Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s old bag of tricks failed him in Israel’s second round of elections Tuesday. It now appears that the electorate has rejected his divisive rhetoric, attacks on the judiciary and press, imminent indictment on a raft of corruption charges, and tight embrace of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Just before the last election, Trump’s declaration of the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory seemed perfectly timed to provide Netanyahu with maximum political benefit. For his part, he milked their relationship for all it was worth, touting his Trump bromance throughout the campaign. The slogan “Netanyahu—another league” was emblazoned on billboards showing him shaking hands with Trump, and his election ads featured an upbeat song by popular singer Maor Edri and the refrain “let’s go Putin, let’s go Trump!”
Netanyahu spoke constantly of his “close personal” friendship with the U.S. president, as if he was personally responsible for American policy towards Israel. His message was that he alone had access to the world leaders who keep Israel safe.
This strategy backfired in recent days when Netanyahu’s supporters were horrified by Trump’s willingness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“Everything has blown up in his face,” said Gayil Talshir, political scientist at Hebrew University, in the weeks before the election. “This is a blow to Netanyahu, who benefits from the impression that he is behind America’s policy. Trump saying he’s ready to meet Rouhani undermines this, and undermines the idea that Netanyahu is the best friend of Trump.”
Trump doesn’t like to be associated with losers. The day after the election, he told reporters that he hadn’t spoken to Netanyahu, and added, “Our relations are with the state of Israel.”
In 2015, Netanyahu warned his supporters that Arabs were being “bused in droves” to the elections. After widespread condemnation for his “racist” remarks, he apologized. Yet he tried the exact same tactic again on Tuesday, only this time it backfired: Arabs voted in unprecedented numbers, motivated in part by his talk of “annexing” the Jordan Valley. The Arab parties, known as the Joint List, placed third, which means that if Likud and Blue and White form a government, the Joint List would lead the opposition. If that happens, their leader, Aymen Odeh, will be present for security briefings and have access to intelligence. That’s significant because no Arab leader in Israel’s history ever had such access.
With 98 percent of the vote tallied, Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, or Blue and White Party, leads with 33 out of 120 Knesset seats, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has 31. In order to form a government, the Israeli president can choose one of the two men, who will then have to find a 61-seat majority in the Knesset. Gantz has repeatedly declared that he will not join a government with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has built coalitions at the eleventh hour before, but given that he was unable to cobble together a government after the last election in April, it seems his tenure as Israel’s longest serving prime minister may finally be over.
Indeed, his actions over the last several weeks have looked increasingly desperate. After the April election, Netanyahu attempted to strong-arm his supporters in the Knesset to pass legislation that would have given him legal immunity to the corruption charges he’s facing. He made all Likud members of the Knesset sign a loyalty oath to him. He increased his verbal attacks on the judiciary and accused the press of being biased against him.
Despite opposition from the attorney general, the central elections committee, and the Knesset’s legal adviser, his party proposed a bill that would allow party operatives to bring cameras into polling stations. This was seen as a blatant attempt to intimidate voters, and blocked in committee.
“What Netanyahu is trying to pass is not a voter observer bill; it is an election-stealing bill,” said Avigdor Lieberman, widely hailed as the kingmaker in this week’s election. It was the Soviet-born Lieberman’s decision to not sit with Netanyahu in April that prevented him from forming a government.
Netanyahu’s most desperate action came just days before the vote. A rocket forced him off the stage while he was making a campaign speech in Ashdod, and he was widely mocked for being scurried away to safety even as his supporters remained. In retaliation for the attack, Netanyahu decided he wanted to start a war with Hamas, though he was prevented from doing so by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who ruled that the plan required the approval of the security cabinet.
Netanyahu is feeling “hysteria, pressure and panic” and is therefore “doing dangerous things – things no prime minister has ever done,” charged former IDF chief of staff and current Knesset member Gabi Ashkenazi on Saturday.
Netanyahu’s reputation as “Mr. Security” has taken other hits as well. As the Trump White House began sending conciliatory signals to Iran, Netanyahu announced that Israel had discovered an Iranian nuclear weapons development site.
“I call on the international community to wake up, to realize that Iran is systematically lying,” Netanyahu said, demanding that the “tyrants of Tehran” destroy the site.
Netanyahu’s political rival Gantz, a former army chief of staff, called him out for making a “grave mistake” and using intelligence and security information for political ends.
While Netanyahu had previously benefited from his perceived ability to keep Israel safe, that reputation suffered as Iran allegedly hit Saudi Arabia’s oil processing facilities and Israel expanded airstrikes against targets in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq. And the night before the polls opened in Israel, an unidentified aircraft struck Shiite militia targets on the Syrian-Iraqi border, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The staid but laconic Gantz is seen as tough on security but has also been described as everything Netanyahu is not. Gantz has one wife and four children who stay out of the limelight. Netanyahu had three wives and his scandal-ridden and chaotic personal life dominated headlines for three decades. Israel’s first lady, who was recently convicted of misuse of public funds, has had lawsuits filed against her for racist remarks and serious anger management issues. Netanyahu’s Twitter troll son invited scandal after bragging about a $20 billion deal his father made and looking for prostitutes during an alcohol-soaked night at a strip club.
Taking aim at Netanyahu’s tawdry history, Gantz’s Blue and White party platform promises to introduce term limits and bar indicted politicians from serving in the Knesset. It also pledges to limit the chief rabbinate and invest in early education and health care.
Netanyahu built a political career on promising the country’s ultra-Orthodox that they would receive various forms of state assistance and relieving them from compulsory service, even when the state’s courts ruled otherwise. He chose weak, politically maneuverable candidates for the chief rabbinate, who refused to allow secular marriage and even floated DNA tests for citizenship. Because he needed the support of the country’s increasingly right-wing religious to hold a majority in the Knesset, he pushed unpopular legislation that bans public transportation and stores from opening on the Sabbath.
This drew the ire of the country’s secular population, who in some circumstances have had to leave the state just to get married. A full 64 percent of Israeli Jews want the ultra-Orthodox parties excluded from the next government, according to an August survey from the Smith Polling Institute. The poll also found that 74 percent of Israelis would be more likely to vote for a party that “committed to the principles of religious freedom and equality” regarding civil marriage and divorce, public transportation on Shabbat, ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and other issues.
Even Ethiopian Jews, who have traditionally supported Likud, backed Netanyahu’s party in smaller numbers this election due to recent incidents of discrimination and police brutality.
Lieberman’s refusal in April to join Netanyahu’s coalition brought to the fore the question of what role religion should play in the state. His campaign to “make Israel normal again” called for the repeal of bans on public transportation and commerce on the Sabbath, universal enlistment, and requiring ultra-Orthodox schools that receive government funding to teach math and English. He’s demanded that a liberal national unity government be formed, without the right-wing religious and ultra-Orthodox.
Compared to Netanyahu, Gantz’s tone is decidedly less strident.
“I call upon all Israeli citizens to go and vote according to their conscience. I recommend voting Blue and White, but I respect any decision,” he said the morning of the election. “The most important thing is that you all fulfill your primary civic duty. Today, we are voting for change. We will succeed in bringing hope, all of us together, without corruption and without extremism. May we have a successful day throughout the country.”
Late Tuesday night, as the election results were tallied, Gantz told supporters he had already reached out to the heads of the two Zionist left-wing parties to begin talks to establish a unity government. He also said he intends to reach out to Lieberman. After his speech, he spoke on the phone to Odeh, leader of the Joint List.
Internationally, many in the media are hailing Netanyahu’s potential dethroning as a victory for the left and a signal that Israel’s approach to its neighbors and allies will change. But this is not really true. A scant 5 percent of Jewish Israelis identify themselves as leftists, while almost two thirds are politically right wing. If Netanyahu is ousted, it will be because his famed political wizardry at long last failed, and he fell prey to his own tactics.
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.