With midnight on Wednesday the final deadline for forming a government, it is all but clear at this point that no one is even making much of an attempt to prevent the third election within a year. Instead, the parties are preparing their narratives for the blame game that will ensue after the deadline passes. Regardless of whose version is more believable to the Israeli public, and of whether the balance of blame will also shift voters between the two main voting blocs, one thing is certain: Benjamin Netanyahu has won this round.
A third consecutive election may seem like a hollow victory, but considering Netanyahu’s situation – having failed twice to win a majority for the parties supporting him, and, as of last month, facing multiple charges of corruption – the bottom line result, that he is now guaranteed at least three more months as interim prime minister and has yet another chance of winning a majority, is undoubtedly a win.
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He has survived his toughest political year since coming back to power in 2009, and in 2020 will complete his 11th consecutive year in office. No longer the all-powerful wizard of Israeli politics, perhaps, but still its Houdini at least.
Netanyahu’s survival act is complex and being played out across multiple arenas. He currently has four layers of protection; if even one of them had slipped, he would have been an ex-prime minister by now. And though he will now have nearly three months of campaigning in which he cannot be removed, he can’t afford to stop maintaining these four shields.
The inner layer is, of course, Likud. So far, Netanyahu has succeeded in preventing a major insurrection there, isolating the rebellion to the small pocket around Gideon Sa’ar (currently consisting of three MKs, including Sa’ar himself and a dozen Likud mayors). He could allow himself to be relatively confident of LIkud’s support remaining strong. First, because he is genuinely popular in the party. Second, because Likud has never shown its leader the door. And third, because his potential challengers in the party, with the exception of Sa’ar, have all made it clear that they prefer to wait for Netanyahu’s departure, even if he tarries, before making their move.
But none of this means Netanyahu has been complacent. His party enforcers have been making sure that the Sa’ar rebellion doesn’t grow, and are squelching any other potential sources of mutiny, such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who was considering making his bid. Netanyahu ensured the loyalty of most of the MKs by pushing the vote on Sunday to keep the party’s list intact, in case of another election. He will probably agree to hold a leadership primary next month, but he is relatively confident of beating Sa’ar handily, bolstering his leadership.
The second layer is the bloc of 55 MKs. This is his own invention – transforming the Likud coalition of right-wing and religious parties into his personal praetorian guard. Never before have members of other parties been so loyal to a prime minister. In the past they have always been open to at least talking with the rival contender about possible coalitions. But in the case of Netanyahu’s partners, his investment in the ultra-Orthodox institutions and the settlements has paid off.
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Netanyahu has also known how to manipulate the leaders of the other coalition parties by playing to their voters’ hatred of “the left.” Not that Benny Gantz has ever been a leftist in any sense of the word, but that hasn’t stopped Netanyahu. The fact that Gantz’s partner in the leadership of Kahol Lavan is Yair Lapid, much-hated by the ultra-Orthodox, has helped, of course. The bloc of 55 is also a significant achievement for Netanyahu in light of Avigdor Lieberman’s break with his coalition. Despite Yisrael Beitenu’s departure, the wall held.
The fact that not only did none of the partner parties show any real signs of defecting during this time, but that not one individual MK was seen to waver, including Sa’ar and his tiny band of rebels, is testament to Netanyahu’s prowess in keeping his coalition of “underdogs” angry and united in their hatred of the “elites.” But it still would have been insufficient without the next layer of protection.
A bloc of 55 is still not a majority or an insurmountable obstacle in the face of another coalition. But Netanyahu, who has been assiduously building his wall of hatred towards Arab Israelis since the 2015 election, found it useful again in recent weeks, when the chorus of incitement against the possibility of “terror supporters” having any involvement in government squelched the chance for some form of a narrow government, lead by Gantz, and with the outside support of at least part of the Joint List.
The avalanche of anti-Arab hatred engineered on social media was enough to scare off Gantz, who feared he could not rely on some of his Kahol Lavan MKs and that Lieberman would flip over to Netanyahu in such a situation. Netanyahu and his proxies will continue the incitement throughout the next campaign. He still believes it’s a vote-winner and needs to close off the option of a narrow Gantz government after the next election as well.
The fourth and perhaps most crucial layer of protection is the one over which Netanyahu has least control: the legal shield.
He may have been indicted, but as long as Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, the same man who indicted him, is of the opinion that he can continue as interim prime minister despite being indicted, then Netanyahu is safe for awhile yet.
Mendelblit and his colleagues at the Justice Ministry showed incredible strength and independence in indicting a serving prime minister. But the intimidation of the legal system by Netanyahu’s new pit bull, Acting Justice Minister Amir Ohana, and in protests in the streets, will make Mendelblit think twice before any further decision that could impact directly on the prime minister’s immediate political future.
This is the layer of protection Netanyahu is most concerned about. For now, it’s holding.