Israel Pulse

Netanyahu’s archrival before elections: the attorney general

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Article Summary
To save himself from an indictment before the April elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the political left is pressuring Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict him.

It lasted all of 24 seconds. That was the entire length of the video that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted to social media at 9:00 p.m. on Jan. 24. The tightly edited video featured remarks by two leaders of the demonstrations outside the attorney general’s house: Manny Naftali, the former superintendent of the prime minister’s residence, and social activist Eldad Yaniv. These two men are most closely identified with a series of demonstrations that took place there every Saturday night during many weeks, in an effort to pressure Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict the prime minister. “Mandelblit, we haven’t forgotten you! We’re coming to your home,” Naftali promises. The video clip is accompanied by the header, “The left is applying pressure to the attorney general. Will that pressure work?”

Netanyahu’s election videos are very brief, rhythmic and provocative. The thing is that they do not target some political rival; they are focused on Mandelblit, who, according to all observers, is expected to announce his decision to indict Netanyahu for bribery (subject to a hearing) in Case 4000 (a telecom-media affair), and that he will do this some time in February, just before the April 9 election.

This scenario could have far-reaching consequences on the election results. For example, the accusations of bribery against Netanyahu could scare off Likud voters. As soon as the words, “The State of Israel versus Benjamin Netanyahu” open all the TV news broadcasts and appear in all the newspaper headlines, Netanyahu will take a hit. It is still too hard to assess the actual effect of the damage, but that is precisely what is worrying the prime minister. It isn’t Benny Gantz, former Israel Defense Forces chief and head of the new Israel Resilience party, or Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid or labor head Avi Gabbay who are keeping him up at night. What worries him most is the attorney general’s apparent decision. A poll released by Army Radio Jan. 22 found that the Likud would lose four seats if the attorney general decides to indict Netanyahu. While the poll also shows that Netanyahu would continue to lead the largest party, with 25 seats, it is nevertheless understandable why Netanyahu feels caught in a state of uncertainty.

If there is anything that Netanyahu always tries to reduce, no matter what decision he must make, it is the element of uncertainty. That's why, whenever possible, he always formed a rough coalition even before the election took place, by making promises to his potential partners or forging ad hoc alliances with his allies to ensure his election. That is what he did with Chair of Yisrael Beitenu Avigdor Liberman before the 2013 election. But now, on the eve of the 2019 election, Netanyahu is having a hard time maintaining control of the situation. The scope of the uncertainty in which he is functioning is absolutely enormous.

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Netanyahu has never been as strong politically. He is the unchallenged leader of the Likud, with Knesset members and ministers alike competing over who can best back him up against the looming cloud of corruption charges. Chairman of the New Right Naftali Bennett and Chairman of Shas Aryeh Deri have both announced that they would recommend him to form the next government, even if the attorney general decides to indict him for bribery.

He also has a significant lead in the polls against all those candidates who think that they are running against him for the position of prime minister. Every poll of the last few weeks showed Netanyahu’s Likud party winning 30-32 seats, while Gantz’s Israel Resilience party does not even get half of that. The same is true of Yesh Atid, headed by Lapid. Meanwhile, Labor Party Chairman Gabbay will barely get 9-10 seats. While these three men consider themselves to be candidates for prime minister, the gap between them and Netanyahu proves that there is no real competition, unless at least two of them consolidate their parties.

Netanyahu has reason to be frustrated. This is the seventh election campaign in which he is running for prime minister, but it is also the first in which he has no political rival. And yet, it is clear to everyone that his government is in real danger. His fate now lies in the hands of one man, the attorney general, who is not even a political rival. What this means is that Netanyahu is unable to influence his decision or even anticipate his next move. Meanwhile, the prime minister is feeding off of all the reports and assessments in the media that Mandelblit will soon announce his decision to indict him, subject to a hearing. That's why Netanyahu has decided to do what he does best; he has created a nemesis, a bitter rival, an archenemy, and he is directing all his fire at it. The way he is doing this is rather clever, too. Instead of claiming that Mandelblit is biased, he is simply raising an open question: The left is pressuring the attorney general to issue an indictment. Will he succumb? The message is intended to shoot down Mandelblit’s apparent decision with the precision of a guided missile.

We have already noted how Netanyahu’s current election campaign is not against politicians. They hardly interest him at all. Hatnua head Tzipi Livni won 28 seats in 2009 (one more than Netanyahu) and almost became prime minister. Now she is hovering around the electoral threshold. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu party and the Cinderella candidate of the 2015 election, just barely gets past the electoral threshold. In other words, the only person to really challenge Netanyahu is Mandelblit. Netanyahu is focusing all his attention on him.

On Jan. 21, Netanyahu’s defense attorneys met with Mandelblit in an attempt to convince him to postpone his decision until the election is over. They argued that whatever he decides would be an interim decision, since a hearing could change the attorney general’s mind, but in the meantime, his decision would impact the election. Mandelblit is expected to announce his decision in the next few days, and the general assessment is that he will reject Netanyahu’s argument. This is Netanyahu’s working assumption, too, which is why he is waging a campaign for public awareness and support.

Netanyahu is not waiting for the attorney general to announce his decision; he is already explaining to the public that Mandelblit surrendered to the left. The same left that could not defeat him in the polls is now trying other means. In response, his message is, in order for me to continue as prime minister, I need to be so powerful that it would be impossible for the left to carry out its plan. Netanyahu’s greatest fear is that once the election is over, he will be faced with an “Anyone but Netanyahu” coalition, which will recommend to the president that he assign the task of forming a new government to Lapid or Gantz. And it’s not such an unreasonable supposition either.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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