Can Bibi be Toppled?

“It’s us or him.” So goes the campaign slogan of the centre-left ticket comprised of the Labour leader Isaac Herzog and former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni ahead of Israel’s election on March 17th. It’s a sign of how tawdry political races can be in Israel—a state with one of the purest forms of proportional representation in the world. The political landscape in Israel is traditionally highly volatile with up to thirty parties in contention for seats in any given election and cut and thrust calculations producing a mishmash of coalitions.

Yet the upcoming election is set to be particularly capricious. Recent polls show the incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ‘Bibi’, and his right wing Likud Party running neck and neck with the left-leaning opposition at 23-24 seats each.[1]

Yet this is largely due to the fact that Israelis are by and large struggling to choose between the lesser of two evils. The wily and astucious prime minister is deeply unpopular. A recent opinion poll shows two out of three of voters want to see the back of him.[2] This comes amid recent corruption scandals and the worst relations with a US president in recent history.  Netanyahu’s excursion to congress at the invitation of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, on 3 March will be the latest snub to the US President as he moves ever closer to a rapprochement with Israel’s Iranian nemesis.


Image courtesy of Downing Street, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Downing Street, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Yet, despite his unpopularity, Netanyahu is still clutching to the trump card in Israeli politics—he is still seen as the strongman on security issues.  As Nahemi Shtrasler of the Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz, explains, ‘The prime minister keeps saying he’s the only one who can protect our security, protect our children and stand up to those who rise up to destroy us.’[3] The extent to which he is clutching to this existential conceit has approached desperation. A particularly bombastic campaign advert has a car full of ISIS militants asking for directions to Jerusalem and being told to turn left.  Beyond the tragicomic, he has also cynically played off recent terrorist attacks in France and Denmark to declare that he is the voice for world Jewry and called on his coreligionists to abandon ‘the soil of Europe’ and return to their spiritual homeland.[4]

Part of the reason why Netanyahu may well clinch victory is that his lackluster opposition has largely bought into this narrative of scare mongering.  The opposition joint list, known as the ‘Zionist Camp’, led by Herzog and Livni, have largely sought to stay clear of security issues and have virtually abandoned talk of peace.

They have preferred to campaign on socio-economic issues and the yawning income gaps that beset Israeli society.  This is part of an effort to woo the solid 25 to 35 per cent of the electorate that comprises the centrist floating vote.[5] Yet this tactic is attenuated by two main problems. Firstly, while a socioeconomic platform propelled the upstart party of Yesh Atid to 19 seats in the 2013 election, this time around the economy is far less of a hot button issue. The economy experienced growth of 7.2 per cent in the last quarter of 2014 following a dip during the summer conflict in Gaza. Adding to this, inflation is on a downward trend with consumer prices falling by 0.5 per cent over the last twelve months.[6]

Coupled with this is the eternal rule in Israeli politics that butter never takes precedence over guns. While the centrist rump may be exasperated by Netanyahu’s erosion of Israel’s American backing, they also possess largely cynical views about the prospects for peace with the Palestinians. As such, they are likely to plump for Netanyahu’s belligerence over a more conciliatory left-wing coalition.

The softening of the economic argument has reduced the opposition leaders to attacking the prime minister on corruption charges leveled against him.  The Zionist Camp has seized upon a salacious report by the State Comptroller detailing lavish expenses claimed by the prime minister’s official residence. Yet while the scale of the corruption is astounding, it is hardly likely to be an election decider.  As with the issue of the economy, voters will by and large prefer to leave power in safe, albeit dodgy hands.

Much of the reason why the left has failed to penetrate Netanyahu’s security dominance is due to the rise of personality politics. Recent studies have exposed the extent to which this election has been defined by figureheads rather than policies.  Up to a third of all political reporting over the course of the election has been solely focused around the person of Netanyahu. In contrast, the leader of the opposition, Herzog, gained a paltry 10 per cent of media attention.[7]

This divergence is to a certain degree due to the weakness of the image of the opposition leader, Isaac Herzog.  For years he has resided in the political background as the ultimate mandarin but never as a figure of prominence. He sat in the government’s of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu but never piped up to declare opposition on any significant policy. The journalist, Raviv Drucker, chrysalises the impact of this image deficiency by questioning whether Herzog would ever have the gumption to be a leader on such contentious issues as ‘evacuate settlers, sign a permanent agreement with the Palestinians or establish a constitution.’[8]

Nonetheless, in spite of his own personal weaknesses, Herzog may well be propelled to the leadership position by exogenous factors.  Netanyahu’s tactic of portraying himself as the sole guarantor of security leaves him open to criticism from even more hawkish figures. Following the collapse of the alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the party of his foreign minister, Avigdor Leiberman, Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu has gained vulnerability on the right. Lieberman has attacked his prime minister’s record on defeating Hamas and questioned his ability to challenge Iran. As he picks off Netanyahu’s votes, he increases the chances that Herzog will be better placed to form a coalition.

Perhaps more significantly, for the first time the usually fractious Arab parties have banded together to form the Joint List.  Polls have projected that this move may catalyze the traditionally anemic Arab vote and leave them with up to 14 seats in the Israeli parliament.[9]  However whether such a grouping would make up a left-wing coalition is a matter of pure speculation as the Zionist Front refuse to say whether they would consider aligning with them for fear of losing votes in the center ground.

Needless to say, the unstable nature of Israel makes predicting the winner a fool’s game. As the official results cannot be announced until the votes of the navy at sea are counted, a common saying in Israel is ‘it ain’t over till the sailors’ votes are in.” In the final weeks before polling day, that saying has never been more apt.