Analysis

Netanyahu Is Taking No Prisoners in the Fight of His Life, and Putin Can Wait

Netanyahu is sowing fear that his rivals will give back land to Palestinians and thrust Israel back to the days of suicide bombers, but this election is actually all about his own survival

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a statement in Ramat Gan, Israel, Feb. 21, 2019.
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

In early 2011, a few days before Benny Gantz confounded expectations by being appointed Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, someone wrote that the general was someone who could win the lottery even if he forgot to send in the form that week. Sure enough, the major general who was previously tapped for the post, Yoav Gallant, got embroiled in a property affair and his appointment was canceled at the last minute.

Good fortune – a quality that Napoleon reportedly demanded of his generals – now accompanies the former chief of staff in his political life. The question on everyone’s lips at General Staff headquarters this week was: Is this our Benny?

Gantz is usually berated for not being decisive enough and not forging a path of his own. But the propitious moment at which he entered politics – after his maiden speech, not enough time has passed for his standing to be eroded – helped him force an alliance on Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid before dawn on Thursday.

It’s doubtful whether Lapid, and still less Gantz’s former commanders in the chiefs-of-staff club, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, are convinced that Gantz is better suited then they to head the joint military slate. But the timing and the polls played their part. Suddenly an opportunity emerged to begin to entertain the possibility of beating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the April 9 election. And all this happened without Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit deciding yet whether to indict Netanyahu on bribery charges.

For years it has been claimed that Israeli elections are decided largely by one issue, security, and most voters’ belief that right-wingers, especially Netanyahu, are more qualified to cope with the multiple military threats. This time, though, it looks like the election will revolve largely around another issue: sympathy or loathing for Netanyahu. Likud, as its campaign against Gantz shows, aims to make fear the thing and stoke anxiety that the rival party will return land to the Palestinians and thrust Israel back to the days of the suicide bombers.

In practice, the negotiating process has been frozen for many years. The only prospect of renewing it is linked to the U.S. peace initiative, the “deal of the century” that the Trump administration could present after the election. Under those circumstances, even Netanyahu might have a hard time refusing the American president. Indeed, the prevailing view is that if a right-wing victory and a U.S. peace proposal come to pass, Netanyahu won’t hesitate to veer leftward and co-opt Gantz & Co. into the government, abandoning his old friends on the right.

Benny Gantz smiles with Yair Lapid at the launch of their parties' merger ahead of the upcoming election, in Tel Aviv, Feb. 21, 2019.
Ariel Schalit,AP

One-man show

The 2019 election is a campaign to save Netanyahu – first from political defeat and, more importantly for him, from the threat of indictments and prison. In this situation all means are justified, as Netanyahu has been signaling for months. The prime minister will take no prisoners. The threat of the Gantz-Lapid union lies in the three retired generals in the ticket’s top four spots. It was a lot easier to tag Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni as the soft and treasonous left in the 2015 election (though that didn’t stop Netanyahu from trying to co-opt them into his government a year later).

Because so much is at stake, Netanyahu appears to be Likud’s sole decision-maker now, in the campaign, when it comes to forging political alliances and dealing with policy management.

This includes extreme gambles such as agreeing to put Kahanists from the Otzma Yehudit party into the Knesset, riding piggyback on the religious-Zionist movement. To hammer out that deal, Netanyahu canceled at the last minute a visit to Moscow, planned for Thursday. He had arranged the trip for months amid Moscow’s anger over the Assad regime’s accidental shooting down of a Russian spy plane over Syria last September. Vladimir Putin will just have to wait.

In the eyes of many, the prime minister’s political maneuvering looks brilliant and farsighted. But along the way he’s paying a steep price beyond the moral aspects of taking on new partners like far-rightists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Benzi Gopstein. Note the hitches in Netanyahu’s visit to Poland last week, as reported by Haaretz’s Noa Landau, to get an idea of what the premier is going through. It’s a pile of impossible pressures on top of a working environment sans experienced and talented advisers and aides who have resigned.

Even though Netanyahu is making crass use of military imagery in his campaign – as in the case of his videos with soldiers, which have been banned by the Central Elections Committee – he seems to be trying not to let his political challenges and legal woes undermine his responsible judgment in security-related issues. But his decision to depart sharply from his ambiguity policy regarding Israeli airstrikes in Syria has provided a worrisome sign that this approach could change. The danger is even greater in the Palestinian arena, where Hamas could conclude that a right-wing government caught in a close election race might be susceptible to extortion. The test will come in Israel’s responses to the violence along the Gaza border fence.