Netanyahu: So Tantalizingly Close, But No Cigar | Opinion

The story in Israel today is how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came so close, so very close, and yet failed to win. During the last days of the campaign, Netanyahu kept on saying: "We just need one or two more Knesset seats and we win," hoping against hope that he could convince enough last-minute voters to put him over the top. But alas, it looks like Netanyahu was right. He needed just a few more seats, but the voters did not answer his call, and now it looks like he may be on the way out.

President Bill Clinton was famous for the saying, "It's the economy, stupid". While there are many reasons to explain how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost pulled off a victory in Monday's elections, there is no doubt that Israel's bustling economy is one explicit cause. Despite a growing realization that perhaps Netanyahu has been in power too long, and that he could be personally corrupt, many Israelis said things have never been so good, and they didn't want to risk a change for an unknown.

Of course, that view did not develop all on its own. Netanyahu waged a brilliant three-part campaign, which left his opposition in disarray. First, Netanyahu spent a jam-packed week showing off his diplomatic prowess. He flew to Washington to receive Trump's peace plan. On his way back home, Netanyahu dropped in on Putin (who had just been in Jerusalem) to pick up an Israeli woman (Naama Issachar) who was incarcerated in Russia for 9 months on potentially trumped-up drug charges. Then, a few days later, Netanyahu flew off to Africa, where he met with the leader of Sudan. Netanyahu orchestrated this trifecta to prove that despite being charged with multiple crimes, he was perfectly capable of carrying out his responsibilities as Prime Minister.

Before long, came the second part of Netanyahu's carefully crafted campaign—one of the dirtiest sets of verbal assaults on a candidate in Israeli history. These attacks came directly from the Prime Minister and his closest circle. They depicted Benny Gantz, former IDF Chief of Staff under Netanyahu, (and Netanyahu's sole competition), as an unhinged, corrupt womanizer. Netanyahu's son posted pictures of a random woman who took a selfie with Gantz, all but suggesting she was Gantz's mistress. Israeli voters who considered voting for Blue and White saw how persuasive and successful Netanyahu had been, undeterred by the charges he faces.

Despite there being no known truth in any of the accusations made against Gantz, many voters assumed that where there is smoke there must be fire. Once again, Israelis wondered: given that things are so good, why take a risk on the unknown, with a person who might be tainted. At the same time, Netanyahu continued an ongoing fear campaign insisting that Gantz would form a government with Ahmad Tibi of the Arab Joint List.

Finally, came campaign blueprint, part three—a ground game to bring out the vote, in which Netanyahu mobilized every Likud Knesset member. Netanyahu had already been traveling to Likud strongholds each day, energizing his base and getting them out to vote. This worked. While the leadership of Blue and White sat together plotting their strategy, Netanyahu was on the job out in the field.

Netanyahu's efforts almost paid off. When the third election campaign began, it was accepted wisdom that Netanyahu, who's Likud party had dropped from 35 to 31 seats between the first and second elections, would fall even further—in light of the fact that between the second and third elections the prime minister was, indeed, indicted. However, thanks to his above-mentioned achievements, Netanyahu defied the anticipated outcome, and his party earned 36 seats in this latest election.

But alas for Netanyahu: even though exit polls on election night showed his right-wing, religious coalition having 60 seats, with all the votes counted that number has dropped to 58 (i.e., 3 seats below the necessary threshold to form a coalition.)

While Netanyahu and his supporters initially hoped to coax several Gantz supporters to defect, with final numbers being 58 that becomes unlikely but still possible. Instead, at the moment three possibilities are more likely. Option One: The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passes a law that will state that someone under indictment cannot serve as Prime Minister. So far, both Blue & White, Labor/Gesher/Meretz, the Joint Arab List and now Yisrael Beitenu (Avigdor Lieberman's party) have said they would favor this option, which gives it 62 votes. If that happens, then either a coalition government will be formed with someone other than Netanyahu heading the Likud list, or the country will be thrust into a 4th elections, without Netanyahu as Likud head. Either way, Netanyahu is out. Option Two: A temporary government would be formed by Blue & White and Labor/Gesher/Meretz with the support of the Joint List, for the express purpose of removing Netanyahu from power, to be replaced shortly after by a wider coalition. Option Three: A broad coalition government with Netanyahu—something that didn't happen last time and seems less likely to happen now.

There are several other topics worthy of discussion, including the growing power of the Israeli Arab Joint List, which has grown to its most substantial numbers ever in this election, winning 15 Knesset seats and as a result stopping the right-wing/religious from forming a government; the death of Israeli left-wing parties, which merged, only to receive seven seats; finally, the decline of the Israeli right-wing religious party — but all this must wait for another time.

Politically, it has been a wild few days in Israel. When the polls closed and the first exit polls were released it was conventional wisdom that Netanyahu had won and he would be able to form a government. Less than 48 hours later the conventional wisdom has flipped 180 degrees. Now there is a sense that despite his great campaign, Netanyahu has won the battle, but lost the war.

One final thought. I have seen headlines in the world press claiming Israel "voted against a Two-State Solution," or that Israel "voted for continued occupation". These headlines miss the point. This election was not about issues. It was about one thing: Were Israelis willing to risk a change from the leader they have known for a decade, to a leader they are not sure of? More than expected said, "No".

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.