Can Benjamin Netanyahu lose?
To most experts, the answer has been a definitive and resounding no since the 2015 election, when Likud came back from behind to defeat the opposition Zionist Union. But the question strikes me as misguided. Instead, I wonder whether there is anyone trying to beat Netanyahu. This is a common characteristic of Netanyahu’s close-call wins (1996, 2009, and 2015) and losses (1999 and 2006), which was clearly not present during his one decisive victory in 2013, when Shelly Yachimovich and Yair Lapid opted to run campaigns on narrow socioeconomic issues and never seriously contemplated the possibility of leading a government.
In a recent column for Ynet, Tali Ben Ovadia characterized the opposition’s predicament as a psychological matter: “The great tragedy of the center-left camp in recent years is not Netanyahu, but the fact that they themselves believe in the legend of his invincibility.”
Far from being “King Bibi,” she notes, Netanyahu has most often struggled in election campaigns, provided he faces an opposition with the intent of offering an alternative to Israelis. The temporary suspension of the political crisis sparked by Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the cabinet last week opens a small window for this discussion to have practical meaning.
The 2015 election campaign started off with the same confident predictions of an inevitable Netanyahu win as we see now, but quickly transformed into a close race in the polls. Zionist Union’s 24 seat finish, while disappointing with reference to the polls that projected between 27 and 29 seats for the centrist alliance, was nevertheless a respectable finish from which I imagined a vigorous opposition to Likud rule emerging.
That did not happen. Only a little more than a year passed before Isaac Herzog began eagerly participating in negotiations to join Netanyahu’s fourth (and third consecutive) coalition government. However, he faced stiff resistance from Labor MKs (Erel Margalit, Shelly Yachimovich, and Amir Peretz just to name a few) whose memories extended all the way back to 2011, when Ehud Barak made the calamitous decision to split the Labor Party to keep Netanyahu in power for two more years. Labor is the largest and principal bloc in Zionist Union, which also includes Tzipi Livni’s small Hatnuah faction.
Herzog’s grand plans were eventually scuttled, despite the support of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and former British Prime Minister (and ex-Quartet Representative) Tony Blair for a unity government. He lost in the first round of the Labor Party’s leadership primary in 2017; the second round was won by Labor’s current leader, Avi Gabbay.
I recount this history to present the following hypothesis: the Labor Party’s burning desire to be in government, regardless of circumstance, has gone the way of the dodo. Although Labor has a recent history of getting rid of leaders quickly after elections it doesn’t win, Herzog lost ignominiously and after a period of time in which he was the main advocate for a unity government to pursue nebulous “regional opportunities.” A vote for Herzog was a vote for a pliable and compromising opposition. Labor MKs and members bluntly rejected the prospect of governing with Netanyahu.
Gabbay heard this message loud and clear. He shifted the party rightward in his initial months as leader, but he never seriously considered joining the coalition. To the extent his strategy involved ideological compromises, and there were several troubling ones, they were to right-leaning voters in an appeal to oust Netanyahu, not to prop him up. Left-leaning media outlets and activists have been strongly critical of Gabbay’s leadership, but he should be applauded for resolutely spurning the poisonous sugar rush of supporting Netanyahu for a few powerless cabinet portfolios.
But while Gabbay has set the right posture, his message has been inconsistent and his public persona underwhelming. Alas, effort and seriousness are necessary but not sufficient to end Netanyahu’s grip on power. In July, I suggested that former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz replace Gabbay as Zionist Union’s candidate for prime minister, as he would (hopefully) present a substantive alternative while reassuring Israelis that the country will be in safe hands. A recent poll showed Zionist Union garnering 26 seats under his leadership, not a bad place to start against a supposedly unbeatable Netanyahu. By comparison, a Gabbay-led Zionist Union would win a meager 12 seats.
Gantz is probably not the only one who poses a threat to Netanyahu’s continued rule from the center-left. His name only rises to the top of the list because he seems determined to run in the upcoming election, whenever it does take place. The worst case scenario is Gantz entering the race with his own party, which will ensure the center-left camp has no chance of presenting a potential government to President Rivlin after the election. If Gabbay is concerned about what a fifth Netanyahu government will mean for Israel’s future, he should volunteer to step aside for Gantz.