In many ways Israel’s upcoming election on Tuesday is a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, even more so than the inconclusive election last April. Bibi. Israel can’t live with him and can’t live without him.
This summer he surpassed Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion as its longest serving Prime Minister. Indeed, for young Israelis voting for the first time this year, for most of their lives Bibi is virtually only Prime Minister they’ve known.
If they have a little historical memory, they might remember Prime Minister Ariel Sharon whose tenure and lifetime of service to Israel beginning with the founding of the state and a famed military career ended abruptly in 2006 following a stroke.
Sharon was succeeded by Ehud Olmert, a career politician whose tenure was abruptly ended by an indictment, trial, and imprisonment on charges from when he served as mayor of Jerusalem.
Since 2009, Israelis have only known Netanyahu as their Prime Minister. While we care about peace, the economy, international relations, employment, education and social welfare, when elections come as they have now for the second time in a year, typically the top three issues that govern the outcome are security, security and security.
To that end, with little exception, under Bibi’s tenure Israel has enjoyed a period of unusual calm. That’s part of what makes him so strong, and having been reelected so many times.
Of course, this is all relative in the sense that Israel has never had a day without threat of war or terror. Under Bibi, we have had multiple battles and mini wars with Hamas in Gaza, and no shortage of Arab terrorism with too many heartbreaking casualties from stabbings, car rammings, shootings and explosions.
But we have not had a repeat of the 2006 Second Lebanon War with relatively high casualties, and for which the army was criticized as being unprepared and millions of Israelis impacted and evacuated from their homes.
And we have not had buses and cafes getting blown up on a regular basis by suicidal Islamic “martyrs” as happened from 2001-2004.
To a degree, although terror still takes place, the violence and threats are “managed.” Despite national frustration that Hamas can still turn up the heat and fire dozens or hundreds of rockets at Israeli communities in the south, and then “peace” (or more accurately relative quiet) is restored after Israeli concessions, for the most part most Israelis don’t feel the direct impact so we feel relative calm.
We know that Hezbollah has as many as 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel which can be launched any time Iran says “go.” Under Bibi, Israel has at least effectively created a deterrent such that the war that may be inevitable hasn’t happened yet. So we feel relative calm.
And we know that there have been a select number of widely reported Israeli attacks on Syrian and Iranian positions in what’s left of Syria. This underscores what Bibi assures is that we have not just the intelligence but the ability to strike anywhere and anytime against threats that may be existential.
So for the calm we feel, even if it’s just before an inevitable storm, Bibi gets credit that it’s materialized under his watch. Or at least that something catastrophic hasn’t happened yet.
The economy is strong, tourism is at record highs, unemployment is low, and many Israelis feel a combination of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”
For these reasons and others, polls show Bibi being the most qualified candidate by nearly 2:1, and is why Israelis can’t live without him.
At the same time, many Israelis feel Bibi has to go, either because he’s served too long or because during this time he’s not only not cultivated and built up logical successors. In fact, there are many who would say that he’s undermined and pushed many successors away. Many Israelis feel it’s time for a change. Even more so, despite being conditioned by the precedent of a previous sitting Prime Minister (and President and other senior political leaders) resigning and going to prison, the different cases for which Bibi might be indicted shortly make it too unpalatable for him to continue.
There’s a growing “anybody but Bibi” movement. That’s limited by the most likely potential victor in this election having wide support despite having no previous political or government experience at all.
While it’s unfair to fault a Prime Minister for the acts and behavior of his wife and kids, a wide confluence of issues also make Israelis want him out to have a new, untarnished, first family that’s less embarrassing.
These are some of the reasons that Bibi is also the Prime Minister that Israelis can’t (and don’t want to) live with.
Ghosts in and out of Netanyahu’s closet are widely known. There remain many factors that can influence the vote down to the last minute since Israel has no early voting. We must be physically present in the country, in our districts, with ID in hand to put a slip of white paper into a blue envelope to cast our votes.
Bibi didn’t win the last election in April, nor did he lose. Polls show that he’s the most qualified by a lot, but that his Likud party is at a dead heat with the opposition Blue and White party.
What will happen is anybody’s guess. But there’s one thing for sure that Israel’s will have on their minds, to Bibi or not to Bibi, that is the question.