Unlike Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu is still sitting pretty in the polls. Recent surveys show that if elections were held today, Likud and the right would gain strength and Netanyahu would garner the absolute majority that has eluded him in the three elections held over the past 15 months. New elections could give Netanyahu the kind of coalition that would allow him to avert his trial, seize control of the legal system, undercut checks and balances and cement his authoritarian rule.
The same polls indicate that Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, is plunging to possible oblivion. Gantz’s Kahol Lavan garnered 33 Knesset seats in the March 2 elections, was reduced to 17 after Gantz joined the government and split from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and is now garnering single-digit results in the polls. At this rate, by the time elections come around, Gantz and his party will be struggling to pass the 3.25 percent threshold for entering the Knesset.
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Netanyahu is finding it hard to resist the temptation. Over the past few days, he has repeatedly threatened to call snap elections because of annexation, the coronavirus and his increasingly tense confrontations with Gantz in general. According to most observers, this was Netanyahu’s master plan from the outset: lure Gantz into a “national emergency” cabinet, precipitate the split with Yesh Atid, alienate Kahol Lavan from its largely anti-Netanyahu constituency and then strike while the iron is hot and call for Israel’s fourth elections within two years.
In theory, Netanyahu’s scheme is proceeding according to plan. In practice, it has run into a brick wall of coronavirus reality – on both sides of the ocean. The resurging outbreak of the disease in the U.S. has decimated Donald Trump’s prospects for reelection, weakening Netanyahu’s international mainstay and frustrating his plan to secure a presidential OK for West Bank annexation by the July 1 deadline he created several months ago.
Netanyahu not only missed his own deadline, but is now hard-pressed to ensure that annexation will take place at all. Faced with withering mockery in the media, Netanyahu cites ongoing talks with the U.S. administration, asserting that annexation is still on the table. Ministers who have spoken to Netanyahu about annexation in recent days, however, have come away impressed that his heart is no longer in it. He prefers to dwell on other matters rather than the “historic window of opportunity” he promised, which for now remains closed.
The postponement or even abandonment of annexation would nonetheless not suffice to inflict serious damage on Netanyahu’s public stature in and of itself. Other than the prime minister, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, some U.S. evangelicals and a minority of Israeli right-wingers, no one wants annexation, certainly not now. Given the threats of international censure and punishment, tension with Jordan, violence in the territories, the potential disbandment of the Palestinian Authority as well as the prospects of a Democratic triumph in November, most Israelis are probably heaving a sigh of relief that the annexation brouhaha has been postponed, hopefully indefinitely.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, is plaguing not only Trump: Israelis have come to realize that the disease is spinning out of control in Israel, as well. Over the past month, the number of total detected coronavirus carriers has doubled, from 15,000 to 30,000. The number of new infections has skyrocketed from less than 50 to over 1,000 a day. More ominously, the number of seriously ill patients is starting to climb as well, prompting hospitals to reopen coronavirus wings that had already been closed.
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A little more than a month after the government’s wholesale reopening of the Israeli economy and dramatic relaxation of safety measures, Israelis are bracing for stricter enforcement and a return to partial lockdowns. Once the envy of the world for its initial containment of the disease, Israel has swiftly joined the U.S. on the list of “red countries” barred by European countries and others from entry. For a nation known for its eternal wanderlust, the ban has mortified Israelis and dented their pride in the process.
Netanyahu’s commanding position in the current polls was a direct outgrowth of his forcefully prudent management of the virus’ initial outbreak. Now he is being blamed for failing to utilize the hiatus to prepare the country’s health infrastructure for the renewed surge. In his formerly daily, but now rare, press conference on Thursday, Netanyahu veered from taking personal credit for success in fending off the disease to blaming everyone else – lawyers, parliamentarians, the public and Israeli democracy itself – for what is starting to look like an abject failure.
The government’s financial assistance for victims of the economic depression caused by the lockdowns, which falls far short of the aid offered in other Western countries, is also coming under increasing fire. Hardest hit are the small business owners who make up the bulk of Israel’s middle class, which is also Likud’s and Netanyahu’s bedrock constituency.
Netanyahu, possibly under the influence of hubris over his recent political achievements, has further fueled public anger over the economic downturn by calling attention to his own greed. At a time when close to a million unemployed Israelis are paralyzed by fear for their livelihood, Netanyahu rammed his own personal tax exemption through the Knesset Finance Committee. He then railed against Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit’s refusal to allow him to receive a 10-million-shekel “gift” from long time benefactor and Detroit real estate magnate Spencer Partrich, describing Mendelblit’s decision as an “attempted coup,” no less.
Netanyahu, whose personal wealth is estimated to be around 50 million shekels (about $14.5 million), would have probably emerged unscathed from his manifestations of personal greed were it not for their juxtaposition with the overall economic malaise. As it is, even his most ardent fans were repelled by the prime minister’s thoughtless timing and insatiable lust for taxpayer funding. The prime minister seems to be corroborating his rivals’ allegation that he is too preoccupied with his personal legal troubles to adequately manage the entire country.
Over the weekend, one of his closest confidantes, Tzachi Hanegbi, minister without portfolio, managed to make things much worse by rebuffing claims of spreading poverty and by describing reports of hunger-stricken Israelis as nothing more than “hogwash.” Pummeled by an outburst of criticism, Hanegbi quickly apologized, but the damage was already done.
Netanyahu’s hitherto rosy prospects in new elections have been dampened by the possibility that they would be held in the midst of an ongoing economic depression and spreading coronavirus outbreak. Netanyahu realizes, better than most, that just like war, one knows how an election campaign starts, but not how it will end. A sense of national crisis could galvanize the center-left, spurring it to anoint another potential savior, unite behind opposition leader Lapid or even rally once again behind a resurgent Gantz.
With Netanyahu souring on his partnership with Gantz, his only other option besides new elections would be to try to entice defectors from Kahol Lavan and set up a minority government of 61 lawmakers. Even if he succeeds, however, such a government could very well be too narrow to secure Netanyahu’s main objective of extricating him from his legal travails.
Only a month or two ago, Netanyahu had reclaimed his title as the unbeatable grand wizard of Israeli politics. An exaggerated sense of self-confidence coupled with Netanyahu’s obvious preoccupation with annexation and his impending criminal trial caused him to take his foot off the pedal and eye off the ball. And while he hasn’t changed his tactics and is proceeding as if all is well, he now faces the risk that rather than bringing him to the top of the mountain, new elections could chuck him into the abyss.