Analysis

Israel Election Results: Netanyahu Clings to Power With Bluff and Bluster – but His Days Are Numbered

Like Richard Nixon, the prime minister’s refusal to depart gracefully will cement his name in history as an unrepentant crook rather than world-class statesman

Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement during a news conference in Jerusalem September 18, 2019.
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t going quietly. He will fight for his august position as prime minister, key to his quest for freedom, until he is forcibly removed from the stage. He refuses to recognize his loss in Tuesday’s election or its long-term impact. He is fighting for survival and dreaming of miraculous revival.

Which is why the days after Tuesday’s election seem disturbingly similar to the days before it. Netanyahu still dominates the airwaves, huffing and puffing, bobbing and weaving, spreading fear and inciting hate, creating headlines in the morning and manufacturing their complete opposite by evening. He is as omnipresent as ever, refusing to acknowledge that the Israeli electorate has just handed him a crushing defeat.

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Netanyahu is deploying the time-tested tactics used by his predecessor Yitzhak Shamir to set up successive broad-based “national unity” governments in 1984 and 1988: Reconstituting a narrow right-wing coalition in order to bargain with the center-left from a position of strength. There is only one fatal flaw in Netanyahu’s scheme: Unlike Shamir, he has no narrow coalition to speak of. Pretending otherwise reeks of desperation, rather than strength.

Make no mistake: Netanyahu still inspires fear among his senior Likud colleagues. None of them, in fact, dare portray the election as a defeat, never mind calling on Netanyahu to accept responsibility. The prime minister’s energy, vitality and refusal to recognize the ramifications of his loss are preserving the power of his mythical spells, albeit on life support. Netanyahu’s lily-livered Likud underlings, most of whom yearn to see him go, are still terrified by the prospect that the ultimate comeback kid will rise like a Phoenix from his ashes and take revenge on anyone who showed even a smidgen of disloyalty.

Netanyahu’s coveted immunity, however, is now moot. The election results have undermined any chance of setting up a coalition that would approve it. This leaves Netanyahu with only one escape hatch, and a temporary one at that. Netanyahu must continue serving as prime minister, even if he agrees to an eventual rotation deal with Benny Gantz. According to the letter, if not the spirit, of the law, a prime minister is not required to resign in case of criminal indictment. A minister, even one holding top portfolios such as defense or foreign affairs, must leave his post immediately once the attorney general announces a decision to indict.

The 55 members represented by the unified makeshift bloc set up by Netanyahu mere hours after polls closed, pledging continued allegiance, are still six short of the 61 he needs. To make up for the gap, Netanyahu is trying to bluff his way to the top, threatening politicians and the public alike with a new election, the third this year, if Gantz and company refuse to allow him to get first crack at the top in any rotation agreement they conclude.

Netanyahu, however, is shooting blanks, because there is only a slight chance that lawmakers, including his own servile Likudniks, would go along. What’s more, Gantz and his colleagues are calling his bluff, reiterating on Thursday their unequivocal precondition that Gantz get first dibs as prime minister.

Netanyahu is the last to acknowledge that he is living on borrowed time. If he can’t convince Avigdor Lieberman to renege on his explicit pledge, made before the election and reaffirmed in its wake, not to support any government other than an alliance between Likud, Kahol Lavan; and if Netanyahu can’t entice center-left lawmakers to defect to his side in exchange for plum cabinet jobs – and his chances seem close to nil, at best – then it’s only a matter of time before he reaches a dead end.

Netanyahu, however, refuses to acknowledge that his time is up. His failure to form a new government after the April 9 election was strike one; his shock decision to call a new election rather than allow Gantz a chance to form a government was strike two; and his disappointing performance in Tuesday’s ballot, which saw Likud lose almost a quarter of its strength and the right relinquish its absolute majority, was strike three. Netanyahu has been called out, but he refuses to leave the field.

Netanyahu’s image in the political arena as well as the public's minds, moreover, is rapidly devolving from perennial winner to habitual loser. The stench of his impending downfall has reached as far as Washington, spurring his erstwhile friend and ally Donald Trump to express neutrality about the election’s outcome, tantamount to a poison dagger in Netanyahu’s tender heart.

Which brings to mind the final days of Richard Nixon, the U.S. president whose life, times, worldview and demeanor have elicited numerous analogies to Netanyahu, now made even more pertinent by their shared predicament. Both grew up as shunned outsiders – Netanyahu for his father’s prominent role in the Revisionist movement and Nixon because of his Quaker beliefs – and were burdened by their burning resentments throughout their careers. Like Netanyahu, Nixon was inherently suspicious and patently paranoid, viewing liberal elites, especially the media, as mortal enemies out to depose him by legal means rather than through the ballot box.

Nixon, however, spent his final days intoxicated, drugged, depressed and isolated in the White House, talking to himself by day and to portraits of his predecessors on White House walls by night. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is going out with guns blazing, refusing to recognize the writing on the wall of the election results and believing he can still weasel his way out of his seemingly inevitable indictments.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu would do well to recall Nixon’s question to Henry Kissinger in their famous August 7, 1974 White House meeting, on the eve of his resignation, the one in which the President asked a startled Kissinger to get down on his knees and pray alongside him. With tears streaming down his face, Nixon finally sought reassurance from his trusted aide that he would be remembered for his stellar diplomatic achievements rather than the ignominious end of his presidency.

Kissinger told Nixon what he wanted to hear, though he knew it was a lie: His presidential record, he promised, would live forever, while Watergate would be quickly forgotten. Netanyahu now faces the same risk: The more he clings to power and fails to acknowledge the verdict rendered by his citizens, the greater the chance that he will go down in history as an unrepentant crook rather than a world-class statesman. Unless he pulls off his greatest trick and most magnificent comeback ever, Netanyahu’s formidable career is bound to end in a withering whimper rather than a proud bang.