17.01.2019 analysis by Dr. Avner Inbar

Why Israel’s Upcoming Election Is a Show About Nothing

The race towards the Israeli election is full of drama and intrigue but lacks a genuine discussion on vital issues. As long as the center-left keeps hiding its agenda and playing along, nothing will change

In three months, Israelis will head to the polls in what may become one of the most sensational yet least significant elections in their country’s recent memory. The race is already generating ample drama, with political parties forming and breaking up on what seems like an almost daily basis. But the always entertaining horse-race coverage belies a hopelessly stagnant political system, and a public discourse disinterested in policy and ideas. 

The contest will not be between different ideological approaches or policy solutions to Israel’s mounting problems, but between a few prominent figures who run political parties like private businesses and conduct themselves like media celebrities rather than public leaders. At the end of a heated and nasty campaign, one of them will carry the day. And it will almost assuredly be Benjamin Netanyahu.

Less than two months ago, when Netanyahu’s coalition was teetering on the brink of breakdown following the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the prime minister addressed the nation with an impassioned warning against an early election. Israel, he admonished viewers, was in the midst of an “extensive military campaign.” Heading to an election at such a sensitive time would be “irresponsible,” as one should never “play politics” or put “personal considerations” above national security. Not six weeks went by, and Netanyahu decided that it’s actually a perfect time to head to the polls after all.

The official pretext for the early election is an obscure bill yet again regulating the military conscription of yeshiva students. But the real reason for Netanyahu’s decision to send his government to early retirement might have something to do with the fact that, just a few days earlier, the State Prosecutor’s Office recommended that he be indicted for bribery. In addition to the benefit of campaigning before being formally accused of corruption—although the indictment may come as early as mid-February—Netanyahu stands to gain from the chilling effect that a renewed public mandate may have on the judiciary system. And he can use his campaign funds to lambaste his investigators and prosecutors and weaken their public authority.

Indeed, this election is not going to focus on the standard issues of national security or the economy. Neither is it going to address the simmering social conflicts on the independence of the judiciary, the civic status of minorities, and the place of religion in the public sphere. These important issues, which occupy Israelis in non-election times, are quickly receding to the background as an entire nation prepares to vote on a single question—that of Netanyahu.

After taking office for the second time in March 2009, following a previous three-year stint in the late 1990s, Netanyahu already holds Israel’s longest consecutive term as prime minister. In the middle of this year, assuming he is re-elected, he will surpass David Ben Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving premier. But Netanyahu is no Ben Gurion. Despite his long tenure, he has no lasting achievements or reforms, and whenever he steps down, this exceptional politician will probably be remembered most for how he gave new meaning to the old slogan that “the personal is political.”

It is not that Netanyahu places personal considerations above the national interest; it’s simply that, for Netanyahu and his admirers, the fate of the nation is practically indistinguishable from his personal fate. The Netanyahu-friendly narrative that will dominate the upcoming campaign will no doubt allege that he is not being prosecuted for corruption, but being persecuted for his historically unique ability to protect Israel. As a visibly agitated Netanyahu exclaimed in a strange address to the nation last week: “I could have ended this horrible witch hunt against me and my family if only I’d propose a new disengagement”—like the 2005 Gaza pullout—“a withdrawal to ’67 lines; if I’d divided Jerusalem, put Israel in danger. But I will never do those things.” 

Netanyahu, known as “Bibi,” may have been able to convince foreign leaders from Barack Obama to Tony Blair that he could be a partner in the moribund peace process, despite never truly intending to withdraw from an inch of the occupied territories. His devoted right-wing base, though, has always known that he will never sell them out. And his martyrdom—framed as the personal sacrifices he makes for Israel’s security—will take center stage as voters will be exhorted to thwart the leftist conspiracy against the only leader capable of keeping them safe. Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture who has been likened to Sarah Palin, put it plainly: “Without Bibi, the right wing will not be in power.”

But if the right wing will not be in power, who will be? A glimpse at the opposition shows that nobody on Israel’s embattled center-left is mounting a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s reign. While the right is dominated by Netanyahu’s Likud party, the left is disintegrating into a medley of small parties, each offering its leader as a prospective prime minister, although a seat on Netanyahu’s next Cabinet is a much more likely outcome.

Leading the polls on the center-left side is a new party formed by Benny Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Dubbed “Resilience For Israel,” the new party enjoys surprising popularity considering the fact that its platform is shrouded in mystery and its leader hadn’t made a single public statement—apart from a recent impromptu promise to a group of Druze emissaries assembled outside his house that he will “fix” the controversial nation-state law. Gantz is reportedly preparing for his first public speech as a politician, although the speech is unlikely to accomplish much beyond breaking his silence. Gantz is polling closest to Netanyahu as Israelis’ preferred prime minister, but he is not likely to unseat him unless he merges his party with at least one of the other center-left contenders.

The perfect candidate for such a merger would be the Yesh Atid party, a combination of a bland centrist political party and what is essentially a personality cult. Its leader, Yair Lapid, was a popular television presenter and news anchor before he entered politics in 2013. He spent an abortive year and a half as Netanyahu’s minister of finance and seems to have grown tired of politics during four fruitless years in the opposition. But despite his mediocre showing in the polls, Lapid still considers himself a prime minister-in-waiting, so it is unlikely that he joins Gantz, or others, unless he’s promised the prize.

This leaves the Labor Party, or what’s left of it. Heir to the Labor Zionist movement that founded and led Israel for decades, the party of Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin is currently led by Avi Gabbay, a wealthy former telecom CEO who served as minister of environmental protection under Netanyahu, until he resigned and overtook an old opposition party desperate for new faces. Gabbay, though, has made every conceivable mistake, including breaking up Labor’s partnership with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party on live television earlier this month. Whether or not that partnership, which yielded 24 seats in the Knesset, should have been sustained, Gabbay’s patronizing spectacle—orchestrated in secret and delivered with vengeful intensity—betrays a worrying lack of political judgment. He’s currently polling around eight seats.

The woes of the center-left largely stem from the insistence of its leaders to run away from their convictions, in an attempt to escape Netanyahu’s renowned gift for political attacks. To avoid being branded as a leftist, a softy, even a traitor, liberal politicians in Israel assume a strange strategy of dissimulation, although their real positions are hiding in plain sight. Gantz, Lapid and Gabbay all understand that Israel needs to move toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians and realize what that entails. But they prefer to adopt a vague and vacuous politics of personality rather than commit to the agenda everyone knows they secretly uphold. As a result, Israeli politics is quickly turning into a humorless take on the classic American sitcom Seinfeld: a show about nothing.

Originally published in World Politics Review, 16.1.2019
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