Conventional wisdom about the outcome of Israel's March 2 election can be summed up with Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
The perpetual tie between the two main ideological blocs will prevail; the stalemate that has essentially paralyzed the government for close to a year will endure. In fact, according to Channel 12’s crack political analyst Amnon Abramovich, while Benjamin Netanyahu is gearing up for the third election he has inflicted on Israel within a year, he is already strategizing how to go on to the fourth, if the need arises.
Netanyahu’s game plan is simple: (His) immunity or (Israel’s) bust. His first preference is to win the election with a 61-member, Avigdor Lieberman-less majority that would commit to exempting him from criminal prosecution. His second preference is to keep Israel in limbo – or keep it hostage – until he can achieve his first preference. He will release his country from captivity, Netanyahu is telling Israelis, only in exchange for a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Netanyahu’s gambit is based on a ruse. Ever since it became clear that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit intends to charge him with three counts of corruption, Netanyahu and his minions have highlighted the clause in Israel’s Basic Law: The Government that compels a prime minister to resign from his post only after he has been tried, convicted and fully exhausted his right to appeal the verdict.
What they have failed to point out is that the Basic Law refers to a duly elected prime minister who is serving out his term. It does not refer to a prime minister, like Netanyahu, who is heading a caretaker government between elections. And it certainly says nothing about the propriety of an indicted politician running for office or setting up a new government after election. Given that in the previous two elections held this year, in April and September, Netanyahu had yet to be formally charged, it is only now that Israel is entering uncharted waters – constitutionally, politically and morally.
Some of Netanyahu’s opponents are urging Mendelblit to rule on the issue in the hope that he will nix Netanyahu’s candidacy on legal grounds. The attorney general, for his part, is doing his best to skirt the legal landmine for fear of inflaming vociferous and potentially dangerous right-wing protests against what Netanyahu has described as a legal putsch. The High Court of Justice, however, has ordered Mendelblit to clarify his position, and if he fails to do so, could decide in his stead.
Lost in the complex debate, however, is the appalling fact that Israel’s ruling party and outgoing right-wing coalition are rallying behind a politician who has been formally indicted for corruption. The working assumption is that Netanyahu will beat challenger Gideon Sa'ar in the December 26 Likud primary election and would thus be reanointed as the right’s candidate for prime minister, despite his indictments. Such a decision may or may not be valid from a legal point of view, but it certainly marks an unprecedented new low in Israeli history: A morally bankrupt challenge to the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
There are numerous explanations – as opposed to justifications – for Netanyahu’s enduring hold on Likud and the right. After 10 straight years in power, Netanyahu casts a giant shadow over any potential rival. His omnipresence makes him seem indispensable and irreplaceable in the eyes of his supporters. Without him, they have come to believe, all is lost.
Likudniks, in any case, are loathe to abandon their party leaders, no matter what: In Israel’s 71-year-long history, Netanyahu is only the fourth politician to serve as leader of the party. Many of them have been brainwashed by Netanyahu to believe that he is the victim of a nefarious, plot inspired by the left wing. Replacing him, many right-wingers believe, would achieve his enemies’ goals. Worse, it would make them jump for joy.
Most significantly, the right wing’s continued backing for Netanyahu is a direct challenge to the rule of law. His supporters are not contesting the facts outlined in the attorney general’s charge sheet; they are simply ignoring them. And they are well aware that if Netanyahu emerges victorious from the March 2 election, he will use his Knesset majority to thwart his prosecution and thus undermine Israel’s legal foundations.
So while Israeli politicians and pundits are bemoaning the March 2 ballot as the third in a series of potentially never-ending elections, the upcoming ballot is fundamentally different. In the previous two, Netanyahu supporters could delude themselves that he would not be charged in the end, but now the die is cast and the masks have come off. The right wing can no longer escape the fact that it is lining up behind a leader who has been formally charged with corruption and whose main goal in life is to extricate himself from a criminal trial. Nor can the Israeli electorate.
Which is why one should be wary of resigned predictions that nothing will change, that the third ballot will yield the same political tie that has stalemated Israel for the past year. The polls are already showing a gradual drift away from Netanyahu and increasing chances that Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan might be able to muster their own 61-member majority, which would mean that Netanyahu’s career is over.
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If the trend holds, Netanyahu will unleash his entire arsenal of divisive incitement and conspiracy theories. He hasn’t spent the past year subverting Israeli politics and paralyzing its government only to be tossed out by voters. His counter offensives will be desperate, dangerous – and possibly decisive.
Israelis have understandably grown tired of being told that the elections are critical, pivotal or the most dramatic in Israeli history, only to find out after the votes are counted that nothing has changed. Many more of them might be tempted to sit this one out. That would be a shame, because the indictments have rendered the election as much more than a personal referendum on Netanyahu – it is a vote on the future character of Israel itself.
So take nothing for granted. Anything can happen. If not on March 2, then certainly in the fourth election that will ensue.