Analysis |

Israel Is Being Dragged Into Elections Again, but This Time It's a Whole New Ballgame

Facing rivals who will be hard to paint as left-wing, Netanyahu looks to be heading into an election campaign with his worst starting numbers in months

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, December 21, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, December 21, 2020.Credit: Dani Shem Tov
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

At first glance, the early election into which Israel is being helplessly dragged, like a hostage in the clutches of a bank robber, is just more of the same. The fourth Knesset election in under four years. So what else is new?

But there could be no greater mistake. This time it’s a whole new ball game. With new opening conditions and a new lineup.

Benjamin Netanyahu got used to waging a campaign against a single main rival from the center-left. He found it easy to make wicked, false accusations, bordering on claims of treason, against his rivals. That’s how he attracted voters from the right, who panicked at the idea of a “left-wing government.”

But now, with Gideon Sa’ar as a main rival and Naftali Bennett as a secondary challenge, the tactic that had served him so well is no longer relevant. It will be harder for him to paint them as “left-wing collaborators.” He will try, of course, but even the tricks of the world’s best campaigner have their limits.

Netanyahu is going into this election campaign season with his worst starting numbers in months. Even before Sa’ar broke with Likud to found his own party, the Likud-right-ultra-Orthodox bloc had 65 to 67 Knesset seats, out of a total of 120. A homogenous coalition that would free him of the nightmare awaiting him in the courtroom of Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman and give him a license to eliminate the legal system had been in his pocket. But not anymore.

Sa’ar promised not to lend a hand to the destruction of Israeli democracy. Bennett did the same on Monday night. The left-wing purists who are dismayed at the pair’s rising poll numbers would do well to pay attention to that too.

Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz of Kahol Lavan is heading into his fourth election at the depths of his popularity. He could have maintained his dignity and his erect posture had he rejected Netanyahu’s bullying and brazen demands out of hand – demands whose purpose was to break the bones of the judicial branch, empty the justice minister’s post of its substance and hand a criminal defendant of a prime minister a ladder with which to escape the prison that awaits him.

The mere willingness of Gantz (with the silent assent of Gabi Ashkenazi) to negotiate over this abomination is what led to the revolt against him within the ranks of Kahol Lavan. To borrow from criminal law, it’s like someone about to receive a bribe negotiating with the briber over the amount of money in the envelope. Gantz should have flatly turned down the offer and with great fanfare broken up his union with Netanyahu.

But what a bad route Gantz has traveled: from a promise, a vow almost, not to join a government headed by a defendant who directs crude accusations at the investigators and prosecutors involved in his case, trying with all his might to escape justice; and then Gantz bargains with him over the price the judicial system will pay for their “partnership” to continue.

And we’ve almost forgotten the government budget. Likud will do everything in its power, using every trick in the book, to make us forget that the 2020-2021 budget – which according to the coalition agreement was to have been passed by the Knesset in August – was taken hostage by the prime minister to give him his famous loophole to call an early election under conditions that best suited him. From every possible perspective – moral, economic, public – the failure to pass a budget and its accompanying legislation is more egregious than a bribery charge, particularly during the current period.

En route to the election, the bluffing has been exposed in all its ugliness. Until Monday, Netanyahu’s collaborator-in-chief, Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, claimed it would be impossible to pass the 2021 budget before the middle of February. Anyone who claimed otherwise, Katz stated, understood nothing.

But hey, presto. One phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office and “I am the finance minister!” Katz signs off like a lowly bureaucrat on a new deadline – January 5. No standard is too low for him. And we are the ones who will pay the price of this bad joke.

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