Their turn?

Photographer: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Netanyahu Can Only Blame Himself

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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Israelis never understood why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke up his coalition in December 2014 and called Tuesday’s parliamentary elections. One thing, though, did seem clear -- he was clearly going to win again.

No longer. Final pre-election polls suggest that Netanyahu’s Likud is trailing the Isaac Herzog-Tzipi Livni alliance (an expanded Labor Party, now called the Zionist Union) by four seats in the 120-member Knesset: 26 to 22. It’s still close, but that did not stop the opening column in Haaretz's magazine section this weekend from stating, “Netanyahu is not going to be the next Prime Minister.”  Haviv Rettig Gur, one of Israel’s most thoughtful political commentators, wondered aloud, “Is Bibi about to lose the election?” David Makovsky, a seasoned analyst at the Washington Institute, notes that though Netanyahu assumed the election would be a cakewalk, it has turned into a referendum on him, and he now faces an unexpected uphill battle.

Even the endorsements Herzog has received are focused not on his strengths but on the disgust with Netanyahu. Former President Shimon Peres endorsed Herzog for his decency and "honesty." Livni, formerly a minister with Netanyahu's Likud Party, obliquely referred to the prime minister's now unsalvageable relationship with Barack Obama in saying that electing Herzog (and her) was the only way to halt the "diplomatic tsunami" facing Israel. Yuval Diskin, the respected former director of the Shin Bet security apparatus said, bluntly, that he was endorsing Herzog simply because he "can’t be worse than Netanyahu.”

Still, to pin this all on Bibi’s personality is to miss something more profound. Israelis have decided -- unusual in a country that has been in a state of war since even before its creation -- to vote not on security issues but on domestic matters. Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most popular daily newspaper, released a poll showing that while 28 percent of respondents said they planned to vote based on security issues, 55 percent said that socio-economic issues would determine their choice.

There are actually few, if any, substantive disagreements on foreign policy among the major candidates. No one is willing to let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon, and every major candidate insists that all options -- including an Israeli attack, if Israel has the capability -- remain on the table. And everyone agrees that Israel must do everything to keep the Islamic State barbarians away from its borders. As for the Palestinians, Israelis sense that no deal is possible, so very few are worried about a new Oslo or the left “giving away the store.” 

Even Israeli Arabs acknowledge that there is no peace deal to be had. Khaled Abu Toameh, the Jerusalem Post’s correspondent for Arab affairs and a Muslim himself, told an American audience outside Jerusalem this week that a deal with the Palestinians was “generations” away. While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (like Yasser Arafat before him) understands that Israel might relinquish much of the West Bank, the Palestinian street has been told for decades that their leadership would get everything back. A leader who returned even with a deal that got the Palestinians 98.5 percent of the land would be deemed a failure.

No Palestinian leader can forget the killing of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by his own troops in 1981 for having signed a deal with Israel. Only a shift in education, said Abu Toameh, which will take decades, might prepare the Arab street for the accommodations that an eventual agreement will require.

The Yedioth Ahronoth poll showed that Israeli Arabs, long passionate advocates for the Palestinians, are also shifting to a social agenda. Asked what Arab Knesset members should focus on, 77 percent said it should be the economic challenges facing Israeli Arabs. Only 16 percent pointed to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu continues to insist that he is Mr. Security and that the Herzog-Livni duo would be dangerous for Israel. Herzog just ignores the dig. What matters, he says, is that Netanyahu has utterly ignored the "social protests" of recent years over housing and political favoritism; that, he insists, is an “irredeemable sin.” His campaign promise is simple: “I intend to restore hope to the State of Israel.”

The Israeli left was the prime casualty of the Second Intifada of 2000-2004. Arafat’s bloody demonstration that he had never intended to make any land-for-peace deal made the left look naïve; shortly thereafter, Labor slid to its lowest showing in history.

Now, the left is coming back. Not because Israelis believe an agreement with the Palestinians is possible. Rather -- with Iranian centrifuges spinning, with Islamic State menacing, with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi saying that Muslim radicalism is the region’s greatest problem, with even Israel’s Arabs no longer placing the peace process front and center -- because no one is thinking much about Palestinians. It is time, many Israelis have therefore decided, to shift their focus to social justice and economic fairness.

The race is too close to call, nobody knows if Herzog, should he come out ahead, can form a coalition. Netanyahu is clearly hoping for a repeat of 2009, when Livni's Kadima Party garnered the most seats but could not form a coalition and he ended up prime minister again.

But even if history repeats, Israelis will have made their point: They have tired of Netanyahu's bellicosity, and they are ready to focus again on the values of the society they still hope Zionism can forge.

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:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net