Benjamin Netanyahu is unusually skillful at defying the odds. Time and again some new political figure pops up, whether it is Yair Lapid (2013), Isaac Herzog (2015) or Benny Gantz (April 2019), ready to take him on in the ring only to be subsequently outsmarted and defeated. We know how the script plays out. King Bibi has been in power for 10 consecutive years with an additional three-year premiership between 1996-1999. He is the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history, having recently surpassed the country’s founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu has been in power for so long that many young Israelis like me have a hard time even imagining a future without him…until now. Because for the first time since the ’90s, Israelis are able to feel hope for something different. This opportunity is too important to be squandered.
On Tuesday, Israelis went to the polls for the second time in five months. Despite projected low voter-turnout and a general sense of apathy in the country, voters delivered an unexpected blow to Netanyahu. His ugly and desperate campaign which incited against Arab Israeli citizens and attacked the media for reporting on his pending corruption charges, did not help him clinch victory. Likud lost out to Blue and White and it looks like Netanyahu will not be able to secure a coalition of 61 mandates without some sort of compromise. Furthermore, his magic appears to have worn off. President Trump who despises losers told journalists on Wednesday that he had not yet spoken to Netanyahu and that “our relations are with Israel.” This was unthinkable just a few months ago. Netanyahu based much of his own campaign on his strong personal relations with Trump.
When the first exit polls came out on Tuesday, as a young Israeli in favor of change, I prepared myself for the worst. But as I looked at the projected numbers on the screen, I found myself being overtaken by a strange and unfamiliar feeling – hope. Under Netanyahu, hope is a security threat to be neutralized. It is dangerous. It is not ‘retzini’ (serious). It is just a “girl” who doesn’t really understand what the grown-ups are talking about as one ultra-Orthodox party member described Stav Shaffir, the firebrand left-wing politician earlier this summer. I told myself to stop with this hope nonsense. The exit polls are always wrong. But there it was, creeping up. And I’m still feeling it, because this time, the exit polls proved to be on the mark (another miracle). What is exciting about this moment is that anything is possible from the end of the Netanyahu era to the formation of a historic national-unity government. The people have voted for change.
Hope should not feel so foreign to us. It is part of our DNA as a nation. This country was founded by hopeful idealistic pioneers who were not taken very seriously by realistic outsiders. The youth of the Second Aliya were teenagers who dried swamps and dreamed of building a new society. But over time, political and security circumstances transformed this initial hope into fear. The last time Israelis felt hope was in the 90’s, a period which historian Anita Shapira calls “the decade of hope.” This decade started off with the fall of the Berlin Wall and largescale Soviet aliya, continued with the promise of peace in the form of Rabin and the Oslo Accords and ended with the violence of the second intifada (2000). In retrospect it was a cruel slap in the face. But out of all the decades surveyed in Shapira’s Israel: A History, this is the decade that I have the most trouble wrapping my head around. It is not the violence that I have trouble understanding. Rabin’s murder seems real. It is the hope that is ungraspable to me. The language of hope seems cliché, sickly sweet and far away. But now there is a chance to open a new chapter in Israel’s history. The 2020s are a new decade. So please politicians: don’t screw this up.
Netanyahu has lost the mandate of the people. He may have received the second highest number of votes, but this was not his goal for these elections. He failed. He should not be allowed to drag us into an outrageous third election like a spoiled toddler in the middle of a temper tantrum for not having received what he wanted. This would be a cynical and cruel use of democracy for his own personal gain. Democracy is already under attack across the world and does not need this additional abuse. As historian and Ben-Gurion biographer Tom Segev pointed out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Netanyahu and Ben-Gurion share more than just their long tenure in office, they also share deep pessimism about the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. Segev is pessimistic. But right now, I am feeling optimistic and hopeful. Netanyahu, please have the courage to do what Ben-Gurion did not – know how to let go of power.