Despite Netanyahu’s Mistakes, The Zionist Camp is Still Playing From Behind

With just under a month left until election day, the Herzog-Livni team still don’t look like winners.


Despite a campaign full of blunders, stumbles, and scandals, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself and his Likud Party in a strong position with the March 17 elections quickly coming into view.

At times, it seemed like Netanyahu and the Likud were doing everything they could to dissuade voters from supporting them. From the party primary to today, Netanyahu has often looked like he just can’t get out of his own way. His primary campaign, which was 90% funded by American donors, was briefly shut down when he found himself disqualified from running to lead the party over alleged improper use of Likud staff and offices. The party comptroller eventually let him back in to the race, but it was indicative of a depressed Likud membership. Even Moshe Feiglin, the redoubtable opponent of Netanyahu for years, passed on the chance to challenge him again, leaving only Danny Danon, who was swept aside easily.

The primary saw Feiglin and his faction of Likud effectively cast out, while the departure of another long-time Netanyahu opponent, Limor Livnat, should have left the party’s leader with a ship ready to sail into the elections.

Party problems would be quickly overshadowed by a series of embarrassing gaffes by Netanyahu. His appearance at the memorial march featuring dozens of world leaders after the terrorist attacks in Paris was undermined by a number of inglorious acts, such as elbowing his way to the front of the march with his guards in tow, but none so awkward as the simple fact that French President Francois Hollande had expressly asked him not to come to Paris. It was only when he learned that rival party leaders Naftali Bennett (of The Jewish Home Party) and Avigdor Liberman (of Israel Beitenu) were going to be heading to the memorials that he decided to make the trip.

Netanyahu at the Paris march. (AFP Photo/Philippe Wojazer)

Netanyahu’s remarks about the Paris attacks, specifically his call to French Jews to immediately immigrate to Israel, were met with incredulity, and repeating the same behavior after the recent attacks in Copenhagen brought many Jewish and non-Jewish figures to openly and angrily denounce him.

“The fact that you’re in an election campaign doesn’t mean you can just make any statement,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls earlier this week. “The place for French Jews is France.” Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt declared that “the Jewish community is an important part of Denmark. We will stand together and continue the everyday life we know. We stand together as Danes.” Denmark’s former Chief Rabbi responded to Netanyahu by curtly noting that “I don’t think it was the right way to say it,” and the current chief rabbi expressed his disappointment.

Netanyahu has also faced widespread domestic and international criticism over his plans to address a joint-session of Congress to share his “warnings” about a possible deal with Iran over that country’s nuclear program. His visit, and more so the way it was scheduled so as to purposefully keep the White House out of the loop, has aroused the ire of many in the United States. A considerable portion of the Democratic members of the Senate and House are planning on skipping his speech. Vice President Biden, who would normally be present at such a speech in his capacity as president of the Senate, will conveniently be out of the country during Netanyahu’s visit. President Obama also has no plans to meet with the prime minister.

A recent poll showed most Americans disapproving of Netanyahu’s visit, and even most Israelis oppose his visit to Congress. Netanyahu is being viewed as openly challenging Obama on his own turf and forcing politicians to choose sides.

The latest story, though, is the current scandal over the Netanyahu family wasting public funds to maintain a lavish lifestyle at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem and at their other private homes. According to the state comptroller’s office, which compiled the spending report, there is enough evidence of misuse of state resources to even make a criminal case a possibility.

This many mistakes would kill most election campaigns, and yet Netanyahu and his Likud continue to stand strong, with most polls showing them in a tie or near-tie with their only serious opponent, The Zionist Camp.

Lieberman, Netanyahu, and Bennett (courtesy i24 News)

How? In early January, Likud seemed to be shedding supporters, only to find them scooped up by Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home. The announcement by Knesset opposition leader and Labor Party head Isaac Herzog that he would be running a joint campaign with Hatnuah Party leader Tzipi Livni as part of the new “Zionist Camp” list electrified their supporters. For the first time in years, there appeared to be an actual alternative to Netanyahu, one that could not just run, but win. Moshe Kahlon, a former leading Likud member who had left politics after breaking with Netanyahu, returned to the scene leading his new Kulanu Party that looked primed to siphon off Likud’s more center-leaning members. Things should have appeared quite bleak for Netanyahu.

Two major factors have been working in Netanyahu’s favor:

First, he is dominating the right-wing vote. Almost as soon as Bennett started picking up supporters, he started losing them again. No one out-Netanyahus-Netanyahu, and the Prime Minister counter-attacked Bennett’s party by going after his base: voters in the settlements. Netanyahu recently visited the settlement of Eli in the West Bank, and has plans to go to Israeli settlements in Hebron in the coming weeks. He has been consistently gaining while Jewish Home has been plummeting. Once looking at a robust showing of winning as many as 18 seats in polls, Jewish Home has fallen to as little as 11 in the latest polls. Netanyahu framing the election as one of “Right vs. Left” has convinced many right-wing voters to jump to Likud in order to bolster the prospects of the Right’s strongest party.

Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Beitenu party, who ran a joint-list with Likud in the last election, have been crashing since the dissolution of that partnership. Like Bennett, Lieberman is losing supporters who are jumping on the Likud bandwagon, but he has also been plagued (again) by corruption scandals involving members of his party and perhaps even himself. He had pushed for a new threshold for entry into the Knesset to be put into place, meaning a party must win four seats to be able to be let in. It was meant to hobble the smaller parties, who are mainly Israeli-Arab/Palestinian or ultra-religious, but polls are showing he is now in risk of actually falling below that same threshold he so vehemently advocated for.

Netanyahu has effectively sidelined the right-wing parties, who will have enough seats to support his bid to be reconfirmed as Prime Minister, but not enough to mount a genuine challenge to him. With his right flank secure, he has the ability to turn his full focus on attacking The Zionist Camp and its leaders.

Avoiding the social and economic issues, which are the strong areas for The Zionist Camp, Netanyahu has instead taken to assailing them from his old bastion of foreign policy and security. He made his name playing on the fears of Israeli voters during the early days of the peace process with the Palestinians, and his strategy remains much the same. Whether it’s about ISIS, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or anything related to security, his message is simple: “I will protect you. I can be relied on for that.” Netanyahu might not be bold, he might not make peace with the Palestinians, but his “safety blanket” appeal remains a key to his success.

The second factor behind Netanyahu’s continued strong showing is that the Zionist Camp’s campaign is an absolute mess. A balagan, as it would be described in Hebrew.

Herzog and Livni (center) at a campaign event. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Team Herzog-Livni doesn’t enjoy the same sort of unassailable position among the center-left as Netanyahu does with the right-wing of Israeli voters. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which looked ready to collapse at the beginning of the campaign season, has staunched the bleeding and has been posting solid numbers in the polls. Zahava Gal-On’s Meretz, which is Israel’s Green Party, has lashed out at The Zionist Camp, calling a vote for the Herzog-Livni ticket a vote for Netanyahu. Although their “more of the same” argument about the Zionist Camp has failed to garner them much more support, it has stolen a bit of the wind from under the Camp’s wings. The appearance of Kulanu has also taken away as many votes from The Zionist Camp as it has from any other party as it tries to establish itself as the true party of Israel’s middle class.

The Zionist Camp has also failed to make a dent in Netanyahu’s image as “Mr. Security.” Neither Herzog nor Livni are considered particularly strong on security issues, and their “defense candidate,” former Air Force general Amos Yadlin, has failed to arouse much excitement or confidence. It was thought that Herzog might try to bring in Shaul Mofaz, a former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister whose Kadima party has completely faded from view (and who, like Livni, made the journey from Likud to Kadima and eventually ousted her as party leader), on to bolster The Zionist Camp’s defense credentials, but that failed to materialize. Herzog, and the party with him, have largely avoided trying to make defense issues a major topic of discussion, a tacit admission of Netanyahu’s dominance in that arena.

Most importantly, though, The Zionist Camp has not really appeared to know what sort of campaign it wants to run. When the merger was first announced, Herzog and Livni went everywhere and did everything together, and they were both on the campaign signs and banners. Campaign ads extolled the virtue of the two, who would share power as part of a rotating prime-minister bargain. “It’s us or him,” was the campaign slogan, the “him” of course referring to Netanyahu. Recently though, and especially since Reuven Adler was brought on as campaign manager, Livni has slowly been shifted to the side. They might share the power after an electoral victory, but Adler has made it very clear that, during the race, The Zionist Camp can and will have only one leader: Isaac Herzog.

Adler has recognized, like many, that Herzog probably gave up too much in order to get Livni on board. Livni, whose Hatnuah probably would have been kicked out of the Knesset, has too much of a reputation for moving from party to party, is not particularly popular, and it’s hard to see why such a high price was paid to make The Zionist Camp happen. She is not exactly out, but it is increasingly clear that she is far from in. From now on, it’s the Herzog Show.

This presents a new problem: Despite being the leader of the opposition, Herzog is not particularly well known. He is the scion of what can be called Israel’s Kennedys, but he himself has never done anything particularly noteworthy. He has served as a lower-level cabinet member in a number of governments, but has never done or said anything that makes him memorable. More so than anything for Herzog, he has struggled to shed the image of a bookish, quiet person; a nerd. Unlike President Obama, though, who turned some criticisms of his wonkish ways into a sort of nerd-chic, Herzog is yet to make such a transformation.

Israel, whether its people like it or not, is very much engaged in personality politics. The days of absolute party loyalty are over; it’s all about the party leader. This does not bode well for Herzog, at least not now. Netanyahu commands attention. People know him, maybe too well. Who is Isaac Herzog? What does he stand for? What’s he passionate about? These are some of the questions Israelis are finding themselves unable to answer about a politician who is trying to frame himself as Israel’s next prime minister.

Campaign slogans: Zionist Camp (top) vs. Likud. (courtesy of Haaretz)

In a Feb. 16 interview with the German Der Spiegel, Herzog was asked whether or not the “the time of the macho politician is over,” and if Israel was ready for a “softie” in power.” He answered yes, that Israel is “ready for a serious, considered and experienced leader. For something else.” He shouldn’t be too sure, though. If the time of “macho politics” is over, no one told Benjamin Netanyahu. The difference between being Prime Minister and leading another losing effort for Labor, who have been out of power for 14 years now, may be Herzog finally breaking out of his shell and taking on Netanyahu man-to-man. Netanyahu wants it to be him versus Herzog, and The Zionist Camp leader should oblige him with a fight.

When asked by Der Spiegel who his role model is, Herzog replied that his role model for Prime Minister is Levi Eshkol, who led Israel during the tumultuous days surrounding the Six-Day War in 1967. “He wasn’t a big charismatic leader,” said Herzog, “he was simply an excellent prime minister and a great leader.” Eshkol had the luxury of being leader of an absolutely dominant force in Israeli politics, what is now known as the Labor Party, which reigned supreme until the Likud revolution in the 1977 elections. Herzog, on the other hand, leads a party undergoing a thinly-veiled crisis in both its leadership and its ranks and that is no-where near electorally dominant. Reuven Adler now has his hands full trying to mold Isaac Herzog into a leader who can convince undecided voters that he is up to the task of being the Prime Minister of Israel.

Garrett Khoury, a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs and an MA Candidate at Tel Aviv University, is the Director of Research and Content for The Eastern Project. Garrett has previously worked with The Israel Project in Jerusalem and The American Task Force on the Western Sahara in Washington, DC. Contact at: garrett.khoury@gmail.com