Analysis

Israel Election 2019: In Defeat, Netanyahu Looks to Iran and Trump for Salvation

Netanyahu has rarely made such a consensual speech, seeking his ministers’ approval. But he was not conceding on Wednesday morning

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Likud party headquarters following the announcement of exit polls during Israel's parliamentary election in Tel Aviv, Israel September 18, 2019.
Ammar Awad / Reuters

After what looks like an almost certain failure to secure a majority in Israel's election on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't need anyone to tell him about the murmurings within Likud that his own party should start thinking about a change in leadership. He suspects they are there, and have been for a while. (Live election results - click here)

As he arrived at the party's campaign headquarters at Expo Tel Aviv in the early hours of Wednesday morning, greeting senior Likudniks with forced, tight-lipped smiles, the heavy makeup he wore could not mask the tiredness on his face from days of relentless campaigning and long hours of nonstop online Likud TV broadcasts, in which he harangued right-wingers to go out and vote.

Netanyahu's speech at a Likud rally, delivered more than five hours after voting ended and exit poll results spelled doom, was a carefully measured attempt to reassert his leadership, while acknowledging, without saying it in so many words, that things have changed. Perhaps irrevocably.

Which is why he began by thanking the Likud ministers and Knesset members for “working shoulder to shoulder” with him. “We stood together steadfast in the election campaign and we will stand together, united, in the missions that face us,” he said.

>> Read more: Israel election results: 92% of votes counted, Netanyahu fails to secure ruling majority ■ Maybe, just maybe, the age of Netanyahu has come to an end ■ Netanyahu's spell has been broken ■ For Bibi it's all about getting a 'stay out of jail' card ■ Real voter fraud will be a third Israel election. We shouldn't let it happen ■ Israeli election | Live updates

That is Netanyahu. In victory he stands alone. In defeat, united.

Of course, he couldn’t have failed to notice there were only about 300 die-hard supporters still left cheering for him in a hall that can hold over 1,000, and that not all of Likud's ministers had arrived. But his nemesis Gideon Sa'ar was there, smiling his cryptic smile. Earlier, Sa'ar had not admonished anyone who called him “the next leader” or even “the next prime minister,” but rather just shook their hands. Netanyahu is not only worried about Sa'ar; he sees people plotting all around him. And, for once, his legendary paranoia may be warranted.

Netanyahu has made concession speeches in the past, one of them delivered after Ehud Barak beat him in the 1999 prime ministerial election by a 12-point margin. And then again in 2006, when Kadima had reduced Likud to just 12 seats. This time, though, there was no concession. He noted that “we are still waiting for the actual results,” but neither did he denigrate the exit polls. He knows by now that they are almost certainly close to accurate, and the six or seven seats he lacks for a majority will not be found in the soldiers’ votes that are counted last. But he isn’t giving up and still has a survival plan.

The plan was presented not as his own — and he didn’t even mention remaining as prime minister, although Likud spokesman Jonathan Orich, who called him to the stage, presented him “the prime minister of the State of Israel and the next prime minister.” This was a very consensual Netanyahu, speaking for once in plural and making sure his ministers and the leaders of right-wing and religious parties, which he claims remain loyal, would all be mentioned as partners.

Netanyahu’s plan is “to enter talks in order to form a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government.” In other words, the political landscape may have changed Tuesday night, but Netanyahu is sticking to his principles. The left wants to form “a government that relies on anti-Zionist Arab parties. Parties that deny the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Parties that glorify bloodthirsty terrorists who murder our soldiers, citizens and children.” This must be prevented, he said.

And the other reason for sticking with him is that “Israel is at a historical point.” Yes, the very same “historical opportunity” that he said is within Israel’s grasp at his hasty statement last week when he promised to annex the Jordan Valley. But Netanyahu has stopped talking about annexation. Instead, history now calls to face “the existential threat to Israel from Iran and its malignant cells.” And of course there is “my friend, President [Donald] Trump,” whose “plan of the century will be presented soon.”

Who can ensure that “the way the negotiations with the president will be conducted will define Israel’s future for generations to come”? Netanyahu didn’t say, but the answer was clear. There is only one man who can deal with Trump, confront Iran and ensure that those murderous Arabs don’t get into the government. He may have lost the election, but he’s still falling back on that indispensable trio of Trump, Iran and the Arabs. From them will come Netanyahu’s salvation.

There are two dates in Netanyahu’s diary. He is still the prime minister and so far hasn’t canceled his plans to fly to New York next week, speak at the United Nations General Assembly and meet Trump there. It may sound absurd that a prime minister, who has now twice lost his majority and is facing eviction from office, will fly off to negotiate with the president of the United States. But Netanyahu is likely to do exactly that, in order to prove that he is still indispensable.

And then there is the pre-indictment hearing scheduled for Wednesday October 2. Netanyahu's attorneys will have no choice but to attend the hearing, knowing now that their client has no chance of winning a Knesset majority for immunity from prosecution over bribery and fraud charges.

Netanyahu, naturally, did not mention his legal troubles in the non-victory, non-concession speech, but it was at the forefront of his mind. The man on the stage spoke of Trump, the Iranian threat and the dangerous anti-Zionist Arabs — but he was doing so while looking at criminal charges that he can no longer evade. Yes, he is still prime minister and plans on remaining in office for as long as he can. But he is also much closer to being a defendant, and perhaps even to the high-security Wing 10 in Ramle's Maasiyahu Prison.