Analysis: Could “Bibi fatigue” topple Netanyahu next week?

Merav Michaeli. Photo: Ron Kedmi, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Campaigning in Israel’s general election is entering its final week, with polls indicating there will be no end to the deadlock which has paralysed the country’s politics for the past two years. Nonetheless, with “Bibi fatigue” apparently affecting some sections of the electorate, Benjamin Netanyahu’s long domination of the political scene may be drawing to a close.

What happened

  • Israelis go to the polls next Tuesday for the fourth time in less than two years after a series of inconclusive elections which saw supporters and opponents of Netanyahu remaining in power fighting each other to a draw.
  • Since the election was called last December after the collapse of the short-lived “unity government” between Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and the centrist Blue and White party and its allies, polls have consistently pointed to another deadlocked result. Already, there is talk of a fifth election.
  • The latest Channel 13 survey published on Sunday suggested the pro-Netanyahu bloc will win 47 seats in the 120-member Knesset, with parties pledged to oppose the prime minister on 58 seats.
  • However, if the right-wing Yamina party were to back Netanyahu that would raise the prime minister’s total to 58 seats. Its leader, former defence minister Naftali Bennett, says he wants to see Netanyahu stand down, but hasn’t definitively ruled out sitting with him in government.
  • If Yamina – which opted out of the “unity government” – falls in line behind Netanyahu, attention will focus on the Islamist Ra’am party. Formerly part of the Israeli-Arab Joint List coalition, it is running alone in this election.
  • The poll showed Likud slipping to 28 seats (down eight seats from last March), with the next-placed centre-left Yesh Atid party on 20. Labor and Meretz would win six and four seats respectively, with Blue and White also on four.

Lapid cannibalises the centre-left vote …

Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, has been accused by his centre-left rivals of attempting to woo their voters, even at the risk of driving some parties – like Blue and White and Meretz – below the threshold. The accusation followed a text message sent by Lapid on Sunday which said: “Parties with five seats won’t replace the government, and parties with six seats won’t save democracy. Big changes will be made only with a big Yesh Atid.” Labor, Meretz and Blue and White all hit back, with a senior Meretz official pointing to the potential strategic danger such an effort risks. “Lapid knows that if there’s no Meretz in the next Knesset, Netanyahu will have the 61 seats he needs to form a government. And without Meretz, the anti-Netanyahu bloc lacks the 61 seats needed to form a coalition.” Nonetheless, both Labor and Meretz have said they’ll back Lapid becoming prime minister after the election as the likely leader of the biggest anti-Netanyahu party.

… as Bibi goes hunting for votes on the right

Likud strategists are reportedly concerned by the party’s poor poll ratings and fear that the self-employed, who have been hit hard by the economic difficulties surrounding the pandemic, may turn against it, while other traditional supporters may be planning to stay at home.

  • Having focused heavily on the success of Israel’s vaccination drive, Likud’s campaign is now switching to a focus on the promise of an economic recovery.
  • Netanyahu also faces an unusually divided right. Although it has slipped in the polls, former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party continues to hover around nine seats, while Yamina is on 11.
  • To counter this, the prime minister is playing up the threat of a Lapid-led government, hoping that will drive disenchanted right-wing voters back into the Likud camp. This so-called “gavalt” campaign – Yiddish for an expression of alarm – is a tactic which Netanyahu has long played in tight elections.
  • But Netanyahu’s efforts are complicated by the danger that, as he rallies the right-wing vote, he pushes down the overall number of seats won by parties his bloc needs in the Knesset after the election.
  • The most imperilled right-wing party is Religious Zionism – an alliance including the far-right Otzma Yehudit and the anti-gay Noam party – which has at times been polling close to the electoral threshold. Without its backing, Netanyahu will struggle to assemble a majority. As he toured West Bank settlements at the weekend, the prime minister gave its campaign a boost, saying: “The Religious Zionist party will be with us under all circumstances. I have no problem if you decide to vote for them.”

Unsettling news

In the “settler heartland” of Gush Etzion, Haaretz last week found right-wing voters suffering “Bibi fatigue” and flirting with backing New Hope or Yamina. “Right-wingers are finally willing to say that Bibi has become more of a hindrance to the country instead of a benefit,” Uri Bank, a veteran Gush Etzion political operative, told the paper. “Before this election, if you wanted to come out against Bibi, you had to stop and worry about being called a left-winger.”

Michaeli wins the “pink collar” vote

New Labor leader Merav Michaeli (pictured), who has revived the fortunes of a party which once seemed likely to fail to even make it into the Knesset, appears to be polling well among women voters – including some who normally back the right-leaning ultra-Orthodox parties.

  • Michaeli’s appeal as a staunch feminist and the only female leader of a mainstream party has been coupled with a conscious effort by Labor to reach out to women voters.
  • Labor party polls indicate that up to 70 percent of those planning to back the party are women.
  • “Netanyahu, during the coronavirus pandemic, returned women to the kitchen,” Michaeli has suggested. “The Labor party, in its strategy for exiting the crisis, will carry out a ‘pink-collar revolution’, investing in the women who work as caregivers in Israel: the teachers, nurses, social workers, psychologists in the public service, all the women doing the emotional labour, investing in our society.”
  • Entitled “a house of equality”, the radical programme Labor launched last week includes plans for cutting the working week from 42 to 37 hours, giving parents a full year of parental leave, equally divided between both parents, and free education from the age of one to university. The programme would be partly funded by stopping the state spending money in West Bank settlements beyond the blocs which abut the 1967 lines.
  • Polls also indicate nearly four in 10 of the women who said they intended to vote Labor self-identified as somewhat religious – an unusual demographic for the largely secular party. However, Michaeli has deliberately sought to break beyond Labor’s traditional boundaries by, for instance, conducting interviews with ultra-Orthodox media outlets.

Back to the future

The notoriously fractious Labor party is displaying an uncharacteristically united front under Michaeli’s leadership. The party is deliberately attempting to link its new leader to the slain Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. As well as a host of Labor heavyweights turning out for the launch of the party’s programme launch last week, a new video features Avraham Shochat, Efraim Sneh and Moshe Shahal – who all served in Rabin’s government – together with other senior figures from the party in its past, including Amram Mitzna and Shlomo Ben Ami.

The Israeli-Arab kingmaker?

If the current polls are borne out, Ra’am may find itself as the kingmaker.

  • The anti-Zionist Islamist party would make a strange bedfellow for Netanyahu. However, Ra’am broke away from the Joint List just before the elections precisely because of leader Mansour Abbas’ willingness to contemplate cooperating with Likud, including helping the prime minister escape his legal difficulties, if it would help advance the interests of Israeli-Arabs. Ra’am is now indicating it is open to working with the anti-Netanyahu bloc.
  • The Hadash, Ta’al and Balad parties which remain in the Joint List alliance are committed to opposing Netanyahu and backed Benny Gantz of Blue and White to become prime minister after the election – the first time since 1992 that an Israeli-Arab party has made a recommendation to the president on who should form a government.
  • Other factors are also at play. Justifying the split last month, Ra’am alluded to Joint List leader Ayman Odeh’s Knesset vote last year to ban “conversion therapy” for LGBT people saying: “The other factions of the Joint List have refused to commit to not voting on laws that contradict the beliefs of our conservative society, including support for homosexuality.” But Ra’am may have jumped before it was pushed, with the left-wing Hadash warning: “We won’t allow a branch of the Likud party in the Joint List.”
  • Despite a history of playing the race card in election campaigns, Netanyahu has changed tack and fought hard for the votes of Israeli-Arabs. That effort may be meeting with some success: a new poll shows one in three Israeli-Arabs want him to remain as prime minister, with 56 percent opposed. Among Jewish Israelis, 43 percent support Netanyahu remaining as premier, while 52 percent do not.

What happens next

“I always say Bibi is like Hamas,” the former Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, told the Jewish Insider website. “When Hamas goes to war, it only has to not lose, in order to win. Bibi has to only not lose in order to win.” If no government can be formed, he suggested, Netanyahu will continue to serve as prime minister as the country prepares for a fifth – or sixth – elections. “If he doesn’t lose, he’s prime minister for another four or five months.”