Over the past couple of months, from my vantage point across an ocean and a continent, I have observed a growing disconnect between most of Israel's political analysts - and the actual campaign for Israel's general elections, which will take place in only 3 days.
In October when the election was announced, there was near-universal agreement that it's all going to be one big garbage time. Prime Minister Bibi will cake-walk it to a second consecutive - and third overall - term in office, and the Right-dominated Israeli status quo of the 2000's will continue. I tended to agree with this view, but with this caveat: in Israel, anyone who calls the election results 3 months in advance is a fool.
In my eyes, from mid-November the campaign became more and more interesting by the week. By now, I must confess that for me it's been one of the most entertaining campaigns to follow. As a non-state-emissary expatriate I cannot vote, and in the 3 previous elections during our stay here I was far less engaged. Maybe it's Facebook, and the incessant stream of punch lines and visual memes (check out the memes in my previous diary from December). Maybe.
But also, my eyes tell me that something is happening. And yet, the dominant pundit line (parroted all over the English-language news universe, too) has continued to be "garbage time, garbage time, the election's in Bibi's pocket, the Left's finished, .... b-o-r-i-n-g ! ..."
"King Bibi"? What a Joke.
First, the myth of "King Bibi" is once again (for the umpteenth time) proven baseless. Most Israelis really don't like Bibi. The massive, unprecedented protests of 2011 (now, perhaps prematurely, seen almost as a "Midsummer's Night Dream" with no sequel) were in a large part personally directed against him.
And now during the campaign itself, he's become more and more vulnerable:
- He launched on Gaza in mid-November, in a cynical transparent attempt to boost his electoral standing, but emerged with multiple eggs on his face.
- Immediately afterwards, Palestine was accepted to the UN as an observer state, with only Israel, the US and a handful of tiny US satellites voting no - an outcome that Bibi had spent immense diplomatic efforts over more than a year to prevent.
- On the "Bibi's stable economy" front, the bad news just keep coming. The most recent: the budget shortfall in 2012 was nearly $10B, or 4.2% of the GDP - far more than the government had previously reported. It is my contention, that Bibi's main motive for calling elections a few months early despite a reasonably stable coalition, was the wish to get them over with - before the bad news and deeply unpopular austerity steps he'll doubtlessly try to push through.
On top of this: nobody mentions that, but Bibi is a lousy campaigner. In 4 election campaigns in which Bibi led Likud, his party never emerged the largest. Even in 1996, the country's first direct-personal elections to the Prime Minister in which he upset Peres 50.5%-49.5%, Likud came in second to Labor in Knesset seats (32 vs. 34, out of 120). Then, in 1999 Bibi was voted out, and Likud fell to 19 seats. He wouldn't get his hand dirty sitting in opposition, so he "retired" right away... for a couple of years, that is. The next time he led Likud was 2006, and Likud came in fourth with only 12 seats. Last elections - 2009 - he managed to score a come-from-ahead upset loss to the center-right Kadima party (27 to 28),gaining the premiership only via dirty back-room maneuvers.
0 out of 4 is not a coincidence. Certainly not when it happens at a time when your side of the political map dominates the nation. Indeed, the only thing that's sure about Tuesday's elections, is that this time - finally - Bibi will emerge as the head of the candidate list that wins the most seats.
How did he manage to guarantee that? In another signature back-room deal, he agreed with his deputy Lieberman (whose personality-cult party has cornered the market on the "Russian" vote in the past two elections), to run in a single list on a 2:1 alternating ratio. He didn't bother to ask his party members, who were less than thrilled. Bibi - always the hysterical Basil Fawlty type of decision-maker - couldn't bear the thought of failing for a 5th time. Mind you, it is not a party merger: in another one of the endless string of news embarrassments Bibi has produced for himself this campaign, it became known that the parties split their ways, each taking its own marbles, the day after the election, and Bibi will have to negotiate with Lieberman almost like with any other party.
Anyway, together these two lovely parties won 42 seats in 2009. Given that Kadima had disintegrated to smithereens - and it's a good thing, because it was always more hoax than genuine party, and given that further left, Labor is still picking up its own pieces - there is nothing nearly close to that size around.
But since its announcement, the Likud-Beitenu amalgam has been on a steady gradual decline, losing 1-2 seats per week. It is now polling mostly in the low 30's. Take out Lieberman's cut, and come government-maintaining time, Bibi might have barely 20 seats to his name, with which to dominate a 120-seat chamber.
So the election's real story is Bibi's deep unpopularity, and the public's general malaise
Unfortunately, as I detailed in December, by refusing do draw a contrast with Bibi on any topic except the economy, Labor's leader has missed a golden opportunity. We might have been talking now about a tightening race; instead, we'll likely have a fragmented Knesset parliament with no "King" or "Queen".
Yes, Bibi is still the overwhelming favorite to be Israel's next Prime Minister. But the odds now seem even greater, that he'll be much weakened, and will face a far more energetic opposition, than in the current term.
It's all academic, some say; ending the Occupation is not on the menu anyway so the elections are just a game of distraction. I beg to differ. One of the hallmarks of uphill struggles against oppressive systems, is that they seem dominant and even scornful of your feeble attempts - right until the last moment. Then some internal fault cracks open, and it's over. See under Soviet Union. See under Apartheid. See under U.S. Slavery.
Similarly, an election whose results are humiliating for Bibi, and after which no one can set up a government that lasts very long, could be such a crack. And given the huge number of undecided or unsure - most polls quote 20%-30% - the crack might open with the bang of an election-night surprise.
Sticking to the Headline, Changing the Bylines?
Pundits don't like admitting they were wrong. So as the "King Bibi" line crumbled, Israeli analysts stayed with the bottom line ("garbage time" etc.), but have changed the highlight. They've tried two, in fact: "2013 will be the Right's biggest victory" and "2013 will be the Left's worst defeat."
Wrong and Wrong again. And again. Continue reading if you want to learn how and why.
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