Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running for his fourth consecutive (and fifth in total) term. And this time — he’s running for his political life.
Netanyahu would have been Israel’s longest-serving prime minister had he made it to the end of his term, with elections scheduled for November 2019.
Instead, the Knesset (parliament) was dissolved on Dec. 26, 2018, and elections have been set for April 9.
Why have early elections been called? Last month, Netanyahu made it clear that he had no intention of calling early elections, because Israel, he repeatedly told the public, is facing critical, existential challenges that only he and his right-wing government can meet.
In early December, however, the Prosecutor General, Shai Nitzan, recommended to the Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, that he indict Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, on multiple counts of bribery and breach of trust.
Early elections will provide Netanyahu with the best offensive defense against Mandelblit’s investigations, leveraging his political persona as an embattled leader persecuted and victimized by the left, elites, human rights organizations, the legal establishment and the media.
Netanyahu had already faced difficulties with his unruly Likud coalition depleted to a narrow 61-member majority (out of 120 seats in the Knesset). The impending crisis over a proposed law to regulate the enlistment of Ultra-Orthodox men into the military prompted the first opportunity to dissolve the parliament and call for early elections. Ultra-Orthodox parties, who represent 12 percent of Israel’s population, opposed the enlistment. Their refusal to participate in the military has become a source of resentment and tension. Netanyahu has repeatedly promised to pass this legislation to right the situation but failed due to his unstable coalition.
Based on Netanyahu’s behavior to date, these elections will be the nastiest ever. He has been perfecting the art of negative politics since his first term in 1996. Today, with 2.3 million Facebook followers and 1.4 million Twitter followers, Netanyahu has used a sizeable social media following to further his divisive politics. His strongly-committed constituency hails from the far-right with voters from Israel’s geographical and social peripheries whose positions may not be as hardline as Netanyahu’s but who respond viscerally to Netanyahu’s refrain of resentment.
A US-Israel friendship that pays
This year, to gain voters further afield, Netanyahu will count on his friendship with US President Donald Trump as a close ally. It was Trump who moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem, supported Israel at the United Nations, canceled the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran and championed Israel’s positions in international forums. Netanyahu is, therefore, also counting on Trump to hold off on presenting his “deal of the century” peace plan.
The plan, spearheaded by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Special Envoy for International Negotiations, has been promoted since October 2018 to jumpstart the stalled peace process. Any viable plan would demand at least some territorial concessions held by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War. Netanyahu opposes any such concessions, and thus, publication of the plan would put Netanyahu in a bind.
Trump’s surprise announcement of a withdrawal of US troops from Syria also causes problems for Netanyahu. Seeing the move as an act of betrayal, Netanyahu rushed to speak with Trump to convince him to reconsider as a matter of national security.
First, the pull-out weakens the Kurds, a small Muslim community whose independence is backed solely by the Israeli government. Israel views the Kurds as moderate, pro-Western and pro-Israeli. And Israelis fear that Iran will gain an even stronger foothold in Syria and further empower Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in the region. This could lead to another war between Israel and Hezbollah, which is largely based in Lebanon.
Trump’s snap announcement raised questions about whether Israel could count on Trump to have its back in a military crisis.
“And, you know, we give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they’re doing very well defending themselves if you take a look,” Trump said while visiting troops at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq.
Yet, Trump has announced that he will, indeed, extend the withdrawal process over a 120-day period. The friendship, Netanyahu’s sources insist, does pay off.
The ‘warm embrace’ of Netanyahu rhetoric
Despite the threat of looming indictments, Netanyahu leads in all current polls. Professor Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, and Open University, tells The World there are several reasons that he is expected to win the elections.
First, she notes, he has no credible competitor on the left or the right.
“Even the parties to the right of the Likud, who are trying to pull votes from Netanyahu’s party, are not challenging his leadership and agree that he will be the next prime minister,” she said.
"Why wouldn’t his public support him?”
Netanyahu’s constituency, she explains, remains loyal.
“Israeli society is divided, and these are identity politics," Hermann said. "Netanyahu’s voters see this as an issue of community, almost family. In contrast to the left, which is based on universalism, equality, human rights, and has distanced itself from instincts of belonging, Netanyahu talks about Jewish community and superiority. To many, that is like a comforting warm embrace.”
Many of his supporters have bought into Netanyahu’s argument that the charges against him are little more than petty, politically-motivated machinations.
“Macroeconomic indicators are good, socioeconomic gaps are becoming smaller, the security situation is fairly stable, and unemployment is at a low of [3.9 percent]," Hermann said. "Why wouldn’t his public support him?”
On the offense
To contend with the indictment threats and possible convictions, Netanyahu has developed a clear strategy on the offense.
First, he announced that he will not resign if indicted or even during a trial and subsequent appeals processes. Maintaining his claim that the legal proceedings are an attempt to unseat him, he said in a press conference during a state visit to Brazil in late December to honor the swearing-in of President Jair Bolsonaro, “the country can choose its leadership only at the ballot box and not through legal investigations,” which — he contends — are a witch hunt.
He and his supporters have also issued fierce warnings to Mandiblit. The right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom carried a headline on Dec. 27 that Mandelblit would be “attacked mercilessly” if he published his decision before the elections. Initially, the quote was attributed directly to Netanyahu but he and various Likud spokespersons have denied it.
On Israel’s Channel 20, Netanyahu’s coalition chair David Amsalem declared “if someone decides to indict the prime minister, I assume hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people, will rise up and won’t accept it.”
And if Mandelblit hands down an indictment after the elections, Netanyahu will present the decision as an attempt to undo the popular vote and interfere in the democratic process.
"Netanyahu wants to turn around to the attorney general and say: ‘Before you decide to prosecute me, pay attention.'"
“Netanyahu wants to turn around to the attorney general and say: ‘Before you decide to prosecute me, pay attention. The people of Israel have re-elected me for a fourth time’ — hopefully, he will be able to say with more seats than ever before — ‘You cannot overturn the results of a democratic election,’” Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, told The World in a press briefing on Dec. 24.
Naomi Chazan, the former deputy speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science, concedes that so far, Netanyahu’s strategies have served him well. Citing the polls, she said that the public and the media have bought into the idea of early elections as a personal referendum.
But the price of this personalization, she warns, is high.
Rhetorically, she asks, “Are these elections, designed as a salvage operation for the incumbent prime minister, going to mortgage Israel’s future to the fate of one man?”
The answer, it would appear, is yes.