Adversity Tests One’s Mettle: And Now We Know What Bibi is Really Made Of

Politicians who fear electoral defeat are among the most shortsighted of all human beings and will say stupid things when they fear that their political lives hang in the balance. Focused on the immediate goal of reelection which they see slipping from their grasp, and caring only for the morrow and without a thought for the day after, they are especially likely to miscalculate, failing not only to grasp the longer term impact of their words but also failing to consider the risk that their ploy may do them more injury than good even in the short term that concerns them.

So Bibi decided yesterday to tell a right wing audience that they should understand that he will never allow the creation of a Palestinian state on his watch. Like other politicians who have gotten into trouble by imagining that they can say different things to different slices of the electorate without getting into trouble for doing so, Bibi surely believed that this was a clever way of peeling votes away from the other right-of-center parties, especially those erstwhile Likudniks who are intending to vote for Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party which is committed to the annexation of much of the West Bank. Indeed, for several days, since the polls showed Likud’s fortunes to be fading, Bibi has been trying to win back the right wing voters who had drifted away from him, by making the cogent argument that voting for the far right parties may so diminish the electoral fortunes of Likud that Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union would emerge with an electoral plurality and that Herzog, not Bibi, would consequently end up forming the next government. Such a victory for the Left, he warns, would mean that a government that wants to find a two-state solution, a government that wants to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, would come to power with consequences that those voters who are abandoning Likud for Naftali Bennett would regard as catastrophic.

While this is certainly a good argument on the merits, and may have been working, Bibi could not know if this was the case, and so, as dark visions of electoral defeat clouded his mind, his panic only continued to grow. So he decided to throw his “Hail Mary” pass, yesterday proclaiming that there will be no Palestinian state on his watch, while praying that the right wing voters would return to him en masse and save him from defeat. That this public proclamation of a reversal of course could prove ruinous to Israel’s relations with the world if Bibi were reelected probably never crossed his mind. That his words might provoke another Intifada if he were reelected also probably never crossed his mind. Perhaps, like so many politicians, he imagined that only his intended audience would pay attention to his words while nobody else would take notice. Such is the manner in which desperation clouds the minds of men.

What Bibi also very likely failed to consider is that his words might have the effect of boosting the turnout of Arab Israelis who, hearing his words, would be all the more motivated to vote to ensure that Bibi was not re-elected. So today, the day of the election, as reports of very high Arab turnout are coming in, Bibi sounds the alarm and loudly complains about this brazen behavior by a sizeable but typically overlooked segment of the Israeli electorate. Nor did he likely consider the effect of his words on left-of-center voters who might, upon hearing his words, decide to vote for Herzog’s Zionist Union rather than Meretz in order to increase the odds that Herzog wins a plurality of Knesset seats and the right to form the next government.

So many consequences that are indeed likely to ensue, and one can only imagine that they never crossed the mind of the leader who likes to present himself as a master tactician, as the one guy in the room who is farther seeing than everyone else, as the statesman whose steady eye is fixed on the distant future not on today’s polls or tomorrow’s election returns. Winston Churchill, if you will.


So what is the upshot? Ironically, the likely result is that Bibi’s words will have set in motion – or, more accurately, accelerated – a process that will lead to the emergence of a new coalition that will be comprised in the main of Netanyahu’s Likud and Herzog’s Zionist Union, the two parties with the largest blocs, each of which will be the larger on account of the likely impact of Bibi’s words of yesterday.

And why not a right-of-center or a left-of-center government? Because the smaller parties of the right and of the left are now likely to be too small to allow either the center-right Likud or the center-left Zionist Union to form a government through an alliance with its own flank.  The center-left Zionist Union could indeed form a government if it would dare bring the Arab Joint List, which is now more likely than ever to emerge as the 3rd biggest bloc in the Knesset. But for complicated and troubling reasons, this possibility remains the third rail of Israeli politics, and Herzog has already ruled out entering into a coalition that would combine the center-left and the Arab parties.  Consequently, a Zionist Union (Labor) and Likud coalition is the most likely result, especially if the Zionist Union wins a plurality in today’s election.

But as for Bibi’s role in this new government, it is hard to say. If Likud wins a plurality, then he will be Prime Minister. But if Zionist Union wins the plurality, it will be Herzog who is PM. So what then will remain for Bibi? After yesterday’s remarks, it is hard to see how he could effectively serve as Foreign Minister of a government that is seriously committed to a two-state solution. (And if Bibi were to become its foreign minister that would say to the world that the new government is as un-serious about achieving a 2-state solution as the prior government.)  So what post would remain for Bibi in a new government? Defense? Too risky. Tourism? Hasbara (which is Hebrew for outreach and public diplomacy)? Perhaps. But then again, he might retire, write his memoirs, and then run for US Senator from the State of New York.

About the Author
Trained as a political theorist at Columbia University and in Religious Studies at Harvard, Michael Gottsegen (Ph.D., 1989) has worked in and out of academia since the early 1990s, having taught at Columbia and Brandeis before coming to Brown. A book based on his thesis, "The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt," was published in 1994.