– Labor leader Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, on hearing the results of 1977 election in which, for the first time ever, the Labor Party was ousted from power by the Likud, after almost three decades of political hegemony
The unthinkable has been avoided – narrowly. Had the election gone the way many had expected, the country would have had a prime minster who, in his own words, believes that “the term ‘Jewish state’ is totally misguided.”
In his post-election speech to Likud activists late Tuesday night, Benjamin Netanyahu summed up the dramatic events of the last few weeks as “a great victory,” achieved “against all odds.”
This was an accurate assessment, even before later results came in, widening the gap between the Likud and Isaac “Buji” Herzog’s Labor Party, masquerading for the purpose of these elections as the “Zionist Union.” These later results, that confounded pollsters and pundits alike, served only to throw the stunning surprise and the far-reaching significance of the ballot into starker relief.
For Tuesday was indeed a day of grave concern – with long hours of deep despondency and anxious apprehension. There were persistent reports of a well-oiled, well-funded left-wing apparatus mobilizing voters, running circles around a disorganized and demoralized Right, which had virtually resigned itself to imminent defeat.
There was a distinct sense that the massive, malevolent and multifaceted blitz against the prime minister, aimed at denigrating, degrading and delegitimizing him, was having an effect, succeeding in alienating the electorate from him.
The grim specter of a Left-led government, eager to embrace – or rather re-embrace – the disastrously failed policy of political appeasement and territorial withdrawal, which cost so many Israelis life and limb, seemed increasing tangible.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a column titled “Coup d’etat?” (February 22), in which I cautioned: “Over the last few weeks, Israeli democracy has been under brutal and sustained attack in a desperate effort to subvert the will of the people... What we are witnessing is, in effect, little less than an attempt at a bloodless coup d’état – conducted, not by the military, but by the messianic, indeed manic, mainstream media, buttressed by affiliated like-minded civil society elites, in a frenzied effort to impose their minority worldview on the nation.”
Subsequent events brought home the validity of this assessment, reflecting with almost eerie precision my diagnosis: “Enraged by their inability to rally sufficient public support, on substantive policy issues, to unseat the object of their visceral enmity, Benjamin Netanyahu, and nonplussed by the tenacity of his ‘delinquent’ hold on the premiership, despite their undisguised loathing, his political rivals have despaired of removing him from office by normal electoral means... Rather than engaging in a substantive debate on how to conduct the affairs of the nation, they have embarked on a dishonorable – the less charitable might say ‘disgraceful’ – attempt to oust a prime minister by means of a maelstrom of petty and pernicious ad hominem attacks...
“Devoid of any persuasive policy alternative of real substance, and of an alternative candidate of authentic stature, Netanyahu’s left-leaning detractors have mobilized to exploit their unelected positions of power and privilege to launch a massive media blitz against him and his wife...”
As it turned out all this malevolence was in vain. The coup d’etat not only failed, but although it is still a little early to be sure, it may have backfired – in more senses than one.
In many ways, Netanyahu has led a charmed political life. It has also been strewn with many – largely self-inflicted – curses. Very few political leaders are given a second chance to achieve lasting historic greatness. For some reason, known only to the Goddess of Fortune, Netanyahu has been given three such chances in the past. Each time, he failed to seize the moment.
He has now been given a fourth opportunity – and the burning question is whether he will rise to the occasion this time. For it is doubtful whether he will be given a fifth.
Tuesday’s late night’s (or more precisely, Wednesday’s early morning) election results gave Netanyahu his only convincing clear-cut victory at the polls. All his previous wins have been excruciatingly close, with barely hairbreadth margins.
Thus, in 1996, despite the horrific carnage the Oslo Accords brought to the streets, buses and cafes across the country, he only just managed to pip Shimon Peres at the post, after public opinion turned sharply against the Likud, in the wake of the Rabin assassination.
In fact most Israelis went to sleep believing Peres had won, only to wake up to the news that Netanyahu had edged ahead to win by the skin of his teeth.
In 2009, despite the poor performance by the Olmert government, the mismanagement of the Second Lebanon War and the corruption scandals that wracked the Kadima party, Netanyahu still technically lost the election to Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert’s successor as head of Kadima, which incredibly emerged as the largest party. It was only Livni’s inability to form a governing coalition that gave Netanyahu the premiership.
It was at the start of his second term that Netanyahu, in his Bar-Ilan speech, took the disastrous step of accepting the principle of Palestinian statehood, which, predictably, instead of easing international pressure on Israel only intensified it. For it confronted Israel with the inevitable dilemma of either forgoing its minimal security imperatives to allow a Palestinian state; or resist forgoing them, making a Palestinian state impossible, thus appearing disingenuous and duplicitous to the international community.
All his display of ill-advised “flexibility” did was to lead Israel into a perilous cul-de-sac from which it could only extricate itself at great cost.
As the 2013 election approached, opinion polls indicated that a decisive Netanyahu/right-wing victory was assured. Yet the Right fared so badly that Netanyahu was barely able to cobble together a shaky coalition, so implausible that an early election was inevitable.
The results of that early election are now in. For the first time, Netanyahu has attained a clear-cut victory – miraculously for some, infuriatingly for others – but certainly against all odds.
For three consecutive elections, Netanyahu has run atrocious campaigns.
In the 2009 and 2013 votes, he was on the cusp of snatching defeat from the jaws of what should have been certain victory. His approach, and that of the Likud, was one of lackadaisical apathy, almost disdain for the voter.
For the last few elections, the Likud did not even bother to present the public with an official party platform, informing it what it was being asked to vote for. “Muddling through” and “managing – rather than resolving – problems” became, by inference, the hallmark of its policy.
This has had enormously detrimental impact on the nation in profound ways. After all, it is impossible to reach a desired – much less a desirable – destination, if one does not have one. When this is the perceived posture of the ruling party, the strategic ramifications are gravely enervating.
Regrettably, up until its very last stages, the current campaign was afflicted by much the same malaise. It was only in the final days, when things were looking desperately dire, that Netanyahu harnessed his energies to the electoral effort with considerable – indeed, according to numerous pundits decisive – effect.
The lesson to be learned from this is both salutatory and instructive as to what steps must be taken to contend with prevailing threats and to meet emerging challenges.
In light of the impact of Netanyahu’s last minute involvement apparently had on the outcome of the election, it is far from implausible to surmise that had he entered the fray (no pun intended) earlier, had the Likud focused more on the substantive message it wished to convey, significantly better results, and considerably more parliamentary seats, could have been won.
It is crucial to bear in mind that with the defeat of the left wing, the danger has in no way passed. Quite the contrary, in numerous ways it has been intensified – for many, both in Israel and abroad, are enraged by Netanyahu’s continued tenure on the premiership.
There is little doubt that this will precipitate a massive assault on Israel from both domestic and foreign sources. It will not come from declared enemies and overt adversaries of the Jewish state alone, but from purported supporters and alleged allies, who will use Netanyahu’s reelection as a pretext for abandoning it with feigned reluctance.
They will join forces with Israel’s foes to try and impose their own minority view on the elected government. This is not a prediction as to the future. It is a commentary on what is already under way since Thursday.
There are already flimsily veiled threats from the Obama administration that it will no longer block UN resolutions calling for unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood within the pre-1967 lines. The New York Times predictably dialed up the bile in its Wednesday’s opinion section with a toxic tirade by Israel’s professed friend Tom Friedman and snide threats from an unabashed adversary, Yousef Munayyer.
Having defeated the effort to unseat him, despite opponents throwing everything, perhaps bar the kitchen sink, at him, Netanyahu will become a lightning rod for an assault on Israel’s legitimacy, undermining not only its ability to survive, but its very right to do so.
Dealing with this ominous menace is Netanyahu’s historic challenge – one which to date he has been largely remiss in addressing adequately.
In the array of formidable tasks facing him, perhaps the most harrowing, but crucial, will to be to contend with a detrimental, dysfunctional and not infrequently, disloyal, domestic opposition – and to do so within the constraints imposed by adherence to the tenets of democratic governance.
For it is difficult to overstate the pernicious impact the actions of many in the disaffected civil society elites in the country have on Israel’s international standing. Although they undoubtedly will protest that they are acting in the country’s best interest, their venom and vilification of what takes place here, often detached from past or present context, is grist for the mill of those who undisguisedly are not.
It is their censure, often unfounded, invariably distorted and unmindful of the consequences, that fans the flames of delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish state.
To meet this historic challenge, considerable resources must be committed.
In this regard, I have been endeavoring for several years to convince the government to assign a mere 1 percent of state budget for a strategic public diplomacy initiative. This would make available $1 billion for the assembling of a political/diplomatic “Iron Dome” to protect the country from the barrages of delegitimization and demonization it is regularly subjected to – and which are now likely to intensify (See: “If I were prime minister...,” October 31, 2013; “My billion-dollar budget: If I were PM (cont.),” November, 7, 2013; “Intellectual warriors, not slicker diplomats,” February 14, 2013).
The funds must be allotted for a determined global assault on world opinion – particularly but not exclusively – on North American and European campuses, which must be won back from the stranglehold of Israel’s detractors. Teams of intellectual warriors – not bound by the niceties of diplomatic protocol – must be deployed, physically, across the major capitals of the world, and virtually throughout the reaches of cyber-space.
In setting out the mission statement for such an endeavor, Netanyahu could do no better than adopt the sentiments set out by Dr. Joel Fishman, in his aptly titled “The Relegitimization of Israel and the Battle for the Mainstream Consensus” (2012): “If Israel intends to regain its legitimacy, it must advance its historical claims aggressively and forcefully.
The Jewish state cannot permit others to define its identity or distort its past. It is necessary to discredit the fraudulent claims of the other side and expose its lies. Such an effort should include a long-term campaign of relegitimization. Israel must defend its sovereignty and take its rightful place in the community of nations. These are the responsibilities of nationhood.”
This is an increasingly urgent imperative. I urge the prime minister to shoulder it immediately and unflinchingly – and to remember, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Even against all odds.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategicisrael.org)