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Netanyahu hangs on, drags Israel toward third election

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence on a rotation agreement and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz' rejection of an indicted partner have Israel headed for a third election.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem December 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RC2ZQD929P8U

This article is being written 16 hours before the 22nd Knesset will be dissolved, about three months after being chosen by the Israeli public. If no last-minute drama takes place, Israel will have to declare its third general elections in less than a year. Support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who succeeded in attaining a bloc of 60 Knesset seats (without Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu) in April, deteriorated to only 55 seats in September. New polls indicate a continuation of the trend. Netanyahu is sliding toward departure from the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street, a criminal trial and even perhaps imprisonment.

Right now in Israel, all political forces are bracing for a showdown, despite the predictions of the politicians and evaluations of almost all commentators (including the writer of this article). There are three people behind this imbroglio: Netanyahu, who clings to what's left of his power; Liberman, who is sticking to his campaign promise and is determined to end the Netanyahu era, even though he had originally been Netanyahu’s right-hand man; and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, who floundered too long before deciding not to be seduced by the president's plan and Netanyahu’s ostensible agreement to temporary incapacitation after only a half-year term.

On Wednesday morning, 16 hours before the deadline after which the Knesset will be dissolved and elections will be announced, Liberman posted a scathing Facebook post that ended the hopes of the right that at the last minute, Liberman would return to Netanyahu in order to establish a narrow right wing/ultra-Orthodox government.

Instead, Liberman turned on Netanyahu, attacking him for the first time on a personal level. “Maybe you’re an agent of mysterious and wealthy elements from various places in the world, Mr. Prime Minister?” he wrote. “Are you the agent of James Packer? Perhaps you are the agent of Spencer Partrich? Are you perhaps serving the financial interests of Nathan Milikowsky? The difference between us is that I never let the ends justify the means and I never exchanged my principles for Knesset seats. So take a good, long look at the mirror, sit with yourself and do some soul-searching.”

In order to survive, Netanyahu needs a combination of miracles: He needs to attain a majority of 61 seats without Liberman to create a right-wing government. He needs to ask and receive immunity from the Knesset regarding a criminal trial. He needs to cross another legal hurdle as well: Can someone with a criminal charge sheet even receive a mandate to assemble a new government? According to most legal experts, the law allowing a prime minister to serve with a criminal trial in the offing only concerns a prime minister in the middle of a term. But the head of a caretaker government who did not receive the confidence of the public and was not successful in assembling a new government is only a regular Knesset member. According to legal interpretations, Netanyahu cannot be allowed to assemble a government. The problem is that should the High Court of Justice reach such a verdict, Israel will find itself closer than ever before to an irreversible schism between right and left and even violent confrontation between those who loathe Netanyahu and those who support him.

Over recent weeks, Netanyahu has played a very complex game: His emissaries conducted complicated negotiations with the Blue and White people regarding the incapacitation outline. They agreed to special legislation that would declare Netanyahu incapacitated after half a year of serving as prime minister in an agreement Netanyahu would not be able to violate with his typical shenanigans.

The incapacitation plan would have served both sides. A unity government would be formed, headed by Netanyahu for half a year, and his authorities (but not his title) would be transferred to Gantz. But Gantz faced strong opposition within his faction, as party seniors Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon refused to serve under Netanyahu “for even one minute.”

On Dec. 10, Lapid announced that he's given up on a rotation agreement between himself and Gantz, the basis upon which the Blue and White faction was founded. In exchange, Gantz agreed not to sit under Netanyahu. On Wednesday, a poll showed that for the first time, Gantz had passed Netanyahu in the “suitability for the premiership” index. Only a few months ago, Netanyahu bested Gantz in the “suitability” polls by a margin of 20 points (42-22). The writing on the wall indicates that Netanyahu may well crash in the March elections, barring a miracle.

Netanyahu will surely muster all his strength for the last campaign of his political life, but this time, it likely won’t be enough. He will try to recreate the 1999 Shas campaign headed by party leader Aryeh Deri, who was accused of criminal acts when he ran for office. Later on, Deri was convicted and sent to jail, but a successful campaign proclaiming his innocence brought 17 mandates to the party. However, the voting system at the time was different: People voted separately for the Knesset and prime minister.

Netanyahu hopes to bring about 300,000 lost Likud members, those who avoided the polling booth during the last elections or voted for other lists, home again. He also wants to bind the right-wing parties to vote together and pray for a miracle to afflict Liberman, Gantz or both. He will try to recruit US President Donald Trump for a last-ditch effort, though Trump already gave most of his possible gifts to Netanyahu in earlier rounds.

This is Netanyahu's very last chance, and he is capable of dragging the entire State of Israel into the abyss with him if he fails.

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