Analysis

A Fourth Election Is Growing More Likely by the Day, but Israelis Don't Care

Both the public and Netanyahu, who would gain another six months in his Balfour St. digs, seem almost resigned to the possibility of yet another election round

Illustration
Amos Biderman

The Israeli public is starting to view a general election as a chronic illness. You just live with it, despite the discomfort. No one is rattled by the arrival of yet another postcard with details of their polling place in the mailbox; certainly no one is prompted to take to the streets or city square in protest. The possibility, now being mooted, of a fourth election, produces a generic shrug. Life as an emoji.

In focus groups, which are frequently convened at pollsters’ offices, 70 percent of the interviewees say they are skeptical that the March 2 election will produce a clear-cut decision that can break the vicious circle. What’s usually heard is anger at the method, at the elected representatives, at the system. But no change has yet been registered in voter tendencies.

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All in all, we’re in a rerun of the previous election, with the necessary adjustments: Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett are engaging in mudslinging on the hilltops of the West Bank (the latter this time as defense minister, compelled to taste the stew that he himself once served up to his two predecessors, Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Ya’alon).

Ayman Odeh is challenging Benny Gantz, who, very late – following Yair Lapid – is now dissociating himself from the despicable notion of transferring the Triangle of Arab communities in the country’s center to Palestinian sovereignty, as proposed in the Trump plan. Odeh’s declaration that the Joint List, which he heads, “will not support” a government in which Lieberman is a member was not accidental. It leaves open the possibility of abstaining (or, more likely, being absent from the Knesset plenum), if the Kahol Lavan bloc succeeds in cobbling together a “Jewish majority” (the offensive notion that would make possible the formation of a minority government).

Still, our best bet is to treat all the declarations, conditions and self-snafus as election spin. At 10 P.M. on March 2, the game will begin again. The Joint List can serve as a parable: Despite all its inherent reservations about supporting, even passively, a government in which Lieberman serves, its highest and irrevocable imperative is to get Netanyahu out of office. In the end, that’s what will determine its behavior. Between the little Satan as a minister in a Gantz government, and the big Satan as prime minister for another term, the choice is self-evident.

Raft in a raging river

The most significant event this week, one that is not subject to interpretations and speculations, was the selection of the three judges who will hear Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, in each of which the prime minister is a defendant. From event to event, what was for years considered a delusion and wishful thinking of leftists and anti-Bibists has assumed concrete form and is taking shape before our eyes as a material entity. There will be a trial. It will start whenever it starts. Netanyahu will sit in the dock alongside his partners in the indictments and will be asked to state whether he pleads guilty or not guilty to the charges against him: bribery, fraud, breach of trust.

In a monologue that was called an “interview” on the Pravda-like Channel 20 this week, Netanyahu was asked his opinion of the High Court of Justice. “I respect the High Court,” he replied. “I don’t always agree with it, certainly not in this case [of allowing Heba Yazbak from the Balad party of the Joint List to run in the election], but I respect it.”

Netanyahu at a Likud campaign event in Lod, February 11, 2020.
Ilan Assayag

After three years, during which he never ceased, while he was being investigated, to brutally and coarsely attack the judicial system – whether directly or by way of his emissaries in the Balfour Street residence, in Likud and in media outlets subjugated to his will – the man is switching tactics. It was fine to lambaste the clerks, the sentries and the knights of the kingdom, but not the chief executioner.

Netanayhu felt at home in that hour-long appearance on an unwatched channel that serves as a home for the empty vessels that are his mouthpieces. Not threatened, not challenged. Buoyed by that feeling, he shed vital barriers of caution, alertness and sharpness. We got to see a different Netanyahu. Not for the first time in the past year, but more frequently of late, in public statements and in interviews, he often makes mistakes, falls into lapses and loses his train of thought. That’s what happened in the Channel 20 interview.

He mixed up names (“Ahmad Tibi” was replaced by “Abu Mazen” more than once, and “Gantz” became “Olmert”). His stream of consciousness, unhinged, overwrought, was buffeted from side to side like a raft swept up in a raging river. The faces of his rivals were interchanged in his imagination, Arab was mixed up with Arab, Jew with Jew. Not a pleasant sight.

If even a little of that had happened to Benny Gantz, Likud’s salivating attack dogs would have depicted him as a demented mental patient, a danger to the public. And because the Kahol Lavan leader is stingy with interviews and thus avoids becoming tongue-tied, Likud is putting out fake clips from the April election that present him as such and distributing them to its supporters. That’s their style, that’s their level, this is what hysteria looks like.

Bringing them all home

This past December, when Netanyahu was competing for the Likud leadership, he rushed in a frenzy from one meeting to the next. Five or six meetings a day. The energy he radiated was impressive by any standard, not only for a person of 70-plus. This week he returned to the roads and the halls. But the energy seems to be diminished – only two meetings an evening (maybe he considers the general election less important than eliminating Gideon Sa’ar as a competitor). In some meetings, he paces around on the stage, in others he speaks sitting down. He suddenly looks like someone his age.

The practical benefit to be derived from these events, which are broadcast on his Facebook account, is dubious. All the cities he visits are painted in Likud colors: Beit She’an, Ma’aleh Adumim, Nahariya, Hadera, Carmiel, Lod, Bat Yam, Ma’alot. The audience is always the same – mainly party members, filled with love, awash with admiration. The most pious of the convinced.

It looks like a closed-circuit exercise. In theory, these troops are supposed to spur their neighbors to snap out of their apathy and raise Likud’s floundering voting percentage. But it’s not these meetings that will do the trick the third time. The spurring-on of the Likud folks is not reflected in the polls, nor is a broadening of the voter base or the return home of 251,000 people who turned their backs on him last September. Those are the true tasks. The situation is making the Likud MKs and cabinet ministers who accompany Netanyahu to the events wonder whether the premier is already in the midst of his next party leadership contest and is simply looking for shortcuts.

A fourth election this coming September will require a new primary in Likud. This time also for the Knesset slate. Which is why many of current Likud MKs are showing up at the meetings. Not only to ply the leader with gestures of love and endless esteem. The main reason is to generate utilitarian visibility among the base.

The closer we get to March 2, the more likely it seems that we’re headed for round four rather than for the formation of a government. In the absence of a unity government headed by Netanyahu (which has zero probability) or a right-wing-Haredi coalition without Lieberman (ditto, most likely), another election is his preferred alternative. It would deliver another half a year at least in office, with all the perks of Balfour Street living. And, more important, a defendant with the status of prime minister when he stands before the honorable court and confronts the state prosecution over possible negotiation for a plea bargain. Elementary for him.

Netanyahu plants a tree in Mevo'ot Yericho, a West Bank settlement, February 10, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu is looking for the votes that will get him 61 seats – in forsaken alleys, crowded crannies and meager databases that in no normal arithmetic would deliver him the coveted result: among taxi drivers, while he attempts to annul the reform of rates; rabbis of the religious Zionist movement, whom he has implored to forsake Bennett in his favor; and of course, the flavor of the month – the Ethiopian community.

At rallies, he surrounds himself with these groups like a protective belt. In Haifa, in a vulgar move, rife with haughtiness, he pulled – physically – his dubious acquisition, Gadi Yevarkan (a Kahol Lavan MK from the Ethiopian community who bolted to Likud) and a forgotten former MK, Avraham Neguise, also from that community, to the center of the stage. Raising arms with them, he shouted, “We are bringing the Ethiopians back home! To Likud!”

With his attempt to push through an illicit move (it was blocked by the attorney general) to bring the remaining Falash Mura to Israel, the probably illegal and certainly rotten establishment of a committee to investigate the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police officers, the transformation of an opportunist like Yevarkan into a star of his campaign, and the cynical use of members of the Ethiopian community as extras in his shows – and all of it for half a Knesset mandate on a good day – it sometimes looks as though Netanyahu is out to net an appointment as the head of the community’s kesim, or religious leaders, and not reelection as prime minister.

Heavenly upgrade

The cult of personality – a term whose definition is currently being rewritten on the basis of Benjamin Netanyahu – registered a new peak at a rally in Lod this past Tuesday. A teenage girl from the Ethiopian community was dragged to the stage and asked, in the fear-inducing roar of the city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, to sing to the prime minister a reworked version of a verse from Ofra Haza’s song “Tefila” (“Prayer”).

The song, which beseeches the Good Lord (“Eloha”) to preserve and protect his children, was given infantile new lyrics to suit it to the individual to whom God is but a mere deputy, Benjamin Netanyahu: “He who fought in Sayeret Matkal [commando unit] / He who lost a brother in battle / He who saved the economy / So that things will be better… ”

The comparison of Netanyahu to the ruler of North Korea has exhausted itself several times over. For example, in July 2019, when Likud MKs were called upon to celebrate his having broken David Ben-Gurion’s record as longest-serving prime minister. The kowtowing show put on by senior figures for the boss, who sat, leg over leg, next to his wife and listened without emotion to the torrents of flattery and the deluge of praise, evoked Pyongyang, not to mention, at least a bit, the Roman Empire.

On that occasion, one Likud MK likened the leader to Moses (“Bibi, king of Israel” is small potatoes for him – they sang the same ditty for Arik Sharon). The upgrade to the Lord on high was thus only a matter of time. What can we say? Of Ofra Haza, it’s said that she "died of shame" (at having AIDS). That was also the feeling at hearing the ludicrous paean. Netanyahu, fortunately, came out of it alive.

The chariot and the pumpkin

A rumor that Nir Barkat would be appointed finance minister even before the election has been circulating in Likud for a few weeks, rattling the nerves of his colleagues in the party’s hierarchy. The source of the rumor is apparently not the bureau of the ostensible maker of the appointment. Near the end of last week, the intensity of the rumor rose a notch. Someone close to Netanyahu called Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon: Until March there will be no change, confidant A reassured confidant B.

Two days later, on Sunday of this week, Netanyahu convened a meeting at his residence. Present were Yisrael Katz, who’s in charge of campaign headquarters; Miri Regev, who organizes the rallies; Yariv Levin, the tourism minister, for whom the prime minister’s residence has become a second home; and the pollster Rafi Smith, who was hired by Likud and who also works, separately, for Barkat.

The phrase “Nir and the polls” has become a rolling joke in Likud. The MK, who was elected for the first time last April and since then hasn’t experienced a single working day in a functioning House, believes almost religiously that his place is in the finance minister’s bureau, at 1 Kaplan Street, Jerusalem. To the treasury he was born. At least until he arrives at what he considers his natural destination: the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

Nir Barkat.
Tomer Appelbaum

Like the old-time peddlers who went from door to door with a box hanging around their neck filled with various sundries, he comes and goes from the Prime Minister’s Bureau armed with self-commissioned polls heralding the longed-for upturn in voting trends that his immediate appointment will foment. Legions of undecided voters will flock to the polling stations on voting day and cast the right ballot, with Barkat’s image in their mind’s eye. He will save the Israeli economy in their name, he will transform Likud from a moribund share into a stock market bonanza.

His efforts were in vain. No one wanted to buy his goods. Netanyahu appointed three new ministers in this perpetual transition period: Amir Ohana, David Amsalem and Tzipi Hotovely. He intended to appoint a fourth, David Bitan, but the latter passed it up after the High Court of Justice signaled him with its high beam, a moment before disqualifying him.

Back to Balfour, Sunday of this week. Netanyahu wondered aloud whether he should announce his intention to appoint Barkat finance minister in his next government. He mentioned the flattering polls. The ministers guffawed. Regev, who pulls no punches, asked Smith: Tell me, how much did Nir pay you for those polls?

Regev, Katz and Levin made it clear to Netanyahu that over their dead body. Since when, Levin asked, do polls decide who’s suited to be a minister? It’s not the first time that Levin, the confidant and adviser for all seasons, has foiled with his advice a possible Barkat appointment. In the last round, on January 21, Netanyahu considered him as possible minister of agriculture or of labor and social affairs. He was hesitating between Barkat and Hotovely. Levin threw all his weight behind Hotovely. She’s been an MK since 2009, he was compelled to remind Netanyahu.

Still in Balfour. The meeting has ended, darkness is encroaching, Netanyahu signals he has dropped the idea of appointing Barkat. But – and this is a conjecture of yours truly – someone from the prime minister’s circle told Barkat that he would be announcing the future appointment at one of his election events, perhaps as soon as Monday evening. Barkat’s presence is required.

Well, Barkat, as it happens, was several time zones away from Kaplan and Balfour streets. In the United States. He had just landed there, on his way to appear at a Jewish event. As he got off the plane he heard the message and quickly filmed a thrilled clip, in English, explaining to his hosts that “our prime minister” had recalled him urgently (to save the Israeli economy, for sure). The clip was made for the American hosts, but the first to see it, completely by chance, were viewers of TV news in Israel. It hardly needs saying that the clip and Barkat became a joke that gave many in Likud pleasure, at a time when days of joy are few and far between.

Barkat returned to Israel to find that the appointment was being held up. Only on Thursday evening did Netanyahu, in despair due his party's treading water in the surveys, finally relent. He told the audience at a gathering in Or Yehuda that he'd asked Barkat to be the next finance minister. All that remains is to win at least 61 Knesset seats.

Even then Barkat's chances of having that promise kept are pretty slim. If he has any doubts, he should ask Kahlon. Netanyahu had promised him on the eve of the 2013 election when he left Likud, to appoint him chairman of the Israel Lands Administration immediately thereafter. As many senior Likud figures will attest, such promises tend to evaporate once the ballot boxes close down. The golden chariot turns into a pumpkin, the prince becomes a frog.

Crossroads

At the beginning of the week, when Likud ministers were all tensed up in anticipation of Barkat's appointment, they relayed messages to Kahlon begging him not to resign. Kahlon didn't need the pressure. It hadn't occurred to him to quit, certainly not for Barkat, his bitter erstwhile rival from the time the latter was Jerusalem mayor. Barkat had run the city on a deficit budget and sent garbage trucks to unload trash outside the Finance Ministry, which refused to give in to the mayor's demands for more funding.

At no stage was the finance minister asked to leave his post, nor did Netanyahu have any intention of doing so. First, Kahlon is at a crossroads in his private life, following the publication of his text message exchanges with Judge Eti Craif. Dismissing him now would be cruel. Netanyahu wouldn't do that to him. Not under these circumstances. Also, Netanyahu is traveling around the country boasting of economic achievements, of low unemployment, minimal inflation. Why should he dismiss this term's finance minister? Because someone's in a hurry?

Kahlon, as far as he's concerned, is planning to stay put until a new government is set up and a permanent minister is tapped. Or at the very latest – May 15 this year, exactly five years since he entered office. The chances of the two working together until Barkat learns the ropes, Kahlon knows, are lower than the inflation rate.

Note of caution

Every night, senior Likud figures who are supposed to be interviewed in the media the next day have to engage in a conference call with the prime minister. He insists on briefing them personally. One evening this week, a routine conversation of that kind took place. The central message was the one you’ve heard time and again in the past few days and which will continue to be the main noise of the campaign henceforth, like the pneumatic drill wielded by Bomba Tzur in “Blaumilch Canal,” the iconic Israeli film comedy: “Gantz doesn’t have a government without [Ahmad] Tibi and the Joint List.” Hammer it home, he tells them.

Netanyahu also provided them with an additional point: the Privacy Protection Authority, he reported angrily, has begun to examine “Elector” (Likud’s election app, which was reported to have been hacked, causing the leak of the personal details of millions of Israelis). They’re quick to investigate us, he ranted, but when it comes to Benny Gantz’s Fifth Dimension cyber-security startup [which collapsed and for which a receiver was appointed], no one has investigated for the past year. They also had ties to foreign elements, Netanyahu reminded his listeners. Here he took them back to an old message: If it’s not Bibi, they don’t investigate.

Among those who were briefed was the cabinet minister Zeev Elkin, whose antennae are sharp and whose ears are sensitive. He spotted a hazard. Hang on, he said to Netanyahu, the foreigner you’re referring to is Viktor Vekselberg, whose hand you shook and with whom you were photographed just two weeks ago.

Oops. Silence on the line. Time for a brief explanation: Vekselberg, a Jewish-Russian billionaire who is close to Vladimir Putin, was the chief investor in Fifth Dimension. He also made a hefty donation for the creation of a monument in Jerusalem in memory of the Russians killed in the siege of Leningrad, which was inaugurated during Putin’s recent visit to Israel, within the framework of the meeting of the International Holocaust Forum that marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Vekselberg was in attendance, and as Elkin, who was also present, recalled, shook hands with the leaders and had his picture taken with them. He and Netanyahu also have an earlier joint photograph, taken at the inaugural ceremony of the Holocaust Museum in Moscow.

Netanyahu, according to another listener on the line, sounded embarrassed. All right, he mumbled, Fifth Dimension was managed by Gantz. Elector is not my company, I have no connection with it.

Which is true. But Elkin’s wise warning fell on attentive ears. I listened to some of the interviews with Likud ministers on the day after the briefing, including those of Elkin himself and Yisrael Katz. They were replete with a repetitive dimension of false messages, but there was no Fifth Dimension.