In Tuesday’s Knesset elections in Israel, Israeli Prime Minster Benyamin Netanyahu pulled off what could only be described as a stunning come-from-behind landslide victory. His Likud Party increased from 24 to 30 seats. In Israel’s Party List-only system of proportional representation, coalition governments aren’t just the norm but often are an unwieldy and frequently fractious alliance of motley collections of minor parties. With the party vote threshold raised in the 2015 election to 3.25% (up from 2%), it has meant that only 10 parties made in into the Knesset (versus 12 in the 2013 elections). After Likud’s surprising vote, Bibi’s pathway to a right leaning governing coalition is pretty clear and uncomplicated.
On Thursday last week, the last 5 public opinion polls in Israel had Likud receiving from only 17 to 23 seats with every poll pointing to the Herzog-led Zionist Union, Israel’s largest centre left alliance, picking up more seats and thus most likely to be given the nod by the Israeli President to have the first crack at forming a government. Netanyahu’s opponents in Israel and the left across the world were berating him for a tactical blunder in both calling the snap election and for his decision to address the US Congress on the Iranian nuclear deal and were eagerly writing his political obituary.
Such obituaries seemed not unreasonable given that Netanyahu faced a number of difficult hurdles:
- The recent defection of his most popular minister (Moshe Kahlon) who formed his own centrist party Kulanu and who would give no indication that he would support his old colleague;
- Rapidly escalating housing costs in Israel shutting out lower income people from the housing ladder and inflation eating into the living standards of the poor boosting the campaign of centre left parties;
- A sitting US President more hostile to Israel than any predecessor – a hostility manifest in a number of toxic ways (Obama’s refusal to meet Netanyahu on his visit when he gave his speech and his implacable opposition to the speech, the recent Administration decision restricting intelligence regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, threatening to shut off funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system in the latter part of the recent Hamas war, the recent appointment of Robert Malley as the NSC’s Middle East Coordinator – the most openly anti-Israeli person to hold this position, Obama’s advisors’ leaked position indicating an Administration preference for Israel to retreat to the tiny and indefensible 1948 Armistice lines and Obama and Kerry pressuring Israel to settle the last Hamas war BEFORE the terror tunnels were destroyed leaving Hamas’ network intact);
- The intense backdrop of the Geneva negotiations between Iran and P5 + 1 nations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment. Obama seems desperate for a big legacy foreign policy achievement and Netanyahu is adamant it is a bad deal that smooths rather than impedes Iran’s pathway to the bomb;
- The high profile boycott of some 50 Democrat Congress members from Netanyahu’s recent speech;
- The presence in Israel of Obama campaign guru Jeremy Bird with the so-called V15 pressure group funded to promote essentially “anyone but Bibi” to win this election. V15 merged with One Voice, a pro-Palestinian left leaning lobby group funded by US businessman Daniel Lubetsky aimed at massive grassroots election effort to oust Netanyahu. One Voice faces US Senate investigation for receiving a $350,000 State Department grant leading some to conclude that the US government were indirectly funding Netanyahu’s opponents.
The left have been quick to accuse Netanyahu of exploiting latent anti-Arab racism in the Israeli electorate to finesse this result. In the last few days during the Israeli media electioneering blackout, Netanyahu made a final social media pitch to wavering centre right voters flirting with other centre right parties (like Kaluna) to counter the efforts to rally Arab voters to the new Arab list party. This accusation only tells half the story and actually goes to the root of why Netanyahu actually won so handily. It is an echo of the ‘Moment of Truth’ fiasco by Kim Dotcom, Assuange, Snowden et al to try to oust John Key from power in our 2014 election. What Netanyahu said was that V15’s money was being used to bus large numbers of usually complacent Arab voters to the polls to tip the election in favour of the centre left who would be less likely to oppose Obama’s deal with Teheran. Netanyahu pulled the ‘foreign interference in our domestic election’ card forcibly and just at the right time.
There is certainly Bibi fatigue in Israel. Domestic economic issues and the pain felt by many in the current two-tiered Israeli economy were seen to count majorly against him. This makes his decision to speak regarding the Iranian threat and the proposed deal to the US Congress all the more important. It was a speech of Churchillian tone and depth and, whilst Israelis had heard it many times before, enough voters were repelled by the hostile reaction in garnered from the leader of Israel’s erstwhile closest ally that it spooked some voters to vote for the devil they know. When push came to shove on the issue of how to derail Iranian nuclear ambitions, Israelis decided they didn’t want a less experienced, more dovish leader to go squishy on an issue at the heart of Israel’s very survival.
Not only were the opinion AND exit polls wrong, so were the chattering classes and the anti Israeli left all over the world. We should all be grateful for this vibrant little democracy that thrives in a part of the world dominated by dictators and unelected despots surrounded by hostile enemies dedicated to its extinction. Senator Tom Cotton’s letter to the mullahs in Iran spelled out the undeniable truth that any deal Obama strikes with them that is not ratified by the Senate is not binding on the next President. Netanyahu’s plea was the alternative to a bad deal is not no deal but a better deal now has a slightly better chance of being headed.