Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Netanyahu Has Never Been Invincible

Prime Minister Netanyahu has a reputation of being politically invincible. True, he is now Israel’s longest-ever serving PM (Ben-Gurion left of his own volition; he could have served several more years had he wished to do so). However, the historical record belies Bibi’s “invincibility.”

So try to answer this question correctly: in the nine Knesset elections that Netanyahu has run (either as a direct PM candidate in the 1990s, or as leader of the Likud afterwards), in how many did he win outright, how often did he clearly lose, and how many ended in a virtual tie? (Don’t peek; I provide the answer in the paragraph after the next one).

This isn’t merely an interesting, Israel electoral history trivia question. Rather, given the results of the three elections this past year and a half, and the Likud’s steady and steep drop in recent polls, the question of Bibi’s “electionability” (or if you will, electoral ability) has become increasingly germane, especially given his poor – some would say catastrophic – Corona policy, along with the nation’s severe economic pain. So how vulnerable is he? Part of the answer is to look at how well he has done in the past.

Since 1996 he has actually won four campaigns (1996, 2013, 2015, and in 2020 – not by much: 36 to 33 seats), lost two (1999 and 2006 – tied for third place with only 12 seats for the Likud!), and ended more or less with a tie in three elections (2009, April 2019, and September 2019 – in the latter, the Likud had one seat less than Blue & White: 33 to 32). In terms of soccer standings overall: 4-2-3; not bad, but hardly “invincible”.

Obviously, not every Likud loss can be ascribed exclusively to Netanyahu – just as not all Likud victories were solely his doing. Nevertheless, with Israel’s electoral politics becoming increasingly “personalized”, paralleling the country’s concomitant, overall decline in ideology, it is clear that the top of the ticket bears much responsibility for most Israeli parties’ victories and defeats. This is certainly true for those parties with a chance of winning a plurality of the votes, thus almost guaranteeing that its party leader would be asked to form the coalition government (only in 2009 – Tzipi Livni from Kadima – failed to translate her party’s plurality into becoming the prime minister).

If anyone is aware of this electoral record it is Netanyahu himself. That’s an important reason for his great hesitance to call another election, despite the present, dual-headed coalition not working very well. But the stakes are much higher for him this time than ever before because of the three criminal indictments and upcoming trials.

There are few examples in modern democratic countries of a leader successfully staying in office for over a decade (Angela Merkel notwithstanding) – and when that does happen it’s almost always due to some extraordinary circumstance, e.g. FDR during World War 2. The Corona pandemic could have been such a situation for Netanyahu, but he botched it badly (after the initial success), telling Israelis after Passover ״תעשו חיים״ – “get out and enjoy life”!

So here stands Bibi: trials about to start; economic devastation; massive, ongoing protest demonstrations all over Israel; policies (blocking a 2021 budget, no permanent Police Chief appointment, trying to prevent outdoor protests) that suspiciously seem to be determined by his legal difficulties, or so many Israelis claim.

However, given the evisceration of Israel’s Zionist left wing, what/who could replace him? The polls show that Israelis have not abandoned the right wing camp; but they have moved in very significant numbers from one right-wing party (Likud) to another (Yeminah) led by Naftali Bennett whom Bibi left out of his present coalition for personal pet peeve reasons, among them the fact that Bennett – a former very successful, high tech entrepreneur – has consistently presented a more systematic and doable Corona plan than what has emerged from the present government’s chaotic, decision-making process.

How, then, could Bibi lose the next election? That’s the wrong question to ask, as the Likud will probably still obtain more votes than any other party. The real question: how can anyone else form a governing coalition? The answer is becoming clear, although certainly not a done deal: in order to finally get rid of Bibi (the Israeli counterpart of the “never-Trumpers”), Yeminah could form a coalition with Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Gantz’s Blue & White, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (he absolutely detests Netanyahu), and Meretz.

Yes, strange bedfellows (especially the first and last on this list), but given the immediate, critical issues at hand – Corona and the economy – these parties could live with each other for a year or two. Especially if it means finally getting rid of the “Invincible”.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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