On Tuesday Israel’s people will elect the 34th government of their country’s short 67 year history.

PM Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s bid for reelection once looked rock solid, his Likud party guaranteed to come out ahead of the pack.

Now, his political future is hanging on a thread.

His main rival, the Zionist Union—a new party with a pretentious-sounding name (as if only Isaac (Buji) Herzog and Tzipi Livni are the true Zionist heirs)—now has a considerable four seat edge in final media polls released on Friday.

A four day legally required moratorium on polling has kicked in, so that’ll be the best guess until the election returns start coming in on Tuesday night.

Netanyahu is feeling the heat. Last Thursday he acknowledged that there’s a “real danger” he’ll be ousted if the Likud can’t close the gap. He’s already indicated that he’ll resign as party leader and withdraw from political life if the Likud ends up with less than 18 seats.

This would be a tragic career finish for someone who in the last few months has done so much to advance the cause of Israel and the Jewish people, the Middle East region, and the free world.

Benjamin Netanyahu UN General Assembly 9-29-2014 w poster

Netanyahu is blaming his party’s downward spiral on a relentless “anyone but Bibi” media campaign, one that he views as a “worldwide effort” to topple him. His opponents have called these accusations baseless. But he has a valid point.

The well-oiled system operating to replace Netanyahu is both unprecedented in Israeli politics, and controversial. It involves a new organization known as V15, a group with links to the U.S. State Department; a former Obama campaign strategist; and a significant infusion of foreign funds. It’s no wonder that in a recent poll, 61% of Israelis thought that the Obama administration was interfering in Israel’s elections.

Many Israelis also think that the White House is behind last week’s leak of a 2013 Israeli-Palestinian negotiation document, which demonstrates the far-reaching concessions that Netanyahu was then prepared to make. There’s no independent corroboration for it, but the timing of its publication—just after Netanyahu returned from his trip to DC—reeks of ‘payback’.

Outside interference or not, if the Likud is trounced on Tuesday, it’ll mostly be for the same reason that incumbents are defeated the world over—a mismanaged campaign in the final days of a hot contest.

Netanyahu’s campaign has lost its touch.

Once deftly handling the onslaught of petty anti-Netanyahu character assassinations, it fielded a clever and creative set of You Tube videos that played to Netanyahu’s strengths.

But now his campaign strategists are seriously goofing up, like airing a video that, in a botched attempt to highlight the prime minister’s efforts to target corruption, winds up comparing Israeli unionized workers to Hamas terrorists.

Even worse has been the bungled effort at damage control following the leaked negotiation report. Netanyahu should’ve embraced the document as yet another example of the Palestinian Authority’s intransigence, another instance of the Palestinians “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

Instead, he distanced himself from it—making himself look like a liar and a cheat.

It was the wrong move.

By supporting the document, Netanyahu was bound to lose some right-wing Likud supporters to ‘purer’ right-wing parties (like Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home). But because they’re the Likud’s natural coalition partners, this wouldn’t have mattered much. Losing Likud’s centrist voters comes at a higher cost. Now defecting in droves, they’ve given Yair Lapid’s campaign a welcome shot in the arm. Of course, since Lapid is much more likely to join a Herzog/Livni government, this is exactly what his opponents wanted to happen, which is why the document was leaked in the first place.

But Netanyahu’s opponents shouldn’t uncork the champagne just yet. Even if the Zionist Union ekes out a few more seats, it’s still the Likud that’ll probably have the better chance to cobble together a coherent coalition.

By some miracle, Herzog might just manage to unify a disparate group of political parties that despise each other just as much (and maybe more) than they hate Netanyahu.


[Isaac Herzog]

If he succeeds, the thinking in some political circles is that this new government will mend the ruptured relationship between Israel and the Obama administration. There is something to be said for this. Herzog is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken kind of guy and the chemistry between him and Obama is certainly likely to be better. They may even hit it off.

Still, it’s wishful thinking. It’s going to be a rocky 22 months even if Herzog wins.

A Herzog-led government (which is certainly likely to include the tough-minded Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, who’s already been tapped as its new defense minister) won’t be any more open to Obama’s bizarre vision for the region.

Just like Netanyahu, Herzog considers Iran an existential threat that must be faced down. And with regard to the Palestinians, Herzog and Yadlin are more or less on the same page as Netanyahu—and light years away from Obama’s position on the core issues.

Less than two weeks ago, Netanyahu delivered what may be his last AIPAC speech as a sitting prime minister. The speech was magnificent, as persuasive and powerful as the one he gave to the joint session of Congress the following day. He closed with the following lines:

“Israel and the United States will continue to stand together because America and Israel are more than friends. We’re like family. We’re practically mishpocha [the Yiddish and Hebrew word for family]”.

In an excellent analysis of how Obama’s Middle East policy is hobbled by this deep American commitment to Israel, Walter Russell Mead echoes Netanyahu’s parting words:

“The United States of America really does see Israel as a cherished friend and ally…For many…what the Jews have built in Israel, despite all the problems and flaws, is a precious jewel, a beacon of liberty, and a sign of hope in the dark”.

In the end, as Mead suggests, it’s irrelevant whether Bibi or Buji becomes Israel’s next prime minister. What matters is whether President Obama will stop trying to “airbrush Israel out of [America’s] family pictures” and begin to build a Middle East policy based on the fact that “Israel is here and that America likes it”.


Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University and co-editor of Democracy and Conflict Resolution: the Dilemmas of Israel’s Peacemaking, published in 2014 by Syracuse University Press.


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