By Leslie Garvey*
With the January 22 general elections only days away in Israel, the majority of polls and media sources concede that Benjamin Netanyahu is on track to be elected for his third term as prime minister. Backed by the right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc, which is forecast to win 33 to 35 seats, Netanyahu is polling comfortably ahead of the opposition Labor Party, which set to win just 15 to 17 seats.
However, few would truly consider this a triumph for the Likud prime minister. Despite his all but certain victory, reactions to Netanyahu’s campaign from both the left and right have been indifferent at best—and recently, heavily critical. Many have attributed Netanyahu’s current dominance to disorganization and apathy in the Israeli left, with a significant portion of voters undecided or choosing not to vote.
Such indifference is palpable even among Netanyahu’s supporters. To many, he represents more a default choice than an inspiring one, even though he seems to be emphasizing all the “right” issues in his campaign.
Netanyahu has focused heavily, for instance, on bolstering Israeli security. He recently toured the newly completed barricade along Egypt’s border—a technological triumph in border security, fully equipped with state-of-the-art radar technology that delegates from both India and the United States have taken interest in—and later visited the Golan Heights, where construction on a similar wall along Syria’s border is set to begin. He has praised the Egyptian wall’s effectiveness, which has reduced the number of African migrants (or “infiltrators,” in right-wing parlance) from around 2,000 last May to zero this past December.
He has also promised to repatriate “tens of thousands” of African migrants who have come to Israel illegally as the next stage of this border security process. Concerns over illegal immigration have been a hot issue of late, especially since the recent rape of an 83-year-old Israeli woman by an Eritrean migrant prompted protests in Tel Aviv.
A hawkish line on Iran has also been a centerpiece of Netanyahu’s campaign. Addressing West Bank settlement of Ariel, he claimed the world needed to “wake up” to the Iranian threat. Adding a special appeal for the settlement voters, he added, “The danger to the world is not from the university in Ariel or Israeli construction in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The danger comes from Iran, which is building nuclear weapons.”
Yet this emphasis on the Iranian threat does not seem to please Israelis: according to a recent poll by the Times of Israel, 43 percent of likely voters consider economic issues more important than either the Iranian issue or the Palestinian issue. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has also chimed in, publicly criticizing Netanyahu for “wasting” an unaccounted $3 billion on “harebrained adventures” against Iran, a claim defense sources support. Still, Netanyahu has labeled Iran “his generation’s biggest challenge,” taking precedence even over the Palestinian conflict.
And on the issue of Palestine, Netanyahu has been notoriously unpredictable and unclear. Senior officials within the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties have publicly rejected a two-state solution, and Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) Party, recently told the U.S. ambassador that “There is no chance that the projected Netanyahu government will go for any sort of agreement with the Palestinians.” Yet Netanyahu responded that he stands behind the conditions for a two-state solution outlined in his Bar-Ilan speech. At the same time, however, Netanyahu has also announced new settlements along the West Bank, a move that undermines this two-state commitment and may be a bluff to garner settlement votes in the upcoming election.
A New Rising Star
Although Netanyahu has focused on many issues important to right-wing Israelis, the campaign seems to have missed the mark. Coverage has instead focused on criticisms of Netanyahu’s overblown defense spending on Iran, his back-and-forth tiff with U.S. President Barack Obama, and his controversial approval of 6,676 housing units in the occupied West Bank in 2012, up from only 1,607 in 2011 and a few hundred in 2010.
Furthermore, the various campaigns of this election—Netanyahu’s included—have failed to resonate with voters, who have called campaign advertisements “superficial” and “unimaginative,” with many Israelis reportedly “heading for the ballots unmotivated and cynical, if at all.” According to Al-Jazeera, many Israelis “wonder what these upcoming elections are really about,” since Netanyahu pushed the election date forward to bolster his own standing—a move that has perhaps done more to reveal the flaws of his leadership than highlight his victories.
If there can be any true victor from this election in terms of media coverage, it would be an opponent not even yet seated in the Knesset: Netanyahu’s former aide Naftali Bennett.
Bennett is a rising star in right-wing Israeli politics, gaining widespread recognition following his recent disagreements with Netanyahu over settlement evacuation—in which Bennett claimed that if he were still in the Israeli Defense Forces, he would have disobeyed a direct order to “evacuate any Jew from his home.” Charismatic and unapologetic about his hard-line views, Bennett has led his far-right party to new heights in the polls: the Jewish Home Party is expected to win 13 to 15 seats, up from his current six, a gain that would make his party the third largest in the Knesset.
It is now difficult to find any coverage of Netanyahu that does not include at least a mention of Bennett, and it’s not hard to see why. Bennett, as a 40-year-old technology entrepreneur, is young and tech-savvy enough to appeal to Israeli youth, yet authentically Zionist enough to appeal to moderate and radical Israelis alike—and without the religious fanaticism that characterizes many far-right politicians. He is plain-spoken, direct, and refuses to waver on his opinions, particularly concerning the Palestinian issue.
Whereas the besieged Netanyahu has lately felt the need to emphasize his “hazak”—the Hebrew word for strength—Bennett has gone on the offense, even proposing to cut Israel’s massive defense budget and “freeing” Israel from U.S. aid. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he served in an elite IDF unit during the Second Lebanon War and enjoys the backing of many IDF fighters, who stood up to Netanyahu and condemned the Likud party’s criticisms of their “commander” last December.
And whereas Netanyahu’s stance on the Palestinian conflict has been difficult to pin down over the years, Bennett does not even pretend to humor a two-state solution. He avoids overtly religious arguments and instead speaks of the “practical” issues with allowing Palestinians to control half of Israel’s water supply. He has proposed what he calls “The Israeli Stability Initiative,” a radical plan to annex West Bank Area C, grant citizenship for the Palestinians there, and eliminate checkpoints in the rest of the West Bank—yet retain full Israeli security control over the entire territory. As Mitchell Plitnick of Souciant aptly (yet skeptically) observes, perhaps Bennett hopes that this plan will “deflect the charge of an apartheid system of Israeli control.”
To be sure, Bennett—for all his tech savvy and everyman demeanor—represents a mere repackaging of the radical Israeli right, and an extremely successful one at that. He uses his iPhone on stage, quotes Seinfeld and Theodore Roosevelt, and encourages the use of social media to “show the world that life in the Jewish state [is] more than just a series of wars or checkpoints or grim tidings.” It’s an unassuming, relatable act utterly unlike most Israeli politicians, and it makes his outright racism more palatable to the masses. Bennett’s Jewish Home party is even reaching out to Arab Israeli citizens who “love [their] country and [are] willing to perform national service, whether military or civilian,” as if this invitation can somehow mask the fact that he aims to strip almost 4 million Palestinians of any sort of peace process.
Yet it can’t be denied that his message is resonating with Israelis in ways that none of the Knesset candidates have been able to achieve, and not just on the radical right. He is a man with a grand, marketable plan, which is more than can be said of any other politician in the running. And while 67 percent of Israelis still support a two-state peace plan, what will that figure look like after another four years of Netanyahu’s settlements, another four years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and another four years of pitching by the forthright, practical Bennett?
*Leslie Garvey is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.