As a Manchester United fan, last season was a difficult one for me. Under new management, we were a shadow of the team which won the title at a canter the season before. To make matters worse, Liverpool, historically our biggest rivals, had their best season in years. Front-and-centre of their season was Luis Suarez, a Uruguayan striker who often got a bit hungry on the pitch. When he wasn’t biting opponents, though, Suarez was arguably the best player in the league. And even though I hated him, his attitude, and above all the team he played for, when Suarez scored a great goal, I had to sit back and admire it. Much as it hurt, some of his goals were nothing short of beautiful, and even I could not deny their artistic merit.
This same principle guides my response to Netanyahu’s election victory this week; though I have great contempt for the man, I have to admire the art. I will admit I don’t have quite the same contempt for Netanyahu as I did for Suarez, because I’m not on the political left, and he doesn’t play for any kind of historic rival of mine. But I do strongly dislike him, his arrogance, and his general approach to diplomacy.
With both Netanyahu and Suarez, it’s a feeling of hate the man, love the art. Suarez’ art was football, and Bibi’s is politics. And much as it might hurt, you have to sit back and admire the artistic merit of the way Bibi plays politics.
When speaking about his campaign as a whole, I’ve heard many people suggest that he got it wrong for the most part; that he wasn’t addressing the issues that really mattered, the ones Herzog was, like social and housing problems. I agree, he wasn’t, but unlike others, I don’t think he got anything wrong.
Perhaps I’ve gotten to the point where I simply view Bibi with a greater level of cynicism than anyone deserves, but I think every part of this campaign was planned. I think he knew polls would favour the Zionist Camp when he refused to speak to certain journalists, or when his answer to every question included the word ‘Iran’ (not that I am in any way downplaying the threat of Iran, but there were other issues in this election), and I think he intended for it to happen.
With ZC poll leads, the V-15 movement, and every analyst claiming there was an ‘anyone but Bibi’ feeling around Israel, Netanyahu was betting on his opponents, and even his right-wing allies, to get just a fraction complacent. And they did.
On the day of the election, once I really sat down and thought about it, I came to the conclusion that the next coalition was more predictable than people seemed to be making out. I predicted then, and am still predicting, a coalition of Likud, Bayit HaYehudi, Kulanu, Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beytenu. It would spell the most right-wing government in Israeli history, and one which would serve Bibi’s every interest. And if I could figure out that coalition on election day, Netanyahu will have figured it out weeks if not months ago. And it was this coalition which guided what I simply have to describe as a masterclass in politics from King Bibi.
When, the day before the election, Netanyahu came out against the formation of a Palestinian state, there surely isn’t a person on Earth who thinks he’d suddenly had a change of heart after years of his public position being in support of the 2-state solution. I’ll be honest and say I have no idea whether Bibi actually supports the creation of a Palestinian state, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is what he says. And when he came out and said there would be no Palestinian state if he was elected Prime Minister, that was him playing politics, and doing a very good job of it.
When Netanyahu made the statement, he was betting on 2 things happening. Firstly, Bibi was betting on any voters who decided not to vote for him off the back of that statement going to Kulanu instead, as opposed to Yesh Atid or even the Zionist Camp. It was a smart bet, because Kulanu is something off an off-shoot of Likud, a place for moderate Likudniks feeling disillusioned with the party’s swing to the right. Bibi didn’t mind losing votes to Kulanu, because, given they’d be in his coalition, it wouldn’t affect his Knesset majority. The second thing Bibi was betting on was gaining more votes from the other right wing parties than he lost to parties to the left of him. Especially given some on the right will have been disappointed with recent leaks which showed Bibi was willing to make large compromises to a Palestinian state, he needed to win those key voters back. Judging from the drastic fall in seats for both Bayit HaYehudi and Yisrael Beytenu, and the fact that Yachad didn’t even pass the electoral threshold, I would say this bet paid off. Again, it wouldn’t affect his majority, as he was just taking votes from parties who would be in his government regardless, but it increased his personal legitimacy, as his party gained more seats. He had become Prime Minister despite not winning the most seats in 2009, and he could have done so again, but instead he took a well calculated gamble to get his party the most seats, and it worked.
A similar rationale was behind his election-day statements about high Arab voting rates. Some people accused him of panicking, others called it tactless, but it was nothing of the sort. It was a calculated political move to gain votes from the right and lose less to the centrist party who would sit with him in government. Everything about that statement was planned, and it worked a treat.
Some might suggest that Bibi showed his true colours in this election; that he really does oppose the 2-state solution, and that bile really does rise in his throat when he says the word ‘Arab’. As I’ve already said, it doesn’t really matter what he thinks. What matters is what he says. Speaking to Andrea Mitchell in his first post-election interview earlier today, he’s already begun to backtrack on his comments on the 2-state solution, and you can bet he’ll continue doing that until he’s back to – at least publicly – supporting it. For the sake of US support, he’ll need to do that, and he knows it too.
But that doesn’t matter to Bibi. The fact is, he’s keeping his job, and remarkably enough, he’s on track to serve for longer than Ben Gurion did.
I really do hope that, whenever the next election is, Bibi loses, just as every week I hoped Suarez would stop scoring. But even with that sentiment, I have to admit the beauty of the execution. He may be nasty and selfish and perhaps even racist, but Benjamin Netanyahu is one thing above all else; he is an excellent politician.