He did it again, big time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started his third election campaign of the past year with the odds against him, weighed down by an indictment on three serious corruption charges and facing an opposition party led by generals spoiling for a fight and surging with deadly momentum. Between the first elections, in April 2019, and the second round, in September, Netanyahu lost five Knesset seats for his right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc and appeared to be fading into political irrelevance. In recent weeks, however, Netanyahu executed a perfect turnaround, achieving a huge, perhaps unprecedented, personal victory.
With 90% of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud has a four-seat advantage over the opposition Blue and White, although it is unclear whether this will suffice to form a coalition government. TV exit polls and the votes counted give the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc 59 seats, two short of the required 61-seat Knesset majority, out of 120 Knesset seats.
Netanyahu is convinced that unlike the situation in April after the elections, when he failed to form a government despite heading a 60-seat bloc, this time he will succeed in tempting renegades from the center-left bloc onto the victory bandwagon and cull the missing Knesset votes needed to swear in his next government. The other side of the political divide is convinced that this will not happen and is closing ranks to ensure no one jumps ship.
The only logical solution is to revert to a previous proposal, rejected at the time by Blue and White, to form a unity government comprised of the Likud and Blue and White. For that to happen, Blue and White Chair Benny Gantz and his party’s mangled leadership will have to go back on their firm pledge to voters that they are “done doing business” with Netanyahu and will not join a government he leads while standing trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Still, violating that pledge appears, for now, their only logical way to break the persistent logjam that has crippled the country for the past year.
Netanyahu successfully lit a fire under the dying embers of the Likud, prompting hundreds of thousands of Likud supporters who stayed away last time to return to the ballot box. He wove a tale of personal persecution, waging a powerful campaign replete with an assortment of lies, dirty tricks and smoke and mirrors. In his own voice and with the help of proxies, he engaged in blood libel against his rivals, especially the two former heads of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. (res.) Gantz and Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi.
Mobilizing everything he had, and then some, Netanyahu lined up a flock of black swans to land on Blue and White in the final week of the campaign. He engineered the launch of a probe into the bankruptcy of Fifth Dimension, a cyber tech company chaired by Gantz in recent years, and a recording in which Gantz’s top strategist, Israel Bachar, was heard calling him a weak candidate and a danger to the state. The mudslinging included dropping below the belt to spread salacious rumors about the general’s private life. To Netanyahu, nothing was out of bounds. He also hit the road, traveling the length of the country, thus reversing his slide down the slippery slope and incredibly climbing back to the top. That said, however, all is not settled.
As noted, the exit polls give Netanyahu and his right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc 59 seats. The vote count so far tracks with the polling data. If Netanyahu fails to lure deserters from the other side, he will find himself in the same spot that he landed after the April elections, when he also declared a tremendous victory. Once again, the balance of power lies with Avigdor Liberman, the chair of the anti-clerical Yisrael Beitenu, despite his loss of a seat or two compared to the previous elections. As in the past, Liberman again declared on the eve of the March 2 elections that he would not renege on any of his well-known principles and conditions of not joining a government led by Netanyahu or one in which the ultra-Orthodox parties are partners.
This is the triangle that Netanyahu will try to square in the days to come. His prospects of success are unclear. Nonetheless, everyone is convinced that a fourth round of elections is not an option. Someone has to blink. The ball is in Netanyahu’s court. He must decide whether to continue with his new combative, contrary persona who sticks his tongue out at the political left and prefers a radical right-wing government or whether to revert to the Netanyahu of old, who preferred a broad-based government and formed two such coalitions with his center-left rivals Ehud Barak and Yair Lapid.
Despite Netanyahu’s tremendous personal achievement and the legitimacy he received from right-wing voters yet again, one must not forget that in exactly two weeks, on March 17, he will face his judges in Jerusalem’s District Court as a defendant in a criminal trial. His legal fate will be in the hands of Judges Rivka Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham. Netanyahu defeated Blue and White but failed to garner the Knesset majority he needed to provide himself some form of immunity and to push through retroactive legislation — the so-called French Law, in reference to the French Sovereign Immunity Law — which would have prevented his indictment as an incumbent prime minister, or to plot some other trick to halt the legal proceedings. The train has left the station and is hurtling ahead. He could try to slow it, but he does not have full control of the situation. The possibility that he will run one of the most complex countries in the world while standing for a criminal trial is becoming more probable with the Likud’s election boost.
An unbelievable scenario, never before seen in Israel, appears about to unfold in the coming months: a powerful, popular prime minister, surrounded by bodyguards, sitting in the defendant’s chair fighting to prove his innocence. Until a short while ago, no one believed it was possible. Now, it almost certainly is.
The opposition is licking its wounds. Gantz, the classic good guy, was a weak candidate — unfocused, reluctant to engage and devoid of a “killer instinct.” If he refuses to join a Netanyahu-led government, he could find himself on the way out. Blue and White is not a democratic party: It does not hold primary elections, and decisions are made by a leadership forum dubbed “the cockpit,” manned by Gantz, Ashkenazi, Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon. To carry out a putsch, forum members would have to agree on an alternative candidate. Ashkenazi, the only senior party member capable of drumming up support in the bastions of the Likud, seems to be the only logical candidate. For him to have a chance, Gantz would have to assume responsibility for the party’s failure and step aside. If he refuses, the cockpit members will have to place the gun on his desk. The chances of that happening are slim.
While three of the four cockpit members are decorated generals and battle-hardened commanders, they are not political knifers. Gantz, Ashkenazi and Ya’alon do not have in their entire body the deadly political instinct that Netanyahu possesses in the tip of his little finger. That is what Gantz is now counting on. That is also what Netanyahu has counted on.