if their sacrifice did not deliver the nation more than a few short months of quiet.

But that was not all. Netanyahu made stopping Iran’s nuclear program the single most important issue of his last term in office. On more than one occasion, he had broadly mobilized Israeli public opinion, explaining to citizens the need to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state at all costs, even hinting at the possibility of an Israeli military attack on Iranian facilities if needed. His comments stirred a broad Israeli public debate on the issue of how best to defend against Iran’s nuclear designs. But despite the fact that Israel paid a high price in terms of its relations with the U.S. and other friendly governments for this hardline stance, Mr. Netanyahu’s threats were not followed by action. This caused his supporters to view him as an indecisive and weak politician who is all talk. At the same time, his opponents believed that he was irresponsible and detrimental to Israel’s most important strategic asset — its relationship with the United States. Netanyahu lost supporters because, while he so effectively drew his people’s attention to the Iranian danger, he was unable to devise a way to permanently stop the Ayatollahs from getting the bomb.

Security questions alone, however, do not explain why Netanyahu has lost so much support. In most polls conducted in that last few weeks, a decisive majority of Israelis continue to view him as the single most suitable candidate to serve as prime minister. Herzog, followed by all other candidates, only comes in a very distant second place. Yet the same polls show that this majority will not vote for Netanyahu or for his Likud party. The is because the 2015 elections will be determined by a new set of issues. Social and economic questions have replaced security as the most important item determining people’s votes. Netanyahu’s failure to relate and embrace this new reality could potentially cost him the election.

Social issues rose to the forefront of Israel’s political agenda during the summer of 2011. It started with a spontaneous, wide-spread movement of social protest that swept across Israel after a small group of students in Tel Aviv, who could not afford its high rents and housing prices, decided to move into tents, which they placed in the center of the city. Their protest swept up scores of young Israelis. Thousands participated in demonstrations and moved into tents in city centers to protest increasing costs of living childcare, basic foods, and even the price of diapers. Although eventually the protests died down, the anger and frustration that so many Israelis felt toward the government’s insensitive economic policies persisted. Prime Minister Netanyahu took various steps aimed at pacifying the public, including passing a law that gives every Israeli child free day care starting at the age of three. But these did little to soothe the public’s demands. The resentment toward Netanyahu that was born out of his failure to seriously address these socioeconomic issues is becoming the most important factor determining the election results.

Although most Israelis credit Netanyahu for having saved Israel’s economy from the general global financial crisis that swept across the globe in recent years, they blame him for their own deteriorating economic situation. Israel’s booming economy and its success as the “start-up nation” have not translated into an improved financial situation for most of its people. Many Israelis feel that the free-market conservative economics advocated by Netanyahu have been insensitive to the weaker segments of society. They blame such policies for creating a widening social gap between the rich and everyone else, which is now one of the largest in the world. Israel’s economy is dominated by very few (less than 20) families, known as the “tycoons,” who control over 80 percent of its public equity (that is, 80 percent of everything traded on Israel’s stock exchange). The upper class in Israel remains very wealthy and very small, but the majority of the people in the middle to lower middle class are losing ground, meaning there is practically no avenue for upper mobility. The gaps are simply too large. Most young, middle-class Israeli couples cannot keep up with the increasing cost of housing and are unable to purchase homes. Many of them are now sliding into a lower-middle-class status.

Realizing that this issue could cost him the elections, Netanyahu gave a series of interviews last weekend in which he apologized and admitted that he wasn’t sensitive enough to the difficulties of the lower classes. He promised to improve his performance if given another term in office, but for many voters, this was too little and too late. Many Israelis, including former supporters of Netanyahu and his Likud party, were offended by what they viewed as the prime minister’s hedonistic lifestyle at the expense of his people, especially at a time when so many Israelis are facing financial difficulties.

Over the last few months, the left-leaning Israeli press, which is rather hostile to Netanyahu, reported in great detail on the outrageous expenses of the Netanyahu family at the prime minister’s residence. The amounts of money that the family spent on Netanyahu’s favorite brand of pistachio ice cream or eating out were discussed in great detail in the written press and media, and generally determined to be too high. The criticism was so severe that it led the prime minister’s often-criticized wife, Sarah Netanyahu, to initiate the production of a short film on the prime minister’s residence in which she shows in great detail how the family does not reside in the lap of luxury. According to the film, the house has fallen into severe disrepair, the rugs have holes, the kitchen appliances are old, and there is no room in the budget even for flower arrangements in honor of foreign dignitaries. But her efforts did not pay off. A former employee of the prime minister’s residence revealed to the press that Mrs. Netanyahu pocketed the money collected from recycling empty bottles of water and drinks served to guests at the residence rather than return it to the state’s treasury, which paid for the drinks. The “bottle scandal,” as it has become known, will be discussed and determined in court, but these kinds of continuous charges in the press against the Netanyahu family have created the perception that the prime minister and his wife are living like royalty while the rest of the nation is impoverished. Although it is hard to judge the exact extent to which these charges will influence the election results, it is clear that large segments of the Israeli public feel affronted and slighted by the Netanyahu and his family. Even if the charges are completely empty, they contribute to the growing public feeling that he should be removed from office.

But even if Netanyahu loses the elections, the nature of Israeli coalition politics is such that he may still be the only person able to form a coalition of at least 61 seats, which would keep him in his position as prime minister. At this point, such a scenario is not out of the question. Even if the Zionist Camp party receives 25 seats, it might have difficulties finding a sufficient number of partners to form a stable coalition. This will particularly be true if, as a result of a new law which increases the hurdle to five mandates, the left-leaning Meretz party, which is the Zionist Camp’s most natural ally, will fail to enter the Knesset. On the other hand, if Netanyahu’s allies on the right receive less than 55 Knesset seats together, he will have an equally difficult time forming a coalition. Much will depend on whether Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party will be able to pass the hurdle. If neither of the large parties is able to form a stable coalition, Israel could be ruled by a unity government, which will join together the two largest parties with several smaller ones to create a broad coalition. Such a scenario might be optimal to face some of the challenges ahead, since key decisions will be taken by a leadership uniting both Left and Right.

—Meyrav Wurmser is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. 

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