Analysis

Israel Election: They Say Netanyahu Is a Magician – He’s Much More Than That

In no Western country, not even Italy, could a person who is allegedly a serial lawbreaker, on his way to trial and possibly to jail, be elected to the highest office in the land

Netanyahu gives his victory speech following the elections, Tel Aviv, April 9, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Israel of 2019 elected Netanyahu for the fifth time in 23 years. This is his most impressive achievement: 35 Knesset seats as a man about to be charged, subject to a hearing, in three corruption cases, with at least one new investigation hovering over his head in relation to a German submarine-building company. In no Western country, not even Italy, could a person who is allegedly a serial lawbreaker, on his way to trial and possibly to jail, be elected to the highest office in the land. Such a person would be booted out of public life.

People say Benjamin Netanyahu is a magician. He’s much more than that – he’s a wizard. Every person who voted for the Likud or for parties on the right, the leaders of which all explicitly declared they will recommend Netanyahu for prime minister, voted for corruption and decadence. They voted for bullying and incitement, for rejection of norms, statesman-like conduct and integrity. This was a vote of confidence that claimed "only Bibi can."

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If any candidate from the other camp faced even a few of the accusations hanging over Netanyahu, they would have been instantly pilloried. Netanyahu faced the most effective leadership the center-left camp could have mustered. Benny Gantz and his partners in Kahol Lavan also swept 35 Knesset seats, an amazing feat with which they’ll head for the opposition benches, waiting for better days.

As of now, with the last votes being counted and the estimated 270,000 double envelopes containing the votes of soldiers, overseas diplomats and hospital patients to be opened on Wednesday night, the right-wing bloc headed by Netanyahu has 65 seats. It could grow by 2 more if the Hayamin Hehadash squeezes through by the skin of its teeth thanks to the soldiers’ votes, but the bloc can’t get any smaller.

Netanyahu's supreme and urgent imperative is to arrange an escape hatch, through which he can avoid indictment. Even with the expected coalition, he will have difficulties passing the so-called “French Law,” which protects an incumbent leader from prosecution. Kulanu will not support it, and even some senior Likud members such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Gideon Sa’ar and Gilad Erdan have clarified that they would not vote for that abomination. He stands a much better chance if he leaves his parliamentary immunity in place and waits for a High Court of Justice ruling.

This, after all, was his intention when he hurried to dissolve the 20th Knesset last December: to foil the Attorney General’s plan to hand down a preliminary decision before the election (something which Netanyahu failed to do), while creating a coalition that would save him from facing trial - or in more picturesque terms, savie him from the walls of Maasiyahu Prison that seemed to be closing in on him.

A few more comments on the partial results, as they appeared late Tuesday night, along with a cautionary note: one has to wait for the soldiers’ votes and for final calculations that will determine the face of the next Knesset and the government it engenders.

1. Since 1996, the two largest parties have always accounted for less than half the number of voters. Now, with more than 70 out of the 120 seats, this is good news. The two largest parties have chalked up an impressive achievement. The Likud, headed by a leader potentially facing charges in three cases with possible additional ones, has increased its strength. Kahol Lavan, a party which was only a dream of anyone opposing Netanyahu up to two months ago, managed to do what no other party has ever done before. It is big, strong and it has a presence – making it a ruling party even if this scenario is delayed.

2. The votes that gave Kahol Lavan an advantage over Likud (according to two exit polls) came at the expense of this season’s punching bag, the Labor Party. The excellent team fielded by Labor, its focused and clear campaign, as well as the fighting spirit it demonstrated, failed to get the job done. The party was trampled and flattened by the wheels of the train called strategic voting. The conclusions will not be long in coming: chairman Avi Gabbay will be asked to pack his bags and the next generation will demand to call the shots.

3. The electoral drama on the right is still taking place. It’s possible that the coming hours will tilt things in Netanyahu’s and the right’s favor. The soldiers’ votes may enable Bennett and Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash party to scrape over the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. Even with that, the adventure these two embarked on a few days after the election was called has failed miserably. With four Knesset seats they can only expect one significant portfolio. Which one of them will get it? Bennet, who led this adventure or the more popular Shaked, who opposed it and has long since regretted making that move?

4. Everyone predicted that Moshe Feiglin and his Zehut Party would be this election’s surprise. Indeed, it was quite a surprise when it turned out that the party failed to pass the threshold. Zehut peaked too early, a month before reaching the finish line. In recent days it was targeted by parties from across the political spectrum, from the Hayamin Hehadash to Likud to Meretz, all of which pounced on it and devastated it. The video clip showing the smug and disturbing Feiglin slapping someone’s bare feet savaged his attempts to market himself as a serious and judicious leader, an intellectual in the style of Steve Jobs. Sadomasochism doesn’t go over well, even among potheads.

5. Netanyahu’s “suicide” in the last 24 hours was nothing less than stupefying. What he did with one video clip in 2015, he needed dozens of clips for this time. Every few minutes throughout Election Day he issued hysterical messages, some of them false or backed with invented data. Anyone who saw through his insistent exclamations that "the rule of the right is in danger!", seeing that Netanyahu was again crying wolf using the same dusty methods from the last election, was left wondering how this was still effective.

6. A leaked recording of Bezalel Smotrich, where he can be heard talking about a deal he made with Netanyahu to give his Union of Right-wing Parties the justice and education portfolios, helped Benny Gantz more than the leaked recordings of the general himself hurt him.

7. Much has been said of Netanyahu's “Gevald” [alarm!] cries in this election. Actually, the most interesting alarm cries on Election Day came from mosque loudspeakers in the larger Arab towns urging Arab voters to get to the polls. There was record low voter turnout for most of the day. The belated voting probably saved Meretz and possibly also United Arab List-Balad. In any case, these cries saved the left from total collapse.