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Netanyahu back in charge after scoring points in US, Uganda

A diplomacy blitz and another maneuvers have put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back in control of the Israeli election agenda.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he and U.S. President Donald Trump discuss a Middle East peace plan proposal in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - RC26PE94BY08

The evening before he boarded his Feb. 2 flight to Uganda for a historic meeting with the head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped by a Bar Mitzva celebration for the twin sons of the Likud's Knesset faction head Knesset member Miki Zohar. The hall was packed with some 2,000 Likud members who endured lengthy security checks as well as government ministers and Knesset members from the ultra-Orthodox parties aligned with the Likud. The brief appearance at the event must have been important for Netanyahu, despite its timing on the eve of one of his most important diplomatic missions of recent years.

From now until election day on March 2, Netanyahu’s campaign will swing between forays into Likud territory and party bastions in Israel’s geographic periphery and diplomatic missions abroad. In between, he may even manage a small US-approved territorial annexation in the West Bank, perhaps of the settlement town of Maale Adumim — all designed to obscure the fact that the candidate for the country’s top job has been indicted for bribery.

A week after the indictment was filed in Jerusalem District Court on Jan. 28, Netanyahu can boast of significant achievements. He stemmed the bleeding of his party and even picked up a few additional Knesset seats in the polls thanks to a diplomatic blitz, which began with his Jan. 23 hosting of the prestigious summit of world leaders who came to Jerusalem for the World Holocaust Forum. It continued with his participation in the Jan. 28 White House ceremonial unveiling of President Donald Trump’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Though Netanyahu and his right-wing allies had hoped the plan would allow them to immediately annex West Bank territories, obtaining US support in principle for settlement annexation was no mean feat.

The Trump plan is distinctly pro-Israel. It changes the paradigm of the 1993 Oslo Accord, which had served as the basis for negotiations between the sides for almost three decades. It is the legacy Netanyahu seeks to leave and it enjoys broad public consensus: Even the opposition Blue and White Party views the so-called “deal of the century” as historic.

The US display of warmth and close friendship at the launch of the plan, on the very day the Knesset was scheduled to discuss Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution, was no coincidence. The diplomatic blitz was meant to cushion the shock of the immunity debate, and Trump’s gift and Netanyahu’s last-minute decision to withdraw his immunity request got the prime minister through the day with flying colors. On his way home, he dropped by the Kremlin to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and took back with him young Israeli woman Naama Issachar, whom Putin pardoned under heavy Israeli pressure after she was sentenced to a lengthy jail term for drug offenses.

In a world without indictments, these achievements would have earned Netanyahu a tremendous leap in support. However, given his deep legal woes, the fact that he turned the tide for his party, stopping the Likud's decline in the polls and even gaining support will maintain Netanyahu’s key role in the upcoming elections and probably in their wake, too.

Netanyahu is now working to portray himself as an exceptional leader. He already knows he will be unable to poach voters from the political center and his focus now is on preserving his current standing and boosting the performance of the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc.

Meanwhile, Blue and White and its leader Benny Gantz are being dragged along by Netanyahu’s agenda. Netanyahu pulled the rug out from under Gantz' feet by withdrawing his Knesset immunity request, which Gantz had planned to squeeze for all it was worth. Now neither Gantz nor anyone else can accuse Netanyahu of fleeing prosecution, and all the good news has been effectively eroding the opposition’s corruption-centered campaign.

Netanyahu had a blast in Uganda. The reason for his trip was kept secret even when he landed in Entebbe on Feb. 3, with his wife Sara and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen at his side. Reporters waited speculating for hours outside the presidential palace.

That afternoon, after meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Netanyahu also held a historic meeting with the leader of a state Israel had long considered an Arab enemy that served as a conduit for arms smuggling from Iran to Gaza. The two-hour meeting with Sudan's leader led to a surprise declaration of an agreement on cooperation between the two countries with an eye toward normalizing their ties. Normalized relations would mean distancing Sudan from the eastern Mediterranean and another step toward Iran’s diplomatic isolation. The new relationship is also an economic and military achievement, for example allowing Israeli airlines to overfly Sudan, which will considerably shorten flights from Israel to various destinations, such as countries in Latin America.

All these issues are generating media coverage and interest, meaning less focus on Netanyahu’s criminal predicament.

Netanyahu’s standing within the Likud is also improving. Just over a month ago, he defeated Knesset member Gideon Saar in the Likud leadership primaries, burying the option of his replacement as party leader for now. His standing as leader of the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc is also stable.

Even Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and his Yamina slate of Knesset candidates will no longer be able to defect from the bloc following the presentation of the Trump plan. Should they decide to hook up with Blue and White instead, they would demand annexation of the West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley as a precondition, which the Blue and White would be hard pressed to deliver.

A month prior to the elections, Israel’s third in less than a year, the emerging picture is a copy of the one prior to the September 2019 vote. Netanyahu is still going strong politically, despite predictions to the contrary after his planned indictment was announced in November. He has received renewed recognition as leader of the Likud and is almost single-handedly setting the campaign agenda. That probably presages yet another inconclusive election. It's no wonder senior Likud ministers are saying that if needed, Netanyahu will have no problem scheduling a fourth round of elections later this year.

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