Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign failed because he had nothing much to say. The world-champion orator, king of political survivors, lost his connection to the public mid-term and has been coasting ever since, in the absence of a serious challenger. He did not offer any hope to Israelis, he conducted a pathetic campaign and, instead of issuing a platform, made do with promising to be a “strong prime minister.”
Netanyahu was aware of his weak position, which was reflected consistently in the polls. He easily beat out all other candidates in response to the question, “Who is most suited to be prime minister?” but he failed to lure a single new voter to Likud. Instead of trying to win the public’s hearts once again or addressing the serious issues that came to light during the 2011 social-justice protests, Netanyahu took the easy way out. He cut a deal to extend the lifespan of his government, joining forces with Yisrael Beiteinu for the election. The agreement with Avigdor Lieberman presumably helped the prime minister to retain his post, but only after a painful slap in the face from voters.
The reasons for the early election – the crisis over drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the army and the difficulty in passing the 2013 budget – came through in the voting results. The public enthusiastically supported the candidates who promised “an equal division of the burden,” namely, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett. Labor, headed by Shelly Yacimovich, did not do as well as expected, mainly because she ran a poor campaign and flip-flopped over whether she would agree to join a Likud-led government. Still, she increased Labor’s strength considerably, because she campaigned on the social-justice protests and added leaders of the movement to her ticket.
Netanyahu knew that Israelis are concerned about the economy, housing prices and Haredi draft evasion, but he chose to ignore these issues in favor of the Iranian threat, “indivisible Jerusalem” and plans to build thousands of homes in the settlements. Again and again – including on Election Day itself – he was photographed at the Western Wall and with Israel Defense Forces soldiers. All this may have looked good on Netanyahu’s Facebook page, but it didn’t speak to voters’ hearts.
As his party’s Knesset seats melted away in the polls, Netanyahu began to panic. His odd announcement, two days before the election, that he was appointing reformist outgoing minister Moshe Kahlon as chairman of the Israel Lands Administration, recalled Shimon Peres’ hasty move before the 1981 election: He made the unknown MK Shoshana Arbeli-Almoslino No. 2 on the Labor ticket. It was a clear sign of political distress in the face of voter alienation and, like Netanyahu’s move, it did no good.
In contrast to the disengaged Netanyahu, Tuesday’s big winner, Lapid, adapted his messages to voters’ interests. His strategy was to find the path of least resistance: Because he aggravated fewer people than any other candidate, he won votes from many disaffected Kadima and Labor supporters and from more than a few fed-up former Likud voters, presumably. His success proves that people want hope and that they respect candidates who offer them a clear platform and an action plan, not just a hollow cult of personality.
The seasoned Netanyahu forgot this, apparently believing the fawning magazine articles that crowned him “King Bibi” the irreplaceable. Likud paid the price at the polls.