Paroxysms of irrepressible nattering seized numerous local know-it-alls hot on the heels of the Knesset election results. None-too-amazingly they were of one mind. While brimming with self-importance, few had anything original to contribute to our understanding of what happened. Every self-aggrandized analyst, so at least it seems, obligingly subscribed to the prescribed conventional wisdom.
That wisdom is predicated on a number of premises which by and large went unchallenged.
The first and most cardinal is that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was duly humbled by a host of challengers, primarily that neophyte wunderkind Yair Lapid, whose dazzling star ascended overnight to mesmerize all and sundry.
The second premise, disseminated with particular relish, was that not only did Netanyahu’s alliance with Avigdor Liberman not produce profitable yields, but it actually appeared to have embarrassingly backfired. Hence, Netanyahu was devastatingly snookered.
Although Netanyahu was returned to power against the fervent wishes of our omniscient talking heads, their entire coterie pronounced him the outright loser. Lots of ink was spilled to further this thesis, to say nothing of prodigious airtime allotted for the same prattle.
This popular motif was conjoined to a related claim that parity now exists between the two sides of Israel’s political divide – our alleged Left (doves) and alleged Right (hawks). This, it was proclaimed with none-too-objective glee, meant a cushy gain for the Left versus a crushing comedown for the Right, which lost the predominance heretofore taken smugly for granted. To uphold this contention it was vital to include Lapid in the left-of-center configuration, even if without empirical justification and regardless of Lapid’s own hoarse protestations.
Someone – whose name vexingly escapes me – once quipped: “Nothing is ever what it seems, but everything is exactly what it is.” Examined with less bias, the very same election returns tell quite a different story.
If anything, Netanyahu was a victim of his own success.
Put differently, Lapid cunningly rode on Netanyahu’s coattails. He wasn’t the only one, either. Naftali Bennett from Bayit Yehudi managed the same feat even more overtly and impudently, as did Shas’s Arye Deri – ever poised to bite off a mouthful of Likud support.
Quite shamelessly, both Bennett and Deri appealed to their respective pools of potential quasi-sympathizers in the Likud and reassured them that voting for another list would still guarantee a continued Netanyahu premiership. The added bonus, they asserted, would be rarified accentuation of lofty ideals or sectarian interests.
Cheeky photo-montages of Bennett together with Netanyahu soon appeared on giant outdoor billboards, lending the insidious impression that yesteryear’s split ballot had been resurrected.
The split ballot was the foremost feature of an attempt to reform our electoral system in the 1990s. It provided for a direct vote for prime minister, accompanied by a separate choice of parliamentary faction. The logic was to shield the government from coalition-related extortion, to rid us of small pesky parties and mitigate the shortcomings of our nationwide absolute proportional representation system.
Yet contrary to propaganda, the much-ballyhooed reform managed spectacularly to achieve the precise reverse. The politicians and political scientists who concocted the split ballot were warned of the hardly unpredictable consequences of their hubris, but to no avail. And so the split ballot allowed members of the electorate to luxuriate in voting for diminutive single-issue Knesset lists, while assuaging their consciences by also voting for the prime ministerial candidate who represented the bloc of their general leaning.
The upshot was a drastic decline for the large parties (from which none has to date recovered) and a far more fragmented Knesset than ever. Concomitantly and inevitably, coalition-formation became all the more hopelessly tangled. The professed panacea was tried only twice – in 1996 and 1999. The irrefutable flop was repealed, with a universal sigh of relief, in 2001.
Yet somehow, some otherwise presumably intelligent voters still assume that by opting for satellite parties they won’t injure the prospects of their preferred prime ministerial contender.
That, anyway, was the impression calculatingly imparted by both Bennett and Deri – even after the Central Elections Committee reprovingly rapped their knuckles for the ruse. Bennett restored his party’s strength to what it was in the National Religious Party’s heyday, while Deri managed not to slip back. Both successes were achieved, without pretending otherwise, at the Likud’s expense.
Lapid essentially did the same, though not as blatantly. From the launching of his campaign (significantly in Ariel of all places), he sought to appeal with much ado and fanfare to voters solidly within the rightist National Camp. And so Lapid sang “eternally unified” Jerusalem’s praises, declared that our ancient capital is “the source of our revived national vibrancy,” that the Tower of David will forever be of greater imperative than the towers of Tel Aviv.
Nothing of the sort has been heard from the left wing, nor is likely to be heard.
There is more. After Hamas aimed its rockets at Tel Aviv just a few months ago, Lapid warned against making further territorial concessions. He pointedly refrained from badmouthing Netanyahu.
In truth, the charismatic former TV anchor aimed his alluring pitches at all political directions. Still, despite his none-too- definable political identity, captivating looks, toothy grin and simplistic mantras, the polls – until quite late in the game – forecast somewhere between eight and 11 Knesset seats for his list. How did it then suddenly skyrocket to a whopping 19? That’s where the Likud comes in.
Tzipi Livni and Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich sought to recruit the enigmatic celebrity into a leftist union that would function as a counterweight to the Netanyahu-Liberman amalgam. Friendly pollsters stoked their zeal by speculating that a Yacimovich-Livni-Lapid front could beat Bibi. This sufficed to generate a merry media fest.
Nonetheless, Lapid never hemmed and hawed. He unceremoniously pulled out the rug from beneath his would-be partners. No way, he declared for all to hear, would he join them. That was when his bandwagon was abruptly propelled forward. It now became apparently safe for Likudniks to do the cool, trendy thing and vote for the cutest all-the-rage meteor in our firmament. It seemed no less safe than to vote for Bennett or Deri and way more hip.
And then, when Lapid was already on the upswing and cutting deep into the core Likud constituency, he was helped yet further by none other than Netanyahu.
It was from the prime minister’s own entourage that the word went out to the nation notifying all voters that the first likely coalition partner to get a phone call from Netanyahu would be Lapid. Could Likud loyalists get a more authentic and authoritative seal of approval for the suave TV icon? Bibi and Yair are obviously a team. If the PM kisses up to the newbie already before polling day, then why not vote for him?
To top that, Netanyahu began to publicly endorse Lapid’s catchphrases about drafting yeshiva students and easing middle class burdens in a variety of populist contexts. Even Likud diehards liked these sounds. Even they could scarcely avoid the message that it’s OK to vote for Lapid, as he is certain to partner up with Netanyahu, and Netanyahu is certain to head the next government.
Therefore, rather than this having been an anti-Netanyahu protest vote, as is the voguish consensus among conformist opinion-molders, it in fact was quite the opposite.
Netanyahu backers were convinced that Lapid was a safe option. They assumed they were taking no chances and yet running with the fashionable herd. By voting for Lapid, they could place a more focused emphasis on issues that given voters want their preferred prime minister, Netanyahu, to place atop his agenda. They regard the moribund so-called peace process as a nonstarter. Rather than harp about a Palestinian state, they want their government to dwell on the Jewish state’s affairs.
This was fine-tuning the pro-Netanyahu predilection – just as in the bad old days of the split ballot.
Lapid may not have used Netanyahu’s image in his campaign, but his well-chosen words subliminally had much the same effect on his target audience. Instead of incurring Netanyahu’s wrath as Bennett did, Lapid actually received the Likud leader’s electorally advantageous thumbs-up.
By conservative estimates it is judged that no less than a full third of Lapid’s votes came directly from the Likud, courtesy of that pre-election flirt between himself and Netanyahu.
The amorphous return of the split ballot, of course, would not have been possible had this been a run-of-the-mill campaign. But it wasn’t. For the first time since 1973, the incumbent prime minister faced no viable rival. He was a shoo-in. There was no question he’d be reelected.
That in itself had a liberating effect specifically on those who wanted to see him remain in office. If Netanyahu was in no danger, it was thought harmless to indulge again in the luxuries once afforded by the split ballot.
Rather than Lapid’s triumph having ensued from an anti-Netanyahu turnout, Netanyahu was ironically hurt by his own ostensible invincibility.
Normally in an electoral showdown, a popular leader creates momentum for fellow candidates from his own party. These candidates are then described as having been ushered in on the coattails of their headliner. But nothing that is self-evident in other democracies can be taken at face value in our idiosyncratic arena.
Here Netanyahu’s broad coattails didn’t benefit his own hangers-on. Quite the contrary. Netanyahu’s most voracious competitors for parliamentary power hitched rewarding rides on his coattails.
Now the happy hitchhikers whom Netanyahu enabled-cum-emboldened will crow exultantly, haggle fiercely, hobble him with conditions from hell, pitilessly pull him in opposing directions and generally spare no effort to make his life more than a little miserable.