Ken Toltz
Israel-based writer

To Bibi or Not to Bibi?

This is the question.

Inquiring friends have been asking my on-the-site impressions of last week’s Israeli election, more importantly what the results portend. Given that I have actually been closely following Israeli politics and the U.S. – Israel relationship for more than 40 years this might be a good opportunity to share views and predictions (I’m optimistic)!

First, of course, a bit of personal history. I met Benjamin Netanyahu at the 1983 AIPAC Policy Conference dinner when he was seated at our table with my wife, dad and my grandfather! No one in America at that time called him ‘Bibi’ unless they were Israeli insiders.

Netanyahu was seated at our Colorado table due to our guest, Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) who was about to embark on his first presidential campaign of 1984. Two up and coming new generation politicians.

As a young diplomat who spoke perfect English, and more importantly the brother of Jonathan ‘Yoni’ Netanyahu, the hero of 1976’s Entebbe hostage rescue — the only Israeli killed in the operation – Benjamin’s main job was P.R. before American audiences. He became a staple on ABC News Nightline and a number of national news talk shows. Netanyahu’s first visit to the offices of AIPAC, where I had been working since graduating college, was to bring a large box of signed hardback books, ‘The letters of Jonathan Netanyahu’.

Being the brother of a hero never hurt anyone’s political career, something the major Israeli political parties understood, thus he was recruited and nurtured with a high profile posting to Israel’s U.S. embassy. And as they say, the rest is history.

Back to last Tuesday’s Israeli election. This was the scene which greeted voters in my little southern Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon on election day.

(Election day at the polling station)

There was only one major ‘precinct’ so voters from all over town made their way, many by foot, to vote. Passing by the posters, tents and volunteers for the major Israeli political parties located nearby. Voting opened at 7am and continued on until 10pm!

Never missing an election day ‘GOTV’ effort I was happy to join these young mothers who volunteered at the Meretz (Democratic Union) booth. Hooray for Lena and Karen, my kind of people! The Meretz platform would probably be the most familiar for Americans who favor our Democratic Party values. Emphasizing civil liberties, progressive change, environmentalism,domestic economic issues like income inequality, Meretz is slowly on the rise. Plus I had the opportunity to meet a Meretz Knesset representative, Michal Rozin who visited Colorado last fall. In my mind she and her party represent the future of Israel.

As the results began trickling in during the night and into the next couple of days, it became obvious that change is coming to Israeli politics. Ten years of dominance by Bibi Netanyahu and his cronies look to be finished, which for a large part of the country is a welcome if difficult to believe, relief. The Likud Party came in second, which in the parliamentary system means the leading party, Blue & White (Kahol Levan) will be given the opportunity to form a majority coalition and a government.

(A young volunteer at the Likud election-day display in Mitzpe Ramon)

Close observers and commentators are very careful not to totally dismiss Netanyahu as they’ve seen him pull the rabbit out of the hat for many years and election cycles while so dominating political discourse his was by far the most visible campaign once again. Yet the results show, his party lost. His coalition does not have the required 61 seats to form a majority and govern.

Winners were the Russian immigrant’s political party Israel Beitenu (Israel is our home) which has a charismatic former Netanyahu ally Avigdor Liberman at it’s head. His platform emphasized civil rights over domination of Israel’s Haredi (ultra-orthodox) religious over day-to-day Israel life. The mini-marts must be allowed to remain open on Shabbat! Public transportation should not be shut down from Friday evening to Saturday evening and Haredi schools should follow the same education curriculum as all schools which receive public money. By the way, the number of immigrants from Russia continue to grow numbering over 14,000 in 2018 a dramatic increase since the early years of the decade and half of Israel’s total 2018 immigration increase.

A second big winner is referred to as the Joint List a coalition of Israeli-Arab political parties. The success of the Joint List is a direct rebuke to Netanyahu’s campaign strategy of demonizing Israeli-Arab voters trying desperate methods of both suppressing their vote and trying to scare Israeli voters to turn out in higher numbers. In a widely reported incident, on election day Netanyahu made an appearance at Jerusalem’s central bus station using a bull horn to say “Israeli-Arab voters were turning out in higher numbers, if something didn’t change the Right will lose the election!”

American-style division and even blatant racism crept into the campaign discourse, but thankfully the results show the strategy lacked traction.

Today it’s thought that the President of Israel will give the first opportunity to form a ruling coalition and new government to Kahol Levan led by a new prime minister, Benny Gantz.

This quote from a leader of the Ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism seems to summarize the current situation and atmosphere better than anything I might say, Ya’acov Litzman is quoted as saying in post-election comments, “We are, at the moment, with Netanyahu until the end.” In a nutshell the ebbs and flows continue with commitments fluid, until the end.

Change is coming.

About the Author
Ken Toltz began his professional career at AIPAC in Washington, D.C. after attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He's a 3rd generation Colorado native, businessman and long-time gun violence prevention activist. After 42 years from his first visit to Israel, in 2019 he relocated his home to Mitzpe Ramon in Israel's Negev. Ken currently resides in Herzliya. He writes about Israeli politics, relations with the U.S. and the Israeli creative class of writers and filmmakers.
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