The announcement on Friday that Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial hearing this week has been postponed indefinitely, due to the intensified coronavirus lockdown, elicited the expected response. After all, it was the prime minister who had lobbied furiously for a new lockdown and now, for the second time, his trial is being delayed for that reason. Coincidence? Many think not.
Netanyahu’s legal predicament is constantly at the forefront of his mind, but with over 8,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day last week, a tougher lockdown was all but inevitable. And besides, the decision over whether to postpone the hearing was down to the three Jerusalem District Court judges on the panel. They had the authority to hold the proceedings despite the lockdown, but decided for their reasons to wait. So far, they have not been overly favorable to the “number one defendant,” and there’s no reason to believe their decision was in any way tainted by anything but public health considerations.
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But whatever machinations may have led to the delay, it’s undoubtedly useful for the prime minister. The hearing at which Netanyahu and the other three defendants were to finally respond to the indictments of bribery, fraud and breach of trust was to be the last time they attended court before the evidentiary stage of the trial. This was due to start next month with the testimony of Ilan Yeshua, the former Walla CEO who was to detail how his boss – Bezeq owner and co-defendant Shaul Elovitch – and Netanyahu had engaged in a quid pro quo: regulatory favors worth hundreds of millions for Bezeq, in return for favorable coverage for Netanyahu and his family on the Walla website.
Had it not been for the lockdown, Yeshua’s testimony and that of other witnesses for the prosecution could have dominated the headlines in the crucial weeks leading up to the March 23 Knesset election. Now, it looks like they’ll take place only after the polls are closed. If at all.
This is the outcome that Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, now also the acting justice minister, was eager to prevent. In fact, only a day before the judges decided to postpone Wednesday’s hearing, he tweeted: “Netanyahu, don’t worry. The courts will remain open. On me.” No surprise there: another Gantz promise evaporates; yet another round to Netanyahu.
Gantz, whose party is teetering on the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent in the polls, is no longer Netanyahu’s main concern. He’s little more than an occasional nuisance to him at this point. Netanyahu is facing a series of far more formidable challenges – and while he’s usually at his best fighting close elections, this time he’s fighting on four timelines simultaneously, of which only one is the election.
The election timeline is clear. And while his Likud party and its two ultra-Orthodox allies (Shas and United Torah Judaism) are far from winning a majority according to the polls, it’s not all bad news. The most important date on that timeline right now is February 4, when the parties have to file their candidates’ slates with the Central Elections Committee.
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This is a time of frenetic behind-the-scenes activity for Netanyahu. He needs to maximize the potential vote for his coalition by helping form another party that will join him after the election. If he can prise the racist and homophobic Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union party away from Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, and unite Smotrich with the remnants of Habayit Hayehudi and the neo-Kahanist Jewish supremacists of Otzma Yehudit, he would have the perfect bracket of deplorables to attract far-right-wingers who see Likud as not being “pure” enough for their tastes, but will vote for a party that can be part of his coalition.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu will be doing whatever he can to keep the opposition fragmented. Things are going nicely for him right now, with no fewer than four right-wing, anti-Netanyahu parties (now that Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem has split from Yesh Atid). Meanwhile, the center-left has eight parties (and counting), and Bibi’s new BFF, Mansour Abbas, is busy at work breaking up the Joint List of Arab factions.
Inevitably, some – probably most – of these parties will merge before the deadline to ensure that they cross the threshold. However, to make it more difficult, we’ll soon start seeing all kinds of damaging innuendo emerging in leaks that will flow into the reservoir of bad blood bubbling beneath the opposition ranks. Netanyahu’s best prospect of gaining a majority is if anti-Bibi votes are wasted on small parties that fail to enter the next Knesset.
Once the slates are finalized, the timeline consists of six-and-a-half weeks of bare-knuckle campaigning, Election Day shenanigans and then, once the results are in, long weeks of coalition horse-trading and buying up of defectors. Netanyahu is the master of all these. But can he handle the other three timelines?
Public face of vaccination drive
There’s his legal timeline, which has been postponed but could still damage him. Will the judges try to get the trial back on the road once lockdown is eased? Netanyahu and his lawyers will fight with all they have to make sure this doesn’t happen before March 23. They’ll file more motions to delay – even though those have almost been exhausted. They’ll claim that the leader of a political party should not have to appear in court on the eve of an election. And they’ll hope that the lockdown will leave the judges with little room for maneuver. The prime minister has some control over that, but it’s all down to the third timeline.
The COVID-19 timeline has been less favorable to Netanyahu so far. His government’s terrible handling of the pandemic has seriously dented Likud in the polls, which is why Netanyahu tried to manipulate Gantz and the state budget deadline to orchestrate an election in June, when he hoped the worst of the coronavirus would be behind us. But he lost that battle and is now trying to ensure that most Israelis are vaccinated by the end of March – right on time for the election.
Netanyahu has blatantly made himself the public face of the vaccination drive. At the same time, he has tried to distance himself from the third lockdown (he announced the previous lockdowns personally on television; this time he left it to the civil servants). His entire election campaign is based on enough Israelis believing he is their vaccinator-savior, rather than the man who presided over the shambles of the previous 10 months.
Netanyahu needs the lockdown to continue just long enough to ensure that his trial can’t resume before the election, but to end early enough for Israelis to begin to feel the benefits of vaccination. It’s a near-impossible balancing act, but if anyone can get the timing right, he can.
Then there’s the fourth timeline, over which he has the least control. It’s the one that begins on January 20 between Washington and Tehran. From the moment Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, Netanyahu will have lost his intimate communication channels to the White House and State Department. U.S. foreign policy will be run by alumni of the Obama administration, who know him well and are still smarting over the way he lobbied against the nuclear agreement with Iran.
If the new administration decides to move quickly on reengaging with Iran and rejoining the JCPOA – and by “quickly,” that means doing so in the 60 days between the inauguration and Israel’s election – Netanyahu will have little warning or time to prepare both an international diplomatic response and a message for voters at home. The Biden team can cause a lot of political damage for Netanyahu if it so chooses.
Which is why Netanyahu is trying to ensure that he is the only point of contact between Jerusalem and Washington on this issue. The administration will have to go through some consultation with its regional allies, and he insists on being the first to know. Last week, Barak Ravid revealed in Walla a testy exchange of letters between Netanyahu and Gantz (the latter now wearing his hat as defense minister), in which Netanyahu demanded that only he and the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office be in charge of “formulating the State of Israel’s position on the nuclear agreement with Iran.” To which Gantz responded: “The subject of security, and especially the Iranian issue, is not the private business of one person.” There’s no reason to think Gantz will be any more capable of getting his way on this than he was in keeping the courts open for Netanyahu’s trial.
The Biden administration, of course, doesn’t need Netanyahu’s permission to contact Gantz or Foreign Minster Gabi Ashkenazi. But Netanyahu does have the power to bar his ministers from flying off for talks in Washington. His election timeline includes two foreign visits during the campaign: to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, so he can take full credit for Israel’s normalizing of ties with four Arab countries (he’d love to fly to Morocco as well, but that probably won’t happen); and to Washington for meetings with Biden and his team, where he’ll look to show he’s still the master statesman and the only person capable of controlling the U.S.-Israel nexus.
But that depends on Biden wanting to mollify Netanyahu more than he wants to put the diplomatic process with Iran back on track. So far, there’s no clear indication that this is the case, and plenty to suggest the opposite.
The Washington-Tehran timeline could turn out to be the one that disrupts Netanyahu’s other timelines, and quite possibly lose him the next election.