The biggest test for Israeli democracy is not the final vote tally of this third electoral contest. Neither does it lie in Benjamin Netanyahu's ability to form a stable coalition government, if his religious and right-wing bloc's current lead does not put him over the magic number of 61 Knesset seats. The test will come in two weeks, when defendant Netanyahu appears in front of Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman and her colleagues Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham.
Bibi went gunning for his only real rival
The leader of the Likud party can boast of a fantastic personal achievement. He bested his electoral results almost without eating away at his natural partners and managed to completely turn the trend around and defeat Kahol Lavan. Likud supporters were on fire, and delivered at the ballot box, together with Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas voters. This is the resumption of the “He is innocent” coalition, 21 years after the inventor of the term “bloc,” Shas chairman Arye Dery, led his party to a record result of 17 Knesset seats after being indicted for bribery.
Netanyahu was unable to win the victory he really hoped for, however. Even if he manages to put together a coalition – possibly a stable one, in which all sing his praise as he returns from long days at court to run the country in the evenings – he will not be able to enact the so-called “French law,” which would prevent a sitting prime minister from facing trial. Major legislative changes don’t look to be within reach: They will remain in the hallucinatory dreams of his Likud loyalists Amir Ohana and Miki Zohar. The legal train of the defendant Benjamin Netanyahu has already left the station.
His victory was political, and without a doubt personal. It is certainly a morale booster, and might even end in a coalition, if he manages to garner 61 seats with the help of the soldiers’ votes, surplus vote agreements, or by enticing deserters from other parties – but in practice he is still charged with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. There will be postponements, delays, tricks of all kind – some dirty – but no force in the world can stop the wheels of justice of Jerusalem's district court. All that is left of the filthy transcript that documented the legal campaign of the most senior defendant in Israel is the horrible remark he made about the supposed left-wing allegiance of the judges, whom he expects to reject this branding – which has never been ascribed to them, except from those close to Netanyahu himself.
Netanyahu began campaigning from a substantially inferior position: A draft indictment turned real, a set court date and opinion polls showing most of the public believed Netanyahu was the main reason the country was dragged into a third round of elections in less than a year. But the pied piper from Balfour Street worked every street and corner, every market, alleyway, playground and park – and galvanized his base in a way we have not seen since Menachem Begin in 1981. Likud hurtled forward, Likud was on fire – while Kahol Lavan floored the gas pedal in neutral.
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The opposing fortunes of a rising right-wing bloc and a weakening center-left could be due to the realization that Benny Gantz and Kahol Lavan do not represent a real alternative as a ruling party. What is fascinating is that the collapse of Gantz and his camp happened in such an unexpected sprint: Just 10 days in February, in which Netanyahu, and Likud, burned up the country and social media as if the premier's life depended on it, in a negative, dirty and despicable campaign packed with lies, leaving their rivals to eat the dust.
On Election Day itself, the prime minister of Israel did not hesitate to post a long video clip that distorted things Gantz had said. Netanyahu took a piss from the diving board on the honesty, morals and values that once had a place in Israeli politics. On Monday night, it turned out a large part of the public sees this liquid as blessed rain. Trumpism has taken hold of Netanyahu. He leads in a new era, filled with fake news, and terrifying depths we never thought we would reach. With the spirit and encouragement of his eldest son, he did not hesitate to use any means, lie or dirty trick to break through and score. It worked.
The true significance of this victory, which still seems to be a very close call, is that half of the public that bothered to come out and vote agrees that Netanyahu can serve as prime minister even under indictment. This is the nucleus. He did not receive a blank check, contrary to what some politicians and journalists claimed on Monday night, to change the system of government and turn the country into Turkey, on the way to becoming Russia. But he capitalized on his mudslinging, using mafia tactics, the same criminal methods that brought him down – and that is still where the heart of the matter lies.
The hubris that has characterized his term, his weakness for everything about his miserliness and media obsession, are what led him to his legal problems. His political power blinded him, leading him to embrace a politico-legal campaign that only complicated things even more. As he gained strength in this contest's final lap, we saw hubris appear anew, and bringing back the same harmful patterns of behavior. His achievement on Monday could very well continue to lead him to intensify the campaign against those who will determine his fate, boosted by the insane influence of the atmosphere in the Prime Minister’s Residence.
If the official results really are the same as the updated exit polls, and he cannot build a Knesset majority, we will continue to suffer through reckless, never-ending transition governments. President Reuven Rivlin, whose soul is bearing the cross for all Israelis, might seriously consider shortening the process, imposing the hopeless task of forming a government, not on Netanyahu and not on Gantz, but on the Knesset itself, asking its members to decide.
Kahol Lavan will be forced to do much more than just soul-searching. In addition to their favorable initial situation mentioned above, the centrist alliance also received an overflowing basket of goodies in the last 48 hours of the campaign. The recording of Natan Eshel was a thousand times better than Dudu Topaz’s “tchakh-tchakhim” (a racial slur against Mizrahim, Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent) speech in 1981, in which he said that all of them were in the Likud. Exposing the shocking tricks of Netanyahu and his inner circle to trap Yisrael Bachar into disparaging Gantz should have made any sane citizen lose sleep. Yet it seemed as if the main opposition to Netanyahu had loaded flowers in its gun barrel.
Considering this, saying their campaign on the last day was insufficient would be a gross understatement. The ranks of Yesh Atid, Telem and Hosen LeYisrael, the parties that make up Kahol Lavan, will be strewn with some wondering whether Gantz is the right person to conduct another campaign against Netanyahu. Kahol Lavan's partners – see the damage caused to Gantz by Labor’s Amir Peretz in the final lap – will have to recalibrate their paths. Labor, the party that founded Israel, will be represented in the next Knesset by three MKs only. After the unhappy merger with Meretz, Ben-Gurion's scions will have to consider primaries that will present a challenge to Peretz, and perhaps eventually the possibility of a different merger with Kahol Lavan.
Another question must be asked now too: Whether some MKs will desert the center-left bloc. As of now, it looks unlikely. None of the natural suspects have anything to gain by doing so at this stage. The pleasures of power are worthless in the present atmosphere, when most politicians want to put an end to the Netanyahu saga, and Bibi demands full loyalty. In the same context, Netanyahu cannot rely on Avigdor Lieberman. Since coming completely out of the political closet, it is now clear that Lieberman’s goal was, and remains, to reach a Netanyahu-free future. He won’t move an inch, regardless of the huge enticements he will be offered.