For all the vitriol in the United States surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week to Congress, it was nothing compared with what the Israeli prime minister faced upon his homecoming. Israeli politics are generally more vicious than their American parallel, and Netanyahu returned to face what is almost a perfect storm raging around his re- election campaign.
It began with comments by Meir Dagan, a former director of Mossad, who said that the prime minister’s conduct of the conflict with the Palestinians would lead Israel to being either a binational or an apartheid state. Dagan has long been critical of Netanyahu, but former Mossad chiefs have virtual demigod status in Israel, so his accusation (which he repeated in front of an estimated 80,000 people at an anti-Netanyahu rally Saturday in Tel Aviv, where he also said that Netanyahu has brought Israel to its worst crisis since its creation) clearly stung.
The Likud itself brought on the second phase of the storm with an undeniably stupid and offensive TV ad that showed people in a self-help group, all there due to Netanyahu’s policies. There was the mobile-phone company executive who can no longer charge customers through the nose, the port worker who can no longer get away with working only three hours a week, and a Hamas terrorist complaining about Netanyahu’s war on terrorism. In a country with deep socialist roots, the nasty portrayal of lazy workers was edgy enough. But depicting a Hamas terrorist in the same group as laborers went way too far. Israelis woke up Monday morning to a YNet headline noting that a Likud candidate, the head of Israel’s Airport Authority, said publicly that his workers are telling him they will not vote Likud because of the ad in which Netanyahu compared them to the enemy. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, long known as a straight shooter, said Netanyahu didn’t know about the content of the ad. Given that the prime minister was filmed reciting lines clearly meant for the ad, though, people found even Yaalon hard to believe this time.
The third blow was a leaked document allegedly indicating that the prime minister had agreed in principle to return to the 1967 lines in a deal with the Palestinians, something he has said publicly he would never do. Avi Issacharoff, one of Israel’s leading political commentators, wondered whether the leak originated with President Obama and was payback for the speech to the U.S. Congress — an indication of how damaging he thought it might prove. On Sunday night, apparently seeking to prove that Netanyahu has not softened, the Likud announced that the prime minister no longer supports the two-state solution. Hours later, Netanyahu denied he ever said that. The Likud is desperate, struggling to keep the ship afloat in a storm that keeps growing stronger.
It has been a steep and precipitous fall since those glory moments on the podium before the U.S. Congress. Netanyahu is clearly in trouble. The two major questions that will determine the outcome of next week’s election are what number of Likud voters will actually abandon the right-wing camp, and whether fear of Tzipi Livni as prime minister will prevent many people from voting Labor (now the Zionist Union). Isaac Herzog is apparently palatable for many, but not so Livni, who co-chairs the party. A large ad running on YNet this week showed Herzog’s face, and said, “You start with him … .” Then the photo slowly morphed into Livni, and the ad continued, “But you’ll be stuck with her as your Prime Minister for two years.” It was an ad for Likud, which seems to have decided that its strongest argument is no longer pro-Netanyahu, but anti-Livni.
Whatever the outcome, this election will almost certainly prove much closer than Netanyahu ever imagined it would be. Calling these elections seems to have been a major political blunder. President Reuven Rivlin has announced that in the event of a tie between the two major parties, he will work toward a unity government instead of an illogical amalgam of small parties cobbled together — precisely what Netanyahu was hoping to put behind him.
For Netanyahu, the specter of a unity government is painfully ironic. It was a unity government in 1967, just before the Six Day War, that got Menachem Begin (Likud’s founder) into the government. If Israelis end up with a unity government in the next few weeks, the looming question will be whether these elections were a slight bump in Likud’s enduring run, or whether they signal the gradual return to power of Labor, which — beginning in January 1949 — ruled this country uninterrupted for 29 years.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. He wrote this article for Bloomberg View.