Rotating campaign billboard shows Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog / Getty Images
No one even dared speculate about it before. Only now, less than a week before they go to the polls on March 17, Israelis are finally allowing themselves to seriously consider the possibility that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might actually lose this election.
Depending on who they are, the prospect fills them with elation or dread. Either way, it feels surreal.
For the whole of this short and dizzying election campaign, the possibility that Netanyahu could go down has been viewed as incredibly far-fetched. After all, it was Bibi himself who ended his previous government and set the ball rolling for new elections. Why in the world would he do such a thing if he didn’t have utter confidence in his victory? The purpose of early elections, only halfway through his term, was to strengthen his hand: a stronger Likud with more reliable coalition partners would make the country more governable, he reasoned.
If Netanyahu had possessed a crystal ball back in December and could have foreseen the latest poll numbers, he might have thought twice before making such a move. The Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni is now projected in multiple polls as pulling ahead of Likud by three to five seats, and some of the centrist and religious parties are publicly winking in their direction, while turning a colder shoulder to the Likud. This very well might give Herzog and company the first crack at putting together a ruling coalition.
And so for the first time, Israelis dare to ask themselves: “What happens if Bibi loses?”
“Losing” could mean one of two things in the bizarre reality of Israeli politics. It can mean a clear defeat, with President Reuven Rivlin letting the Zionist Union try to form a government. It is also possible to imagine a scenario in which Netanyahu cobbles together a coalition or a unity government with a weak Likud. Soon, however, the cracks in his armor very well may take their toll within the Likud, and his poor election showing would be the beginning of the end of his leadership.
In either case, we are talking about the prospect of the 65-year-old who has been a fixture on the Israeli political landscape for more than a quarter of a century stepping off the stage. Whether or not one is a fan of the prime minister, the idea of life without him feels downright surreal. For an entire generation, he has defined the position of prime minister - today’s children and teenagers can’t remember anyone else leading the country.
In the United States, with presidential term limits, Americans are always somewhat psychologically prepared for the moment their country’s leader gracefully exits the White House and climbs aboard a helicopter.
In Israel, it is always messier. Without term limits, prime ministers tend to hang on to their jobs for as long as they possibly can. Even when they are voted out of office they aren’t really gone - one always suspects they are merely planning their comeback. Israeli political history, full of prime ministerial second acts, justifies that suspicion, starting with David Ben-Gurion and extending to Netanyahu himself, who lay low between 1999 and 2002 and then returned to politics.
One doubts if a man like Netanyahu could truly retire this time around. So what would he do if he lost? One can hardly picture him as a rank-and-file Knesset member. It is likely he would once again turn private citizen and tour the world as a speaker - he would surely play well at Republican events in the U.S. (If it were feasible, there are many in the party who would probably love to nominate him as the GOP candidate for president - but it’s not.)
And what of his greatest backer, Sheldon Adelson and the vast support system the casino magnate has built for Bibi, most prominently Israel Hayom, the free newspaper which he has operated at a loss in order to bolster support for Netanyahu? Would the whole operation just shut down when there’s no more Bibi to support, or might he find a new horse to back, just as he auditions U.S. Republicans each election cycle?
Isaac Herzog has pledged repeatedly in his campaign speeches that, if elected, one of the first things he plans to do is hop a plane to Washington, DC to repair Israel’s relations with the United States - a selling point, as many Israelis worry that Bibi’s Washington showdown has cost Israel crucial support on the Democratic side of the aisle. But Herzog is unlikely to rush towards a peace deal with the Palestinians, and he won’t be equipped to do so even if he was so inspired - with his theoretical fragile coalition that will rely on religious and center-right partners. So while the American left will certainly cheer a Netanyahu defeat, they won’t fall in love with a government led by a party that calls itself the Zionist Union. At the same time, the right-wing evangelicals and other assorted Republicans that adore Bibi are unlikely to embrace a Netanyahu-less Israel with the same enthusiasm that they have for the past six years.
Whatever damage one believes that Netanyahu has done, it’s undeniable that when Israel loses Bibi, it will surely at times miss having a recognizable leader of international stature that - love him or hate him - makes the world sit up and take notice when he speaks out on Iran or any other subject.
All of this talk, could, of course be terribly premature. It also might help shift the momentum in Netanyahu’s favor. The more Israelis talk about a future without Netanyahu at the helm - a boomerang effect might result and Likud “core voters” - fearing a leftist government - will come flocking back from rival parties like that of Naftali Bennett and Moshe Kahlon, boosting the Likud leader’s poll numbers back to Herzog’s level.
That is what Netanyahu - in his last days of campaigning - will have to invest all his energy into accomplishing. Otherwise, the scenarios of what may happen if he loses will be translated from speculation into cold, hard, reality.