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Israel Elections 2015: The Fantastic Five versus Doctor Doom

Ron Skolnik
December 23, 2014

The “Anyone But Bibi” Campaign Begins

by Ron Skolnik

NetanyahuWE’VE SEEN IT IN HOLLYWOOD ACTION MOVIES dozens of times: A hero or heroine, after a herculean struggle against the evil wrongdoer atop a towering building or soaring mountain, is thrown over the side and goes hurtling downward to certain demise. At the last possible moment, through one dramatic device or another, the good guy is rescued, villainy defeated, and all is once more right with the world. (Fade to black and roll credits.)

Welcome, then, to the latest election campaign in Israel, which a bruised and battered center-left has been quick to frame as a last-ditch opportunity to save the country from certain ruin by the forces of rightwing darkness. While to some that might sound like the boy who cried ‘Wolf’ once too often, the case they make is not entirely without merit.

First, a brief recap. After a stormy, dysfunctional twenty-two months, marked by incompatible agendas and egos, Israel’s ruling coalition came tumbling down on December 2nd, when Prime Minister Binyamin (‘Bibi’) Netanyahu fired two senior ministers who lead parties that made up his government’s moderate wing. In a rancorous, nationally televised address, Netanyahu announced that Finance Minister Ya’ir Lapid, head of Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the leader of HaTnuah (“The Movement”), were being dismissed due to their acts of “subversion.” These included criticizing the prime minister’s decision to cut off talks with the Palestinians and expand settlements, questioning his hardline approach on Iran, objecting to his controversial “Jewish Nation” legislation, and generally “attacking Israel [and] joining in with the international assault on [our country].”

With the full support of Netanyahu’s Likud party, the Knesset has already approved an initial reading of a bill that sets new elections for March 17th. Barring a possible but improbable deal to form an alternative coalition government, the legislature will vote the bill into law within a week and Israel will go to the polls more than two years ahead of schedule.

THE CENTER-LEFT’S OPENING CAMPAIGN RHETORIC HAS BEEN DRAMATIC AND FIERCE, even by Israeli standards. First out of the gate was Livni, the deposed justice minister, an ex-Likud political centrist and strong supporter of a two-state peace agreement, who was Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians during the nine months of talks that got underway in summer 2013. Livni, whose opposition to a bill entrenching the country’s Jewish character at the expense of its commitment to democracy helped trigger the latest crisis, warned that Netanyahu represented a path of “extremism, provocation, and paranoia” that was “taking control of the State of Israel and destroying it.” Echoing and reifying this sentiment, the liberal Haaretz newspaper published a scathing day-after anti-endorsement, imploring Israelis to “Vote against Netanyahu” since, “If he wins again at the ballot box, Israel’s future is in danger”.

Some of the warnings in Haaretz are downright apocalyptic. Israeli-American columnist Bradley Burston, who authors the popular “A Special Place In Hell” blog, ominously called on Israelis to fully utilize their suffrage rights this March, fearing that, “It may be the last time you, I or anyone gets the chance to vote in a democratic election in Israel.” Journalist Chemi Shalev extrapolated from recent events to take readers on a nightmarish journey to a not-too-distant future, where a sixth-term Netanyahu government is disenfranchising Israel’s Arab citizens, making them wear distinctive green crescents on their sleeves, and locking away members of the fourth estate for disloyalty and sedition.

When it comes to Israel, of course, doomsday prophecies are ubiquitous and ever-present. When Menachem Begin’s Likud pulled off the “great turnabout” in 1977, upsetting the perennially dominant Labor, alarm bells sounded across Israel and in world capitals, as a party that advocated the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza swept into power. The 2001 election of Ariel Sharon brought similar shivers. As defense minister, Sharon had cooked up the first Lebanon War in 1982, and was found to bear “personal responsibility” for the ensuing Sabra and Shatila massacre in that nation’s capital. Years later, as head of the opposition, his imperious Temple Mount visit in September 2000 lit the match that ignited the Second Intifada. ‘Heaven help us’ was the sentiment felt by many as Israeli-Palestinian violence spiraled and Sharon’s cabinet was installed. But Israel did survive.

This is not to suggest, of course, that either Begin or Sharon was the incarnation of liberal Israel’s dreams. Begin put settlement construction, to that point executed in drips and drabs under Labor, into hazardous turbo-charge mode, and he stonewalled efforts to make progress on the Palestinian track. Sharon spurned Yasser Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, setting back the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But Begin clinched a treaty with Egypt and withdrew from the occupied Sinai, and Sharon uprooted Israel’s Gaza settlements and acknowledged (however belatedly) that Israel’s control of the West Bank was holding “3.5 million Palestinians under occupation.” In other words, despite the early fears and their highly imperfect tenures, neither man brought down on Israel the irreversible calamity many now dread.

So are the indictments of Netanyahu and his cohort little more than the tools of electioneers and the hyperbole of the press club? Or is there something more to the dire warnings?

MUCH CAN BE LEARNED by examining the differing political trajectories taken by the three men. Begin came to power with the reputation of a pre-state terrorist and as a fervent territorial maximalist. Sharon was a former general known for his reckless wartime insubordination. Entering politics, he became the godfather of the West Bank/Gaza settlement movement, and launched an aggressive ‘war of choice’ aimed at regime change in Lebanon.

Upon reaching the prime minister’s chair, though, each man seemed to understand the gravity of his position, and mellowed — to a degree. Sharon would explain his evolving outlook by quoting the lyrics of an Israeli hit song: “what you see from here is not what you see from there.” And although neither Sharon nor Begin will go down in history as a ‘peacenik,’ both men did take risks, occasionally antagonizing their political base and defying the radicals. Unable to command a majority within his own Herut faction for the 1978 Camp David peace framework with Egypt, Begin nonetheless pushed through the treaty, despite the defection of former allies who formed the breakaway Tehiya party. Sharon, facing surging extremism in Likud in the wake of his 2005 ‘unilateral disengagement’ from Gaza, resigned from his own party and formed the centrist Kadima.

Netanyahu’s career has run in reverse. Making a name for himself as a diplomat at the UN and an expert in foreign affairs, he has, as prime minister, alienated world leaders and plunged Israel’s international standing to new lows. And whereas, as a first-term prime minister in 1996, he accepted — albeit grudgingly — the Oslo Accords he inherited, his encore performance in 2009 was something else entirely: He summarily refused to follow up on Ehud Olmert’s peace initiative, and immediately rescinded Israel’s agreement to the Annapolis Understandings on which his predecessor’s negotiations were based.

While Begin and Sharon ultimately faced down the forces of the far right, Netanyahu has appeased them at the expense of erstwhile moderate allies. With Netanyahu at its helm, the Likud has seen the likes of theocrat Moshe Feiglin and assorted xenophobes and hardliners gain prominence over the last decade, while figures such as Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan and, most recently, former Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon have quit or been shown the door.

And while Prime Minister Netanyahu has swallowed the insults hurled at him — during wartime, no less — by militant coalition partner Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-annexation Jewish Home party, and turned a blind eye to the dangerous provocations of right-wing MKs, he found Lapid’s and Livni’s public disagreements with him grounds for discharge. Netanyahu has now doubled down on his alliance with Bennett, their two parties moving swiftly to sign a surplus-vote-sharing agreement.

Even in those areas where Netanyahu used to score points for pragmatism and sobriety, his recent record shows a marked regression. Once known as a leader who talked tough, but whose penchant for caution made him resist military adventures, he led Israel into summer 2014’s ultimately indecisive “Operation Protective Edge.” The operation morphed into a devastating seven-week Gaza war that was brought on, some claim, by his own blunders and lies. In the midst of the war, moreover, he walked back his ostensible commitment to a two-state solution, emptying his much ballyhooed Bar Ilan Speech of any meaning. And he made it a priority in recent weeks to throw his full weight behind an alarming “Jewish Nation” bill that deprioritizes democracy and equality, and that has been roundly criticized by pro-Israel organizations across the American Jewish mainstream.

WHILE NETANYAHU HUNKERS DOWN and plays to his rightwing base, the rest of the world seems to have given up on him and moved on. Palestinian President Abbas is seeking a UN resolution that mandates a two-year timetable for the end of occupation. The nations of the EU are weighing punitive actions, and heading inexorably toward unilateral recognition of a State of Palestine. And even the stalwart U.S. ally might soon go beyond its anemic expressions of disapproval of Israeli policies and take concrete measures, an approach now supported by two-fifths of Americans.

In East Jerusalem and across the West Bank, Palestinian anger is seething. Around the world, boycott and divestment measures slowly gain traction, drawing in anti-occupation activists who have despaired of Israel’s willingness to voluntarily reach a just and fair solution. And even bastions of support in the American Jewish community are finding it hard to follow Bibi Netanyahu into his ‘Israel Against the World’ crusade. With the length of occupation drawing ever closer to a symbolically potent half-century, dark storm clouds are gathering.

Which brings us back to the upcoming election, where the full gamut of center-left parties are now mulling a joint campaign strategy that focuses on the stated goal of electing ‘Anyone But Bibi.’ In addition to Livni and Lapid, Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog is there, as well as Kadima party head Sha’ul Mofaz and Meretz chair Zehava Galon. Together they are seeking to create what might reasonably be described as a ‘front for national salvation’ — an Israeli ‘Fantastic Five,’ if you will, to Netanyahu’s ‘Dr. Doom.’ Using poll data and inputs from strategists, the five are trying to figure out what particular approach — shared messaging, electoral alliance, full unification — has the most practical chance of denying Netanyahu a fourth term.

Israelis might be ready for a change. A Jerusalem Post poll taken on December 3rd asked respondents whether they want Netanyahu to be reelected. Sixty percent said no; only 34 percent said yes. And Netanyahu and rival Herzog were locked in a statistical dead heat.

BUT THE CRIES OF JUBILATION on social media that followed this and other early polls are starkly premature. Israelis vote for party slates, not individual candidates, and there are a great many ‘Bibi-haters’ on the right and among the ultra-Orthodox. Distaste for Netanyahu might prompt some to abandon Likud, but this does not automatically translate into votes for the center-left; smaller right-of-center parties — Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (“Israel Our Home”) and the still-unnamed new party of the ex-Likudnik Moshe Kahlon — whose leaders are similarly unenamored with Israel’s Prime Minister, will also be beneficiaries. Those two might ultimately tip the scales as to who gets to form the next government. There is even a chance, however small, that Netanyahu could be challenged, and defeated, for Likud party leadership by one-time protégé and former Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

The results of the election are therefore far from certain. Netanyahu might have lost his luster, but few will deny he is still a consummate politician. And in Israel, three and a half months is an eternity. What does seem rather clear, however, is that the campaign getting underway will be a no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle affair. The center-left is desperate, but it also senses that the opponent is vulnerable and that it has at least a puncher’s chance to defeat him and save the day.

The stakes are sky-high. Although stately former President Shimon Peres might not have sunk to name-calling, his recent warning to Israeli voters was clear: There will be no peace or security with Netanyahu. And former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Carmi Gillon, was passionate in summing up his sense that this election could be for all the marbles. Speaking at a rally organized by Peace Now to protest the Jewish state bill and other government policies, Gillon left no room for soft-pedaling or misunderstanding: “The State of Israel,” he declared, “is being led today by a gang of pyromaniacs, headed by an egomaniac, towards its final destruction.”

Ron Skolnik is an American-Israeli political analyst, columnist and translator. For many years he directed Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), prior to which he served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.