During live coverage of the bombardment of southern Israel by Islamic Jihad rocket fire on Monday, a Red Alert siren sent a TV reporter—along with a local shop owner whom he was interviewing and other people taking cover from the terrorist barrage from Gaza—into a nearby stairwell.
Tragically well-versed in the drill, the handful of passers-by entered the building and positioned themselves, single file, down a flight of steps, with the broadcast journalist and his cameraman in tow. As all waited for the wail of the siren to subside—listening for the familiar sound of explosions from projectile landings, Iron Dome interceptions and Israel Defense Forces’ bombings of terrorist targets over the border—the interview continued.
But it didn’t proceed as the reporter had hoped or anticipated.
After bemoaning the near-bankruptcy that his shoe store has been suffering as a result of the security situation in his city, the interviewee praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“There’s nobody like Bibi!” he exclaimed, smiling broadly.
“No, no, let’s not talk politics,” the reporter admonished.
This was a real hoot—not to mention a case of transparent partisanship—since his colleagues back in the studio who were presenting and debating news of the “escalation in the south” spent hours doing nothing but “talk politics.”
For the second day in a row, polls were showing Netanyahu’s Likud Party taking the lead over its chief contender, Blue and White, headed by Benny Gantz. Though the right-wing bloc has maintained a steady majority since the first round of national elections in April and through the second round in September, neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has been able to cobble together a coalition of the necessary 61 Knesset seats out of 120 to enable them to form a government.
Hence, for the third time in less than a year, Israelis will be casting their ballots on March 2.
The same polls indicate that a fourth election is a real possibility. But the fact that Likud has overtaken Blue and White is significant nevertheless, as it could invigorate weary Likud supporters, many of whom expressed a combination of dismay and apathy a few months ago by staying at home on election day. It is this population that Netanyahu’s campaign has been investing much of its energy on targeting for the past few weeks.
Whether the man-in-the-street’s spontaneous cheer for Bibi was a by-product of this effort is not clear. What is obvious, however, is that even members of the public forced into bomb shelters on a regular basis realize that Netanyahu is doing the best he can to keep Hamas at bay, while reserving the option to launch a ground incursion into Gaza as a last resort. They also understand from past experience that a full-fledged war endangers the lives of Israeli soldiers, yet doesn’t solve the problem permanently, and that Netanyahu’s broader strategy is to cut the head off the snake—which is why he has been striking Iranian bases and proxies in Syria.
Meanwhile, Gantz’s attempt to blame Bibi for the “lack of deterrence” is as ridiculous as his comparing of Netanyahu to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is outrageous.
In the first place, Gantz served as IDF chief of staff during “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s war on Hamas in the summer of 2014. He ought to know better than anyone else that a slam-dunk victory over the bloodthirsty animals who rule the terrorist enclave is not as simple as Netanyahu’s critics on the right and left try to make it out to be.
In the second place, he isn’t able to articulate an alternative policy. This is just as well for the former general, since Blue and White is made up of a diverse lot whose only real gel is an aversion to Netanyahu. And any position he takes—other than that which stresses Netanyahu’s upcoming trial for the bogus charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust—is liable to put him at odds with his own party members, and certainly with potential coalition partners.
His current claim—that a slim Likud majority would signal an end to Israeli democracy—is a function of his grasping at any straw that he can get his hands on: desperation at its finest.
The reporter who frowned on his interviewee’s cheer for Bibi during a rocket attack is fully aware that it’s not democracy at stake next week, but rather the left’s chances of heading the next government. Thankfully for the rest of us, he’s right to be concerned.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”