Analysis

Israel Election 2019: After Suffering Setback, This Is How Netanyahu May Try to Hold on to Power

Election results show: The voters have joined Trump, Putin, the army chief and others in recognizing Netanyahu's weakness and acted accordingly

Netanyahu at the Likud party headquarters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election, September 18, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

Benjamin Netanyahu has suffered a blow at the hands of everyday Israelis. The political wizard, the master of campaigns, Mr. Television and the Facebook fiend didn’t win a solid majority for maintaining his rule and evading the indictments that face him pending a hearing. Netanyahu took a gamble when he had the Knesset dissolved in late May. From the moment Avigdor Lieberman ditched Netanyahu, the prime minister’s base shrank, and it has shrunk further this election. (Live election results - click here)

Now a caveat. Netanyahu is still in power and the state’s resources are at his command. The final results could lean his way more than the exit polls have shown. He has something to offer potential defectors from the rival camp.

Still, Netanyahu sought a clear mandate from the voters and didn’t get it. Politicians understand this, and so do the leaders of the world powers, the attorney general and Israel’s defense chiefs. Everyone has noted his weakness and will respond accordingly.

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The first signs of weakness were evident in the cold shoulder he received from both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, who, unlike the enthusiastic support they gave him for the April election, were stingy in their gestures. A defense pact? Phone me after the election, Trump told him as he warmed up his relations with Iran. Annex the Jordan Valley? A breach of international law, Putin reminded him after letting Netanyahu cool his heels for three hours before meeting with him.

How can this compare to the hugs and smiles from last time? Netanyahu got the message and, in a flash, turned Trump from a close friend into an enemy of Israel who wants to impose his “deal of the century” and talk with the leaders in Tehran. Only I can stand up to him, Netanyahu said. But wait a second, didn’t you just say that Trump would do anything for you?

The most important incident this election campaign was exposed by my Haaretz colleagues Amos Harel and Chaim Levinson. Last Tuesday, Netanyahu wanted to embark on a military operation in Gaza, one that was fraught with danger and would have gotten the election postponed.

The leader who has stood out all these years for his caution when it came to aggressive and flashy military operations – and the attendant military funerals – changed his tune and considered launching a war to avoid an election. He was blocked by the military chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, who had reservations, and the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, who demanded that legal procedures be followed before such an operation was approved.

It turned out that all the political power of the prime minister, who’s also defense minister, including all his yes-men in the cabinet, wasn’t enough against the opposition of professionals at the top.

In other times, more convenient ones for the ruler, an incident like this would have roused the right-wing chorus, which would have called it a coup or the work of the deep state headed by Mendelblit, the man “persecuting” Netanyahu as attorney general. This time Netanyahu held his fire. He may have realized that his force was spent, as Kochavi and Mendelblit realized. They weren’t afraid to stand up to him.

The crisis isn’t over yet. Netanyahu may again play the military card, perhaps in an attempt to postpone the hearing or accompany the political crisis with the sound of war drums. He’ll have to work now to forestall a rebellion in Likud that could get him deposed amid the formation of a unity government.

In two weeks is his pretrial hearing with Mendelblit. He arrives at all these stations from a position of weakness following his failure at the polls. On Tuesday the magician ran out of rabbits. To be saved he’ll have to find new ones – or send his lawyers to Mendelblit looking for a plea deal.