Tel Aviv—Just four days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received raucous applause while addressing a joint session of the US Congress, tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to call for his ouster under the banner, “Israel Wants Change.” Former Mossad chief and ex-Likud member Meir Dagan told the crowd that Israel is suffering from its worst leadership crisis since the state was established. A few days earlier he had called Netanyahu’s speech before Congress “bullshit.”
It is unlikely the address, which dominated headlines in Israel but stirred far more controversy in the United States, will play a significant role in Israeli voters’ decision at the ballot box tomorrow. Netanyahu, who seeks a third consecutive term and a fourth in his political career, has not benefited from it—final polls taken Friday show that his Likud party is losing popularity and is now behind his chief opponent, the Zionist Union, by four Knesset seats.
There are plenty of other reasons for Netanyahu’s declining popularity, among them, a state comptroller report on his and his wife’s lavish spending, another one outlining his failure to address soaring real estate costs, his recent campaign video comparing labor unions to Hamas militants and leaked documents indicating his willingness to withdraw to the 1967 lines in the framework of covert negotiations conducted with the Palestinians in 2013. Likely fearing this last piece of news would allow parties to the right of him to poach seats from Likud, Netanyahu told an Israeli paper today that if he was re-elected, there would not be a Palestinian state. He thus effectively recanted his 2009 Bar Ilan speech, in which he’d said he supported a two-state solution to the conflict. Now Netanyahu’s rhetoric finally matches his policies.
In recent weeks, several nonpartisan, ad-hoc campaigns have been launched whose sole objective is to kick Netanyahu out of the premier seat. Among them is a group of nearly 200 veteran generals and security officials who have called Netanyahu a danger to Israel’s national security, and a group called V15, which is releasing online videos and doing grassroots organizing in an effort to get Israelis to vote for anyone but Netanyahu. However, they’re not suggesting a clear alternative. As Yonatan Mendel recently wrote in the London Review of Books, “the desire to unseat Netanyahu has become an end in itself rather than a means to anything else.”
The Zionist Union, headed by Labor’s Isaac Herzog together with Tzipi Livni, who served as justice minister and chief negotiator in the outgoing Netanyahu government, have been marketing itself as “not Netanyahu.” The party’s primary campaign slogan is “It’s us or him” (while Netanyahu’s has been, in response, “It’s us or them”). The Zionist Union promises to restore Israel’s image and international standing by resuming negotiations with the Palestinians and showing more respect for Washington. The party appeals to those Israelis who seek a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict but appear content to continue the search without actually achieving any results. On specifics, the Zionist Union isn’t willing to cede East Jerusalem and won’t discuss the Palestinian right of return. Herzog recently said Netanyahu didn’t deal Hamas a hard enough blow in Gaza and called the Palestinian appeal to the International Criminal Court a unilateral offensive against Israel. After six consecutive years of Netanyahu, the Zionist Union’s commitment to the “peace process” may appear to be refreshing, but the promise of never-ending negotiations with no real hope of ending the occupation isn’t all that different from Likud.