Not so close any more.

Photographer: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

Netanyahu Loses His Grip

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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After his rough year with most of the western world, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now getting beaten up at home for being a crybaby. 

The accusation followed Netanyahu’s bizarre speech to the nation Tuesday night in Israel, explaining his decision to fire Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, thus severing his relationship with their parties and disbanding the coalition. As a result, the country is forced to hold new elections, which have now been set for March 17.

“They ate my snack and drank my drink,” was the kindergarten line Haaretz invoked

In his speech, Netanyahu blamed Lapid and Livni for undermining him throughout the 22 months that this government has been in office, and then, even more strangely, blamed the electorate. He essentially said if more of the electorate had voted for him, he wouldn't have had to form a government with individuals who oppose him so strongly.

But every Israeli government in history has been a coalition, and many have been rocky, so what Netanyahu was complaining about wasn’t clear to anyone. He looked even more hallucinatory when he insisted that while this government has been difficult to manage, the government that preceded it was “one of the best and most stable” in Israel’s history.

That is obvious balderdash. It was during that government that massive social protests over the cost of living erupted in the streets of Tel Aviv. Almost 40 ministers and vice-ministers -- the largest cabinet in Israel’s history -- had to be appointed to keep warring party factions satisfied (at a high cost to the Israeli electorate). The 2013 election results were a clear sign that Israelis were fed up.

Those on the right voted for Naftali Bennett, who gave Netanyahu a surprisingly strong run for his money. A reawakened socially-conscious center-left gave Lapid's party an astonishing 19 seats in the Knesset. That is why Netanyahu had to appoint them. The electorate had made no mistake -- it punished Netanyahu intentionally.

It’s been a precipitous fall from grace for Netanyahu. During this summer's war with Hamas his approval rating ran as high as 82 percent; it's now down to 38 percent. No one believes that Netanyahu was forced to fire Livni and Lapid because they were undermining him. After all, he did not fire Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who during this summer’s war relentlessly criticized him for not reconquering all of Gaza, or Bennett, who demanded that the Israeli Defense Forces press on until Hamas was completely disarmed. The prime minister fired his centrist ministers, not those on the right -- a clear indication of which way he thinks the wind is blowing.

This move rightward will probably continue. One factor is the Haredi (commonly called “ultra-Orthodox”) population. A tiny fraction of Israel’s population in 1948, it now constitutes about 16 percent of the electorate; a quarter of Israeli first-graders are Haredi.

The international community has virtually no influence on this massive and growing slice of Israel’s electorate. The vast majority of Haredim are probably unaware that the French parliament voted to recognize a Palestinian state  yesterday, another symbolic gesture indicative of Israel’s plummeting international standing. There is a burgeoning market of kosher smartphones for Haredim; they block not only pornography, but also many news sites. Haredim read what their leaders want them to read. They don't care much about foreign policy; they will join any coalition that promises to fund their schools and keep their sons out of the army. But the secular left detests them even more than the largely moderately religious right (except for the arch-secularist Lieberman, who is their nemesis); Haredim thus prefer the right.

Another sign of Israel's move toward the right is polling showing that if the elections were held today, the socially-conscious politically-moderate Lapid (who opposed the Jewish State bill) would take a serious beating (declining from 19 seats to nine), while the hyper-Zionist supporter of the Jewish State bill and vociferous opponent of the two-state solution, Bennett, would rise from 12 to 17 (only five fewer than the Likud’s anticipated 22). Interestingly, Bennett’s gains would apparently come primarily from first-time voters -- people who have simply never voted before or individuals who were too young to vote in January 2013.  

Israeli's youngest voters came of age after the Second Intifada, at a time when any real hope for a two-state solution was already dead. Largely brash and independent with no illusion that a deal can be had, they, like the Haredim, are unlikely to kowtow to any international pressure. (That is, barring a catastrophe like a loss in a war with Hezbollah or the utter collapse of Israel’s economy due to international sanctions.)

It’s far too early to predict a winner in the election. Netanyahu is the best bet, but he lost to Ehud Barak as an incumbent in 1999, and Israelis are once again fed up. Yet observers who hope this disillusionment will return Israel to the political center will probably be disappointed. Both Lapid and Bennett entered the stage in response to such disillusionment. Lapid has deeply disappointed the middle class that elected him, while Bennett is riding high.

Ironically, those who still hope for a two-state solution may one day wistfully recall the era when a “moderate” Benjamin Netanyahu desperately clung to power. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Maria Lamagna at mlamagna@bloomberg.net