Benjamin Netanyahu is Likud's least successful leader since the party rose to power in 1977. During those elections Menachem Begin won 43 Knesset seats, and in 1981 – 47 seats. Yitzhak Shamir, who replaced him, gained 41 seats in the 1984 elections, 40 in the 1988 vote and 32 seats in the elections of 1992. Netanyahu won 32 mandates (including the mandates won by the Gesher and Tzomet movements) in 1996 and 19 Knesset seats in the 1999 elections.
If the poor results in the 1990s can be attributed to the direct election of a prime minister (a system that was later abolished), under Netanyahu's leadership Likud did not soar in this millennium either, when Israel reinstated the proportional electoral system. While Ariel Sharon won 38 mandates as Likud chairman in the 2003 elections, Netanyahu won only 12 in 2006. He recovered to some extent in 2009, when he gained 27 mandates – one less than Tzipi Livni, the rookie chairwoman of Kadima.
In Tuesday's elections Likud hit another low. The significance of this is that after four and a half years in power, with a stable coalition, Netanyahu not only failed to strengthen Likud, he led to its regression – similar to the party's collapse in 1999 after his first term as prime minister. Netanyahu is the king of Israel with very few subjects. A weak leader for a weak party. It is not only that most of the public did not vote for him – he lost the faith of some Likud voters as well.
So how did he still manage to win? The reason for this is that three prime ministers who served since 1999 - Barak, Sharon and Olmert – had to give up their posts unexpectedly. Netanyahu suddenly became the only prominent figure in the political arena. The emerging leaders – Lapid, Yachimovich and Bennett – have yet to succeed in creating a public image of potential candidates for prime minister.
The government Netanyahu will be able to form will be an impossible coalition of contrasts. Netanyahu will have to decide who will hold him captive – Yair Lapid, the big winner of the elections, or Bennett and Shas. Lapid vowed not to join a coalition that will not conduct peace negotiations, while Bennett promised his voters the annexation of territories. As usual, Netanyahu will try to square the circle with words rather than action.
The expectation that Netanyahu will show courage and lead Israel to a peace agreement is not based on any one of the personality traits he has exposed to date or on any element of the Likud list he heads. It is not at all certain that Netanyahu does not want to make good on his promises, but apparently he cannot. He has always been a captive – willingly – of forces that are stronger than him – the coalition or his wife.
Why, then, does the public still support him to some extent? Maybe Netanyahu is actually a television actor who was hired by the people of Israel to play the role of prime minister until the arrival of real politicians who can not only talk but also do.
Israel has awakened to a new dawn of an old day. Israeli politics are transitioning from an old, fading leader to new leaders who may mature. One can only hope that this will not mark the beginning of Israel's medieval period.
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