There’s no set date yet, but once the summer is over, Israel will go into election campaign mode. Benjamin Netanyahu can theoretically stay in power until November 2019, but no one expects him to. The latest possible date being discussed is May 2019, but there is growing speculation that Netanyahu himself will initiate new elections that could be held six months from now.
Netanyahu is in a race against time. He would like to preempt Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit's expected decision to indict him on various charges of corruption. New elections could postpone Mendelblit’s announcement – which, by sheer coincidence, is also expected in six months – but, more importantly, they would make Mendelblit’s life that much harder. If Netanyahu returns to the Prime Minister’s Office with a renewed mandate, he could claim that the voters have rendered their verdict. If he decides to go Trump-style nuts, he could fire anyone who dares mention the possibility of indictment or simply pass a law that prime ministers are presumed innocent for life.
The next elections may focus ostensibly on Gaza, Syria, democracy, the cost of living, housing prices and what have you, but they will be decided by the outcome of a personal referendum on Netanyahu. Most Israeli votes are pre-consigned to their ideological/ethnic/religious blocs, but there is an uncommitted mass in the middle that always decides the elections. For many of the undecided, their attitude toward Netanyahu will prove to be the clincher.
Foreign followers of the Israeli scene might be surprised by the fact that Netanyahu is the odds-on favorite to win the next elections. The overriding reason, of course, is that the right-wing/religious bloc that is Netanyahu’s natural habitat has grown stronger, while the center-left wing wilts.
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Nonetheless, despite Israel’s proportional system, in which one votes for parties rather than persons, the identity and quality of the main candidates to be prime minister play a critical role in making up voters’ minds. This is a hundred times truer in the case of Netanyahu, who could pass David Ben-Gurion to become Israel's longest serving prime minister if he’s still in power on July 17, 2019.
Netanyahu may be a hero to his followers and a villain to his detractors, but one thing’s for sure: He’s been around so long that it’s hard for Israelis to imagine life without him.
Thus, we have preassembled Netanyahu’s main strong points and weak spots. He will accentuate the former, his opponents will zero in on the latter. The extreme emotions that Netanyahu generates, coupled with the general deterioration of the overall political discourse, promise an election campaign like none before, and not in a good way.
Netanyahu’s strong points
With more than 12 years as prime minister, and almost 30 years at the forefront of Israeli politics, Netanyahu is in a league of his own. None of his potential rivals come close, with the possible exception of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is said to fancy a reprise as the old warrior come to save the day. Israelis believe they are perpetually sailing in rocky waters; they might very well think twice about rocking the boat and installing a neophyte as captain.
Netanyahu’s main forte is the one in which experience is most valued: security and foreign affairs. Foreigners might decry the siege of Gaza, the clinical death of the peace process and the continued occupation of the Palestinians, but the overriding concerns of most Israelis are personal and national security. Ever since early 2016, when the wave of knifing attacks receded, Israelis have enjoyed relative peace and quiet.
If the arrangements with Hamas in Gaza hold and if the northern front remains under control, Netanyahu will be able to point to the tranquility he's bestowed and to conjure pictures of the murder and mayhem that would engulf the country should someone dare replace him.
Netanyahu can also point to Israel’s solid economic state, although that’s a double-edged sword, as it is in most privatized countries. Other than their jaunts abroad, most Israelis can’t feel the benefits of an Israel that is startup nation but also tycoon heaven.
3. Charisma and savvy
Many Israelis may have had enough of him, but Netanyahu is still the grandmaster of TV appearances, the ace producer of grandstanding gimmicks, the best director of the ongoing, ratings-rich and highly successful Bibi Show. He is also way out in front of his rivals in terms of social media manipulation and bypassing the mainstream media, Trump-style, to talk directly to his potential voters.
Netanyahu is also the only Israeli politician today with a truly Trump-style personal base. His fans are many and extremely loyal. Netanyahu’s minions are blind to his deficiencies and will vote for him come hell or high water. And they will volunteer to fight off his enemies whichever way they can.
Netanyahu’s famous friendship with Trump is a mean ace up his sleeve. You may blanch, but most Israelis admire Netanyahu for warding off Barack Obama and, even more, for wooing and winning the heart and mind of his successor.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, his administration’s cavalier attitude toward the Palestinians as well as its general in-your-face attitude to the much-reviled Europe are all feathers in Netanyahu’s cap.
It would be interesting too see, however, whether a resounding Democratic victory in November’s Congressional election would be interpreted by Israelis not only a repudiation of Trump but of his good friend Bibi as well.
6. The Trump card
And Netanyahu has the added advantage that there’s no point too low for him to stoop to, no rule of morality and decency that he won’t contravene, no smoldering fire that he won’t add fuel to, on his way to another victory. By all indications, the upcoming campaign could be a compilation of Netanyahu’s greatest hits, from “Leftists have forgotten what it means to be Jews” through “Arabs coming in droves” to a nation-state loyalty test, with George Soros and the New Israel Fund thrown in for good measure as diabolical Jew guzzlers. It’s worked before –
and there’s no reason to think it won’t work again.
7. Invincibility and inevitability
Netanyahu always wins, doesn’t he? Not really, but who’s counting. The myth of the eternally unbeaten Netanyahu galvanizes his troops and demoralizes his competitors. The deterrent power of his inevitable return to power checks protests against him, quells criticism by his right-wing rivals and keeps Likud renegades in line. Once he loses, the aura of Netanyahu’s indestructibility will dissipate, of course, but one has to destroy it first in order to get there.
Netanyahu’s weak spots
1. Legal problems
Netanyahu has managed to convince a lot of people that the police is overzealous, the public attorneys potentially leftist and the media out to get him – but not enough. The ongoing investigations against him as well as the perpetual shenanigans of his wife, Sara Netanyahu, hang over the prime minister like a dark cloud. Preempting what could very well be a damning attorney general decision to indict him is therefore critical for Netanyahu, but may not suffice to offset perceptions that he is essentially corrupt.
Netanyahu’s omnipresence on the Israeli scene could also work against him. His shticks and tricks could suddenly seem tired and hackneyed. The Netanyahu mystique might shatter overnight. And Israelis could wake up on Election Day and decide that enough is enough – time for a change.
3. New stars
Israelis are always on the lookout for brand new knights in shining armor. The Israeli military's former chief of staffs are always at the top of the potential draft lists, with Benny Gantz currently at the number one spot, Gabi Ashkenazi close behind him and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, with years of political exposure weighing on him, trailing behind.
Barak, as mentioned above, is eagerly awaiting a call-up as well.
Any party – including Netanyahu’s Likud – that will recruit such hot newcomers will grab the public’s attention. Any party that will enlist more than one rookie superstar will be a sensation.
4. Nothing to show
Without taking anything away from Israel’s relatively stable security situation and stellar macroeconomic performance, there are many areas in which Israelis feel stagnation and deterioration. Housing prices are sky high, poverty is rampant, public transportation is at Third World levels and Israel’s cherished public health system is showing signs of decay. If Netanyahu fails to veer the campaign discourse to national security issues, he could expose himself to damaging assaults on his domestic performance.
5. Anti-religious sentiments
Netanyahu is looking to distance himself from his identification with the religious parties and their perceived coercion by pushing for a new law that would regulate the recruitment of ultra-Orthodox males into the military – but his effort may be too little and too late. After four years of close collaboration with the haredim, Netanyahu will find it hard to convince Israelis that a vote for him isn’t a vote for them as well. And after four such years, the public’s resentment of the Orthodox monopoly has never been greater.
6. The resistance
Netanyahu’s divisive policies and personality engender strong feelings among his critics and opponents. In previous elections, his rivals failed to match Netanyahu in harnessing the negative energy that can snap usually apathetic voters out of their lethargy and send them to the polls. But the potential to bring out anti-Netanyahu voters is greater today than it’s ever been. A Democratic victory in November’s Congressional elections could serve as a role model for bringing out the anti-Netanyahu vote.
They might not help, but they certainly won’t hurt.