Wednesday wasn’t the worst night in Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career. He’s lost elections and primaries before. He spent an entire decade outside the Prime Minister’s Office after his first term ended disgracefully in 1999.
Netanyahu was forced to dissolve the Knesset and call a new election, effectively admitting (though he didn’t say so) he failed to win the April 9 election. He is still prime minister for the next four months. But this was his worst night in 13 years.
March 28, 2006, was an even worse night for Netanyahu. Likud crashed in the election to only 12 seats — its worst result ever. As the numbers were coming in, half the Likud lawmakers were already planning how to challenge the leadership.
What followed was one of Netanyahu’s most incredible comebacks: With a handful of young MKs and stalwart Reuven Rivlin by his side, he walked into the convention hall and rallied the 50 party members still hanging around in a rousing speech. It was a compelling sight and, for a while, the plotters sheathed their daggers. It gave Netanyahu much-need time to reestablish a hold on his shattered party.
But Netanyahu's appearance in the Knesset on Wednesday had nothing of the fire of that 2006 night. We saw an ashen-faced Bibi, ranting about the injustice done to him and the nation by Avigdor Lieberman. It was the Netanyahu we never see in public and only hear about in whispers. Unprepared and unscripted. Raging at the destruction of his career.
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Netanyahu's powers of persuasion are legendary. He has persuaded Israeli voters time and again that centrist hawks and retired generals are “weak leftists.” Now he was even trying to persuade them that “Lieberman is part of the left.” Lieberman, the man who demands the death penalty for terrorists and wants Israeli-Arabs to pledge allegiance to the state in order to keep their citizenship. It's a hard sell, even for Netanyahu.
With three and a half months to the next election, Netanyahu hasn’t yet worked on his messages with his strategists. It will be surprising, though, if they continue wasting their efforts on Lieberman. Lieberman hasn’t got that many voters anyway, and they are mostly elderly Russian-speaking immigrants who have been told since they arrived in the Promised Land that Yisrael Beiteinu is the only party looking after them. Netanyahu’s spin doctor, Jonathan Urich, has threatened to spend 10 million shekels ($2.75 million) on campaigning in the Russian media. But he would do better to shore up Likud's base, like in its merger with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party. The only other address for "soft right" is Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan.
Netanyahu could still find himself needing Lieberman come September 18, the day after the election. Lieberman is realistic and doesn't believe he can win the next election, though he does believe that by standing up to the Likud-ultra-Orthodox alliance he will win plenty of secular right-wingers and even some centrist voters.
What Lieberman wants is to be kingmaker. Despite insisting throughout this crisis that he wants Netanyahu to remain prime minister, when he was asked by reporters moments before the dissolution vote if in the next election he would support Netanyahu, he didn’t answer. Instead he said: “Netanyahu had a chance to form a right-wing government.”
This time around, Lieberman won’t say whether he plans to support Netanyahu or Gantz. And if Netanyahu continues attacking him on the campaign trail, the choice will become much easier for him.
Lieberman will make this election about freedom of religion, linking Netanyahu to the Haredim. It will be easier for him to claim the secularist mantle because Yair Lapid, who once owned it, has merged his Yesh Atid party with Gantz’s Kahol Lavan. As the great opposition to religious coercion, it will be easier for Lieberman to link up with the center-left. In recent days, even Meretz lawmakers have said they are willing to sit with Lieberman in a coalition if it means seeing off Netanyahu.
But even so, beating Netanyahu — with all that just happened — is still a tall order. The right-wing/religious bloc has a majority, even without Lieberman. Netanyahu still has a better chance of winning than Gantz.
In his angry speech after the vote, Netanyahu said Israel will now be "burning billions [on the election] because of the personal ambitions of one man." He meant Lieberman, but could have been describing himself.
This will be the third consecutive election brought forward because of Netanyahu’s personal issues. In December, he cut the Knesset’s term by six months in an attempt to preempt the indictments against him. In 2014, he brought the election forward by three years in order to prevent it from passing a law that would have forced his mouthpiece, Israel Hayom, to charge money for its daily rag. And now he’s strangled a new Knesset in its cradle, just 30 days after lawmakers were sworn in, because he won’t allow anyone else to try to form a government.
So far, his record in self-centered, selfish elections is mixed. He won one election and the second ended without a result. If Netanyahu wins his third election on September 17, it may prove to be a very short victory, because just two weeks after that his pre-trial hearings begin.
Netanyahu is still prime minister, but the Knesset can no longer pass major legislation and his plans for an immunity law and overriding clauses limiting the power of the Supreme Court will have to wait for another day.
Even if he forms the next government, it could be too late to stop the slow legal juggernaut putting him on trial. This was Netanyahu’s worst night in 13 years, but he may have even worse nights ahead of him before 2019 is over.
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