Analysis |

Israel Election Results: Netanyahu Is Playing a Numbers Game, but He's Closer Than Ever to His Ouster

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an 'emergency meeting' in Petah Tikva, March 7, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an 'emergency meeting' in Petah Tikva, March 7, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

While Prime MInister's Benjamin Netanyahu’s loyalists tweeted and his court media sounded the drums of war all weekend for the “black ribbon” protest, in which his supporters demonstrated against an imaginary “regime change,” the rhythm and ferocity of threats against Kahol Lavan’s leaders continued apace as well.

Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't win

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The conductor of this toxic orchestra arrived at the Petah Tikva branch of Likud headquarters on Saturday evening. Netanyahu's arrival followed a weekend at the home of his brawling family, which was saturated in venom and overflowing with panic, considering the rising chances that they will soon be stacking moving boxes on their Balfour Street residence's patio.

About 20 party faithful were called in to present themselves behind Netanyahu at the small office. The prime minister has only ever commanded a branch office during elections. The occasion was forlorn and almost depressing. The event, intended to signal the perpetuation of his control over the party no matter what, paired well with the message of victimhood and panicked body language.

The bottom line of his remarks concealed a frightening but completely logical scenario with respect to the man’s political and psychological state. I will remain chairman of Likud no matter what, he clarified. In other words, I will drag the party – and up to half the country – to court. And if you thought I pulled out all the stops as prime minister, wait and see what will happen in the streets when I’m opposition leader.

He was stressed, unfocused. Buckets of sweat threatened to burst through the thick layers of makeup on his face. His remarks were a compilation of lies and half-truths (he deducted a Knesset seat from Kahol Lavan’s tally, for example), whether intentional or due to his worrisome lack of focus. He continued to echo the Kahanist message that erased the votes of 581,000 citizens for the Joint List.

As usual and with his famous cynicism, Netanyahu distorted the laws of political mathematics to meet his needs. When convenient, he stressed the achievements of his party, which gained four more seats. Less so, the number of votes for the right-wing-Haredi bloc. Just as he had in the past, and more than once, he succeeded in explaining how he won despite the fact that his party came in second place.

The numbers are quite simple. All the parties running in this election made Netanyahu-related commitments. Those who supported him won 2.2 million votes; those who swore never to sit with the man won 2.33 million. In other words, in the referendum on his rule, which was the main foundation of the election (as in the previous ones), he emerged the loser. Netanyahu’s famous whiteboard is erasable, but the votes of Israeli citizens are not.

In order to emphasize the extent of his national responsibility, Netanyahu said that on the eve of the election, Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir offered to withdraw his candidacy in exchange for Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount. “If I would have done this, we would have scored a decisive victory," or at least gotten closer to garnering a Knesset majority, he said. He rejected the request in order "not to burn down the Middle East."

How sad and how embarrassing. The extreme rightist party won fewer than 20,000 votes, about half a Knesset seat’s worth. There’s also a chilling logical contradiction: If a prime minister were to burn down the region for his political agenda, would it have ended in a resounding victory, or would the voters be chasing him out of office with pitchforks and torches?

In other circumstances, the prime minister's speech could have been great satire material. He described the legislation that would prevent him from leading while under indictment as “an anti-democratic, personal and retroactive.” Yes, this is the same bill Netanyahu voted for in 2008 when Ehud Olmert was prime minister.

The bill's timing and the haste to push it through do raise a certain degree of discomfort. But if there’s one takeaway from the last election, it's that against a rival like Netanyahu, a criminal defendant for whom no maneuver is too dirty – blatant lies, espionage that has apparently violated all legal bounds, slander, threats, blackmail and other abominations – you cannot play by the rules. He is the man who enters a boxing ring, and while his rival plays fair, he pokes him in the eye, kicks him in the testicles, stabs him in the stomach and slams him over the head with a chair while he is bleeding on the floor.

Netanyahu seemed closer than ever on Saturday night to departing from the premiership. Benny Gantz, who spoke afterwards, was a mirror image of the historic and hysteric political reality taking shape before our eyes. Netanyahu knows he has no chance of forming a government in any scenario. He can stay on Balfour Street only in the event of a fourth election. He will therefore continue to delegitimize any government reliant upon the Joint List's votes.

Gantz, for his part, declared Saturday night that he would build a “strong government” as soon as possible. It’s not as easy as it sounds; there are many roadblocks ahead, but one thing is clear: this election gave birth to a new Gantz. The man has changed. He has finally lost his political virginity. He’s on the playing field. The depths to which Netanyahu sunk during the campaign (the police will have much to say on these matters – and others) activated the code deep within him. He and a determined, enraged Avigdor Lieberman have a common enemy, and both are longing to see him, with toxic wife and son in tow, make their way their way back to Caesarea, never to return.

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