Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were over the moon this week, as they started pulling together the next Israeli government. But they should be careful — what they won wasn’t a resounding victory, it was a reprieve.
Yes, it’s true that while all the opinion polls predicted a victory for the rival Zionist Union, and the exit polls predicted a tie, in the end Likud ended up with a six-seat lead. It was certainly a victory within the peculiar Israeli electoral system, but it’s far from a sweeping endorsement.
And that is what’s important for Bibi and his party to remember as they set the tone for their next term, and as they decide how to build their next coalition — because at the moment all indications are that they have ideas above their electoral station. They appear to think that their strength is such that they can build a government giving away few of the key ministries to coalition partners.
Let’s take a break from the electoral stats and imagine a dinner party of 12 Israelis who went to the ballot box, representing a cross section of voters. Only three of them voted for Netanyahu’s Likud.
If you want to give Netanyahu extra credit, and say that voters of the Jewish Home party, and some other right-wing voters wanted him as prime minister, the Bibi contingency at the dinner party still only comes to around four of the 12 guests.
In fact, in broad terms (for we can’t halve or quarter guests), four guests voted right and four left, and two or so voted center and two voted haredi. Interestingly, this is hardly different from what we would have seen after the last election in 2013.
And while analysts never tire of saying that the election was an endorsement for Bibi, let’s keep this idea in some perspective. I spent Election Day traveling Israel, from the Galilee in the north to the Gaza border in the south, talking to normal citizens. And my tour illustrated with surprising clarity that even among the minority of Israelis who backed Bibi at the polling station, many have serious misgivings about him.
People never ceased to surprise me with the depth of these misgivings. During one conversation in Sderot, the Gaza-border community that was bombarded with rockets during the summer and in every previous round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, I was sure that a young man was about to back the Zionist Union. “History teaches us that with Bibi, every two years there is a war,” said Zohar Asapo, who works in transport, adding, “It’s the regime of Bibi that causes it.”
He then stated: “I vote Bibi but I know it won’t be different — but I vote Bibi because I don’t see another option.”
The figures and the feelings that are bringing Netanyahu back to power should have an impact on how he forms his government and how he relates to his nation. He should be generous with government ministries to other parties because only by doing so can he build a stable government, and only with a stable government can he serve the country. And he should return as a more humble, more modest prime minister — one who puts behind him an arrogant election campaign in which he patronized his electorate by failing to release a party platform and zig-zagged on policy, in order to give his citizens more respect and more credit.
Being a man of the right should not impede him in this. In fact, he has an excellent role model. President Reuven Rivlin, also an avowed rightist, has won the admiration of citizens across the political spectrum for his unifying influence, moral integrity and positive contribution to Jewish-Arab relations since he entered office. If Netanyahu is wise, he will be using his statutory consultations with Rivlin over coalition building to learn from him.
This is a commentary on Netanyahu’s victory, and a set of hopes for what he will make of it. Yet I don’t for a moment question his legitimate victory based on the Israeli people’s choice, and his right to be respected internationally as the elected leader of the only democracy in the Middle East — things that the White House would do well to illustrate a better understanding of.
The behavior of Barack Obama, who gives timely congratulations to leaders with far murkier reputations that Netanyahu following their elections, was childish and unacceptable. There are many question marks over Netanyahu’s conduct during the election campaign, and in a recent column I criticized Netanyahu for exploiting tensions with the White House for electoral gain. But when a democratic race is over, the leader of the free world needs to rise above everything and conduct himself as his position befits him.
In a similar vein, the zealousness of Obama’s staff in attacking Netanyahu’s doublespeak on the two-state solution has been bizarre.
Netanyahu’s conduct on the question of whether he supports a two-state solution has been lamentable, with his message constantly changing. But when does the U.S. administration ever go out of its way to give such strong rebuke to the Palestinian side, which is constantly sending out different messages on issues as important as what its real attitude is towards terrorism, and whether it really recognizes Israeli sovereignty in the state’s internationally agreed borders?
Even more importantly, why was the administration’s tone so combative — even as Netanyahu seemed to be trying to backtrack on his hardline position? If Obama felt he couldn’t meet Netanyahu before the election, he could invite him now for a joint press conference in which the Israeli leader would be asked to state his position.
The millions of Israelis who turned out to vote deserve constructive politics from their returning prime minister and constructive diplomacy from the United States.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.