Election Countdown

Five Days to Election, a Battered and Bruised Netanyahu Is Nonetheless Growing Stronger

The steady climb of the Kahanist Otzma party could give Netanyahu his coveted majority – and plunge Israel into xenophobic hell

Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Sepember 11, 2019.
Gil COHEN-MAGEN / AFP

In recent days, Benjamin Netanyahu has found himself emulating the Little Dutch Boy created by American author Mary Mapes Dodge in her immortal 1865 novel Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates. Unlike Brinker, however, who had to plug only one hole in the dam in order to save the city of Haarlem, Netanyahu could soon run out of enough digits to stop the rapidly proliferating breaches in his Fortress Donald Trump. (For the latest election polls - click here)

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The latest leak was found in a Politico report on Thursday alleging that Israel had placed so-called “StingRay” receptors near the White House in order to spy on Trump and his advisers. Beyond the damaging accusation, which Netanyahu vehemently denied, the timing of the leak was widely perceived as yet another sign that Netanyahu’s beautiful friendship with Trump is showing increasing signs of strain.

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Netanyahu, who has staked his reputation and his election campaign on his alliance with Trump, desperately needs the facade to remain intact, at least until the polls close at 10 P.M. on Tuesday night. But it’s been an uphill struggle, given that over the past week Netanyahu has been drenched by a steady stream of bad tidings emanating from the White House, proving that it never rains – it pours. On Monday Trump courted Iranian President Hassan Rohani; on Tuesday he fired John Bolton; on Wednesday it emerged that the president was weighing an easing of sanctions and opening lines of credit for the Tehran regime. And the week isn’t even over.

Netanyahu finds himself hoisted by his own petard. He has invested so heavily in his relationship with Trump that he has no choice but to keep pretending that all is fine and dandy. Netanyahu knows that any hint of criticism from Jerusalem might be viewed by Trump as ingratitude, a sure-fire formula for turning Netanyahu and Israel into the butt of poisonous presidential tweets.

Netanyahu must be praying that Trump hasn’t heard of Netanyahu’s justice minister, Amir Ohana, whose main claim to fame is repeating in public what the prime minister says in private. On Thursday morning, Ohana told army radio that meeting with Rohani would be a mistake, triggering sirens and alarm bells in Netanyahu’s office.

It was a bad ending to a terrible week as far as Netanyahu is concerned, on the assumption that his Thursday night meeting with Vladimir Putin doesn’t go sour as well. Twenty-four hours before the meeting, a Russian spokesman blasted Netanyahu’s “dangerous” declaration of intent to annex the Jordan Rift Valley immediately after the election, although Moscow’s displeasure is hardly likely to sway Israeli voters away from Netanyahu, who hopes Putin doesn’t have other jokers up his sleeve.

Even so, despite apprehension that Netanyahu’s Iran strategy could crash and burn, a recent rash of damaging leaks concerning Netanyahu’s criminal investigations as well as the damaging footage of Netanyahu being rushed off an election rally podium because of a Hamas rocket attack, the prime minister is still standing strong in the polls and is still the odds-on favorite to win the elections.

In fact, Netanyahu’s situation has actually improved somewhat, albeit for all the wrong reasons: The steady climb of the racist, Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party beyond the 3.25 percent electoral threshold that would keep it out of the Knesset. Otzma’s success could give Netanyahu the coveted 61-seat majority that would grant him immunity from prosecution in exchange for wide-ranging concessions to the religious and nationalist far right. Less than a month ago, such a scenario – dubbed by this writer “Your Worst Nightmare”  – seemed more delusional than realistic.  

Netanyahu, along with other politicians and pundits, were convinced that Otzma had no chance of passing the threshold. On Thursday, Netanyahu changed his tune, indicating that Likud’s internal polls confirm recent findings of a surge in support for Otzma and its leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Netanyahu needn’t stray far in order to locate the reason for Otzma’s rise; he can simply look in the mirror. It was Netanyahu who “koshered” Otzma before the April 9 election by coercing the far-right Ihud party to incorporate it into its Knesset list. And it was Netanyahu who then pumped up Otzma’s image by depicting it as a mortal threat to Likud chances for victory in the upcoming September 17 ballot.

It is indeed the stuff of which your worst nightmares are made. A right-wing coalition dependent on Otzma would make the current coalition seem like a league of liberal leftists. It would horrify half of Israel and repel whatever is left of its support in liberal democratic countries and circles. It would advance full speed ahead to annexing the territories, clamp down on the country's Arab minority and on leftist dissent, and undermine whatever is left of Israel’s checks and balances and rule of law. It is a government that Netanyahu would never dream of heading, were it not for his overriding need to escape the already partially amputated arm of the law.

It is also a government that one or two decades ago, Israelis would never contemplate supporting. But that was before Netanyahu mesmerized enough Israelis with his cult of personality, before he legitimized Jewish xenophobia and racism, before Israeli politics turned into a staging ground for Netanyahu’s tortured soul and before his flight from prosecution evolved into his sole raison d'être.

If Netanyahu wins the election, despite everything, his triumph will be the biggest and sweetest of his long career. It will prove that in today’s Israel, style beats substance, incitement overcomes issues, demagoguery smashes reasoned debate and a cult of personality has vanquished the normal attributes of a functioning democracy. It would also indicate that Israelis condone rampant corruption at the very top.

Things can still change, especially given the pollsters’ claim that a third of Israeli voters are still undecided. On the other hand, in previous elections the polls consistently erred in favor of Netanyahu’s opponents. If tradition holds, not only will Netanyahu return triumphantly to the prime minister’s office, he will prove that just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, they turn downright appalling.