The Rabid Right Can Smell Victory, but Reality Will Lead Netanyahu to Gantz

New Haaretz poll shows Netanyahu poised for Faustian bargain of selling out his country in exchange for his own freedom - but Donald Trump could stand in his way

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 10, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 10, 2019. Credit: Gali Tibbon / POOL New/ REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

If the results of Haaretz’s latest and last poll hold true on Election Day, the right can look forward to endless joy and Schadenfreude while the left wallows wallow in frustration and misery. A solid 67-53 advantage of the right wing bloc over the left - which could theoretically grow even bigger following the return of missing soldier Zachary Baumel - will be perceived as a clear-cut victory for Benjamin Netanyahu and will be cast by him as a public exoneration of his alleged crimes.

But while the elation of right-wing zealots such as Moshe Feiglin and Betzalel Smotrich will be genuine and long-lasting, once the party’s over and after the champagne is gone, Netanyahu is going to wake up, with a nasty hangover, to a dark and ominous new day.

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The conventional wisdom and the logic of his own behavior indicate that Netanyahu’s supreme and only objective is to set yet another narrow right-wing government. He would do so tried even if his only intention was to use it as a bargaining chip in talks on a wider coalition, but when a narrow right-wing government provides his only path to legislating a special law that would extricate him from the long arms of the law, he will pursue it with gusto.

But the government that Netanyahu will able to set up after his unequivocal triumph would be a far cry from the one that he led during the past four years. Even though it’s hard to imagine or conceive, Netanyahu’s new coalition is bound to be even more nationalist, ethnocentric, divisive and inciting than his outgoing one, and that’s saying plenty.

The problem is that Netanyahu’s potential partners will smell his desperation from mile away and won’t resist the temptation to exploit his willingness to pay almost any price in order to save his own soul. First they’ll torment Netanyahu, then they’ll drive him crazy and then they will extract concessions from him that will shock Israel and much of the world. But even if Netanyahu remains undeterred by vehement protests or the probability that Israel will be plunged into a nationalist and clerical abyss, he will still have to contend with the one person he values most: Donald Trump.

The Trump administration delayed the presentation of its much-vaunted and frequently-mocked Middle East peace plan until after the elections, so as not to harm Netanyahu’s chances. But at the same time it also announced, surprisingly, that it would submit the plan right after the polls close next Tuesday night and before a new government is sworn in, with the clear intention of influencing its makeup. On the shaky assumption that Trump’s schedule will remain intact even if Netanyahu asks for further delay, Netanyahu will find himself caught between a rock and a hard place, between a U.S. president he dare not defy and a settler-dominated coalition that won’t allow him to even pretend that he isn’t. Under these circumstances, the option of joining forces with Benny Gantz will be put on the table, whether Netanyahu wants to or not.

The pressure on Netanyahu to abandon his dream of salvation through legislation will come from within Likud, which still contains politicians who flinch at the thought of allowing rabid right wingers to control critical government portfolios, as well as from natural Likud partners such as Moshe Kahlon and even Avigdor Lieberman, assuming they pass the 3.25 percent threshold, as the poll indicates. On the other side of the political fence, the vow undertaken by Benny Gantz and his partners in Kahol Lavan not to join any and all governments headed by Netanyahu in response to Labor leader Avi Gabbay’s cajoling will dissipate quickly when faced with its dangerous alternative.

People tend to forget that reality on the morning after elections is markedly different than the one that existed the night before, which is why one should take the poll’s finding of widespread opposition to a Bibi-Benny matchup with more than a grain of salt. It is a natural outgrowth of the polarization and hate that has characterized the current election campaign, when the entire center-left is dedicated to defeating Netanyahu in the polls. It will cease to exist once the center-left realizes that its mission has failed and that a new and possibly greater threat has emerged in its place.

When faced with the possibility of averting a coalition that is the sum of all fears for anyone other than hard-right messianics and a chance to prevent the establishment of a government that could very well put the peace process out of its misery, degrade democracy, isolate Israel among the nations, expand the rupture with American Jews, escalate tensions with Israeli Arabs, inject religion and Jewish supremacism into the education system and legislate a personal law to save Netanyahu from prosecution that would mutilate if not assassinate the rule of law - it’s hard to see how a blanket boycott of Netanyahu can persevere.

For a party such as Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, which goes by the slogan “All in for Israel”, the path will be clear, even if it entails reneging on a public commitment that was in any case diluted by leaks of Gantz listing conditions for teaming up with Netanyahu anyway. The maxim erroneously ascribed to Lenin, “The worse, the better” - which translates into allowing Netanyahu to crash and burn with his radical partners until the public finally gets over its admiration for him - will be seen by Gantz and Co. as too risky and too radical. Even Labor, which has been the most adamant in ruling out a future coalition with Netanyahu, is likely to soften its opposition once it compares a government in which firebrands such as Feiglin, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir set the tone with one in which Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi are juxtaposed instead.

Netanyahu, in this scenario, will have to give up his quest for a law that would save him. Based on Gantz’s leaked private comments, Kahol Lavan could agree to sit in a Netanyahu government until a formal decision is made about his indictments and could carry on from there, provided Netanyahu temporarily relieves himself of duty until his trial is over. Any partnership between Netanyahu and Gantz will certainly spark protests from both left and right, but will ultimately be perceived, to borrow a line from Winston Churchill, as the worst possible outcome, except for all the others.

Netanyahu could still decide to go for broke and to accept the Faustian bargain of selling his country’s soul in exchange for his own salvation, but his task will be made harder, it’s clear he has other options. And that’s before he is notified that Trump is on the line, sounding very angry.

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