Despite the opening of his trail, and despite failures in prior elections, the popularity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps soaring.
By Ben Caspit
Israel’s September 2019 elections gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his first bitter taste of defeat in a decade. The newly established Blue and White party led by three former army generals garnered one more seat in the Knesset than his own Likud party did. Worse still, the protective bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties that Netanyahu had labored to form accounted for only 55 seats, six fewer than Netanyahu required to ensure a majority in the 120-seat legislature and 10 less than the majority achieved by the anti-Netanyahu center-left bloc. Faced with the results, he thought all was lost. For the first time in ages, he could not put together a coalition government. Blue and White was blocking his road to reelection, and appeared to be sending him down a slippery slope to his political demise.
Netanyahu’s troubles were just starting. Two months after the elections, on Nov. 21, 2019, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his decision to indict Netanyahu on three charges — bribery, fraud and breach of trust. What’s more, polls indicated that a decisive majority of Israelis blamed Netanyahu for forcing them into an unprecedented, consecutive third round of elections within less than a year, a very rare occurrence in democratic regimes. (Last recorded in the twilight days of Germany’s Weimar Republic.)
This set the stage for Blue and White’s rejection at the time of Netanyahu’s entreaties to join a unity government under his stewardship. They even turned him down when he pledged to cede the premiership to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz a year or even eight months hence. The chairs of the centrist Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid and of the hawkish Telem party Moshe Ya’alon — respectively No. 2 and No. 3 on the Blue and White Knesset slate — led this militant line. They believed, as did most analysts that Netanyahu would continue his downward slide on an even steeper trajectory on the road to the third elections on March 2 — continuing the trend begun in the first elections, in April 2019, with the loss of three seats for the Likud and five for the Netanyahu bloc.
These projections have all come crashing down in recent months. In the third March elections, Netanyahu netted four additional seats for his Likud, even after indictment on serious criminal charges and although most Israelis still blamed him for the ongoing political stalemate. There has been more bad news for Netanyahu since the elections. May 24 marked the first day of his trial, and the first of an incumbent Israeli premier, bringing to life the bizarre scenario of a prime minister conducting the affairs of state in the morning and going to court in the afternoon to conduct his defense.
Here, too, expectations and logic regarding his popularity fell by the wayside. A poll conducted shortly after his trial opened, boosted the Likud from its current 36 seats to 41. Blue and White, which had split in two after Lapid and Ya’alon refused to join Gantz in a Netanyahu-led government, plunged to 12 seats in the poll — from the 33 it received in the March 2 elections — and was overtaken in the poll results by the Lapid-Ya'alon party with 14 seats. In the poll’s most amazing finding, 42% of respondents said they believed law enforcement authorities, part of a “deep state” system, were hounding an innocent, gifted, brilliant leader. Had the poll been confined to Jewish respondents, the results would have been even more astounding, likely indicating that a majority — albeit slim — of Jewish Israelis believes the State of Israel is framing a prime minister suspected of severe crimes.
Netanyahu appears to have finally managed to translate into Hebrew the famous 2016 campaign trail boast by then-candidate Donald Trump, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters.” President Donald Trump is without a doubt Netanyahu’s role model. Netanyahu observes political events and voting trends 6,000 miles away and skillfully implements the lessons in Jerusalem. He plays Israel’s version of the community/origin card, exploiting the social and cultural legacy of periphery/Mizrahi resentment; crowns himself the leader of so-called second Israel of the underprivileged — although he himself hails from a well-to-do, Ashkenazi background; and ignoring all the conventions, red lines, checks and balances of which he was mindful in the past. Netanyahu has become a valuable brand, enjoying a huge political base in whose eyes he can do no wrong and which will stick by him to the end.
That end does not appear to be in sight. On his way to these unprecedented political achievements, Netanyahu has had no qualms about crushing what was left of multipartisan, dignified leadership and grinding into dust the state’s law enforcement institutions. He has managed to convince many that the attorney general, whom he appointed himself, has framed him, as has former police commissioner Roni Alsheikh whom he appointed. Both men, by the way, are right wing in their political identity, and Alsheikh was even a settler for many years. At the same time, Netanyahu continues his unbridled onslaught against the police, the state prosecution, the attorney general and his opponents’ remaining media bastions. Many of his Likud ministers and Knesset members accompanied him when he presented himself in the Jerusalem District Court on May 24. Crowed behind him on a small landing as he delivered a lengthy diatribe against police and prosecutors, their faces hidden by surgical masks, they formed a grim memorial to the rule of law and an implacable shield for their great leader.
Meanwhile, the flame of hope Gantz lit 18 months ago among those praying for Netanyahu’s defeat, is dying. Netanyahu’s excellent poll results, while attesting to his skill, reflect to no lesser extent the tremendous disappointment and despair over his rival’s performance. Gantz’s decision to join a Netanyahu-led rotation government deeply disillusioned over 2 million voters who backed the anti-Netanyahu bloc and who may be so downhearted that they do not even participate in current polls.
Gantz himself, who had hoped to unseat Netanyahu and assume the premiership, has become a hostage to Netanyahu, the cat toying with a mouse. The poll results and Netanyahu’s surging popularity have whetted Netanyahu’s appetite for fourth elections. If the poll results are borne out, he could vault over the 61-seat hurdle and declare himself king of Israel. Netanyahu smells Gantz’s (political) blood and both know that Gantz does not have any option other than staying the course. The resulting situation is absurd. Gantz does not dare criticize Netanyahu’s attack on the holy of holies of the state’s law enforcement, on the opening trial day, and instructs his ministers and Knesset members to “tread gently.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu acolyte Transportation Minister Miri Regev said in a weekend magazine interview with the popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that Gantz is “half-baked” to serve as prime minister, even as she continues to spread innuendo about an Iranian hack of his cellphone.
Will Netanyahu go back on his pledge to switch places with Gantz in November 2021 — as agreed in the rotation deal between them — and instead engineer fourth elections? There is no knowing. For that to happen, Donald Trump must win reelection, and Netanyahu must successfully carry out his plan to annex parts of the West Bank and get a handle on the post-corona economic crisis. If those conditions are not met, Netanyahu has another escape route: running for the state presidency in a little over a year with the end of Reuven Rivlin’s term. That would guarantee him seven years in the lap of luxury and complete immunity from criminal prosecution. Either way, Netanyahu is signaling that he is here and here to stay.