With the image of Pope Francis at the Bethlehem separation barrier blazoned across television screens and newspaper covers across the globe, it was easy to miss a political drama regarding an election for an office with little independent power. But for Benjamin Netanyahu, nothing short of his family’s honor was at stake.
It’s been considered common knowledge for sometime now that “King Bibi,” as TIME Magazine put it, is the dominating player in Israeli politics. This is, of course, only partly true. Netanyahu has won* the last two elections only because the opposition has either been pitiful (Ehud Barak and Shelly Yachimovich’s tenures as Labor party leader) or of little credibility (Tzipi Livni’s party of unwanted political refugees). Netanyahu is in fact remarkably vulnerable for anyone who bothers to look.
These past two weeks have not been for Netanyahu. First, he tried to delay the presidential election in hopes of eventually eliminating the office––an office older than he is. Next, he entertained recruiting Silvan Shalom. Then his old rival David Levy. Then Elie Wiesel (not joking). All of this to stop an old friend, Reuven Rivlin, from becoming president because he insulted Sara Netanyahu and embarrassed the Prime Minister one time. One solitary occasion.
Netanyahu, the leader of the only Jewish State, was willing to eliminate the Presidency over a triviality. Perhaps this would have been the culmination of the Revisionists’ insipid and inexhaustible war on Ben Gurion’s image. But alas, basic common sense prevailed and the presidential election was scheduled, and Bibi was forced to make an embarrassing backtrack and endorsed Rivlin.
This story has exposed the empty suit that adorns the gas that appears to us as ‘Benjamin Netanyahu’. He is a personality, not a leader, with basic survival skills and pure luck. What’s more embarrassing still is that the Israeli center-left has been unable to field a decent challenge to him since 2009.
I wish the answer were simple, the but the last two elections offer some salient advice for the opposition nonetheless. In 2009, Kadima outperformed much of their early polling, a result of Operation Cast Lead which dealt a crushing blow to Hamas which they have arguably not recovered from to this day. The theme of strength is one Netanyahu plays up frequently, and in 2009 he was denied the sole right to it.
In 2013, in contrast, the opposition conceded this platform to Netanyahu. Both Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich ran on social justice and equality platforms, which ate into some of Likud’s support but was ultimately a feeble political force. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah was the one exception, and they won a meagre six seats. Despite a loss of seats between Likud and Yisrael Beteinu, there was little doubt about who was going to be Prime Minister.
The unreconstructed socialism of Shelly Yachimovich and the flashiness of Yair Lapid are not the future. The opposition must coalesce behind a military man who can also define an economic policy not dissimilar from Lapid’s, but more realistic. Right now Gabi Ashkenazi is the most appealing candidate, having led the IDF during Cast Lead. The current opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, while saying all the right things, emits the quality of a man who would make a fine Deputy Minister for Finance.
Getting the right candidate is only the first step. Ashkenazi, or whoever steps up to the plate, must articulate a vision fundamentally different from Netanyahu’s and previous opposition leaders. It must be a message of Israel taking back its sovereignty by ending its entanglement in the West Bank. If a freeze in settlements and negotiations fail to yield a two-state solution, Israel must draw borders regardless, leaving open the possibility for talks later on. On Iran, he or she must be as adamant as Netanyahu while also emphasizing the the US-Israel relationship. If Netanyahu is allowed one inch on security issues, he will win again.
A realist with a proven record can beat Netanyahu in 2017, or whenever the next election takes place. A personality only goes so far.
*Netanyahu technically lost the 2009 elections, coming in second to Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party. However, his right-wing allies captured enough seats to put him over the top.