By David M Halbfinger
History seemed to be closing in on Benjamin Netanyahu.
Even as he neared the mark set by Israel’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion, as the longest-serving prime minister, an array of new enemies was rising up around him. He faced an unexpectedly stiff challenge from Benny Gantz, a 6-foot-4 former army chief and career soldier who could credibly offset Netanyahu’s marquee credential as Israel’s “Mr. Security”.
The attorney general wanted to indict him on corruption charges, accusing him of trading lucrative government favors for positive news coverage. A new scandal bubbled up when he revealed that he had secretly approved the sale of advanced submarines to Egypt then lied about it. Even his right-wing base was growing weary of his self-obsession.
Yet, if the election Tuesday was to be a referendum on Netanyahu’s record, he was happy to run on it.
He has been on a roll, opening ties with Muslim countries in Africa, thawing relations with Sunni Arab leaders, lining up allies in Eastern Europe and forging trade ties in Latin America and Asia. He pocketed President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and, just two weeks ago, of its sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
On Thursday, he capitalized on his rapport with President Vladimir Putin by drawing on Russia’s help to bring home the remains of an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon nearly 37 years ago.
Gantz has asked voters to focus instead on the corruption, self-dealing and arrogance that have tarnished Netanyahu’s achievements. Against Netanyahu’s potent politics of division — pitting right against left, Jew against Arab, religious against secular, working-class against rich, peripheral towns against Tel Aviv, those whose grandparents fled Arab lands against those whose grandparents were kibbutznik pioneers — Gantz has offered a message of unity and healing, of putting “Israel before all.”
Neither man has said much about policy. The result is that one of Israel’s most consequential elections has been one of its ugliest and shallowest.
There were no debates and few serious interviews of the leading candidates. Get-out-the-vote rallies have been replaced by Facebook and Twitter videos and anonymous texts.
Much as Netanyahu-versus-Gantz focused attention on the election as a head-to-head contest, under Israel’s chaotic and confusing parliamentary system, a panoply of small parties could tip the balance. If the election is close, parties that control just a few seats can give one side or the other enough to assemble a governing majority.
The unlikeliest kingmaker was Moshe Feiglin, last seen in Israeli politics pushing a far-right agenda of annexation of the entire West Bank, including a Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount.
Now, having grabbed headlines with a call for legalization of marijuana, the iconoclastic politician is winning over thousands of young people with a free-market platform aimed at reducing the cost of living: a flat tax, privatization of hospitals, an end to import tariffs, and land reform to lower housing costs.
There was high drama in other slices of the electorate, too. The storied Labor Party seemed in danger of extinction under its new chairman, Avi Gabbay, a former center-right minister who was rejected by many of Labor’s core, old-style liberal Zionists. But a feisty ad campaign restored its relevance and many voters were willing to overlook Gabbay to return Labor’s lawmakers to parliament.
On the right, a bold move by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who broke away from the Jewish Home party to form a more secular-oriented New Right party, seemed in danger of backfiring. The two youthful leaders, who had each seemed in line to one day succeed Netanyahu, were battling to hold onto their seats, let alone their ministries.
The Arab vote was also a wild card. A strong turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population, had the potential to raise the number of votes needed to make it into parliament, jeopardizing smaller parties on the right and the left. That prospect particularly threatened the party of Avigdor Lieberman, the hawkish former defense minister who had pushed through those election rules in the first place in an effort to sideline Arab parties.
Yet Arab voters seemed even less enthusiastic about voting than Jews. A boycott-the-vote campaign gained strength in the past month, in part an expression of popular frustration with Arab politicians like Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi, whose jockeying for supremacy caused the Arab coalition to break into factions.
Gantz’s braggadocio about the number of Palestinian fighters he had killed in Gaza in 2014 also dampened any excitement Arab voters might have felt about seeing him oust Netanyahu.
Gantz has to come across as tough to defeat Netanyahu. His team includes Yair Lapid, a popular former talk-show host and amateur boxer, and two other popular former army chiefs, Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi. Appearing together along the Lebanese and Gaza borders in Uniqlo jackets and jeans, the four sought to soothe jittery Israelis, as if to say, yes, there could still be a secure and stable Israel without Netanyahu in charge.
But Gantz’s partnership with Lapid included a promise to rotate the prime ministership, with Gantz going first and Lapid taking over after 2 1/2 years. The arrangement struck many voters as a sign that Gantz lacked fire in the belly. Indeed, the humility that Gantz projected, in stark contrast to Netanyahu’s claim of indispensability, entailed a risk of its own.
Most Israelis prefer their leaders to be rapacious alpha dogs, said Mitchell Barak, an American-born pollster who once worked for Netanyahu. “Say what you will about Bibi,” he said, using the prime minister’s nickname. “He wants the job more than anyone else. He wants it more than anything in the world.”