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Thwarted by Lieberman and Thwacked by Begin, Netanyahu Pulls Out Ace Iran

On a day marked by setbacks and embarrassment, Netanyahu tries to recoup with revelations of new Iranian infractions

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents the Iranian nuclear site at a Jerusalem press conference, September 9, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu woke up on Monday morning to a thumping by Benny Begin, former cabinet minister and son of the legendary Likud leader Menachem Begin, who announced he would not be voting for Likud in the September 17 election. 

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A few hours later, Netanyahu was bushwhacked by his former ally and current nemesis Avigdor Lieberman, who blocked Likud’s hurried legislation bid for a controversial bill allowing parties to introduce cameras into polling places - though the stay may only be temporary.

But never one to rest on his laurels – or idle on his thorns – roly-poly Netanyahu quickly rebounded. By early evening, Netanyahu was spin doctoring once again, trying to shift attention away from his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day by going back to his trusty trademark pitch on Iran.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 39Haaretz

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In a short, televised address, described by rivals as gratuitous propaganda, Netanyahu accused the Iranian regime of duplicity. He revealed a hitherto unknown site near Abadeh, which Israel believes is dedicated to developing nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu’s address was par for the course in terms of his ongoing campaign to persuade the international community to ratchet up its pressure on Iran, tempered by his need to walk a fine line so as not to be seen as critical of U.S. President Donald Trump for his efforts to set up a summit with Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben Gvir, Adva Biton, Benzi Gopstein, and Baruch Marzel at a press conference after Marzel and Gopstein were banned from running, August 26, 2019.
Emil Salman

Whether the Israeli public is at all engaged with Netanyahu’s furious efforts to set the agenda of the election campaign, however, is open to question. A poll released by Walla News on Monday showed only slight movement in the relative strength of the two main political blocs, as well as in the size of their separate components. There was one significant caveat: The poll showed the ultra-right Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit passing the 3.25 percent threshold and garnering four Knesset seats.

Otzma Yehudit’s increasing strength called into question the wisdom of Likud’s efforts to lure voters away by asserting that their votes would be wasted because the former has zero chance of passing the threshold. In fact, the Likud party now faces the risk that its campaign will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and deprive Otzma Yehudit of enough votes to keep it below the threshold, thereby squandering four right-wing Knesset slots.

In the longer term, Otzma Yehudit’s very presence in the Knesset, as well as its plan to introduce various laws deemed racist, is sure to be controversial and disruptive. Never mind the possibility that if the right-wing bloc picks up two to three more seats, Otzma Yehudit could find itself holding the keys to Netanyahu’s political survival – and personal freedom – and extort exorbitant concessions in exchange.

But what may truly be worrying Netanyahu now, and might be the reason for his frantic efforts to dominate the campaign, are early warning signs that Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan is starting to pull away from Likud, if only by a slight margin. The Walla Poll had Kahol Lavan leading by only one seat, but its advantage, however slight, has solidified in other recent polls as well.

Netanyahu, a connoisseur of public opinion polls, must be concerned that the current movement, however miniscule, could be pointing to a yet-to-be-uncovered trend that will reach its peak on Election Day and end up giving his rival Gantz a formidable advantage. Netanyahu knows that in such a scenario, Lieberman will find it much easier to recommend to President Rivlin that Gantz, and not Netanyahu, be tasked with trying to form a new coalition. Rivlin, who has publicly criticized several of Netanyahu’s latest moves, will be only too happy to comply.

Avigdor Lieberman at a press conference, September 9, 2019.

Lieberman has already established himself as Netanyahu’s worst nightmare, single-handedly denying him the chance to form a new government in the wake of the April 9 election. Lieberman has also stated that he would support the first candidate who would adopt his call for the formation of a broad-based secular coalition with both Kahol Lavan and Likud. For now, only Gantz has accepted Lieberman’s conditions, but his call for a “secular liberal government” may have had unintended consequences for Lieberman, appearing to draw votes away from his Yisrael Beiteinu party to Kahol Lavan.

Which is why, beyond his inclination to derive pleasure from tormenting his former mentor Netanyahu, Lieberman decided to throw a spanner into the wheels of the Likud campaign against alleged – and mostly concocted – voter fraud. Lieberman refrained from supporting the Likud request to fast track a bill that would allow party members to “supervise” polling places, widely seen as an attempt to repress the Arab vote. The bill could nonetheless come up for a vote on Wednesday – six days before the election – but even its backers now admit that its chances of passing are slim.

Netanyahu’s invention of the voter fraud canard and his successful implant of the hitherto unknown challenge to Israeli democracy has been praised by commentators as a brilliant ploy, but may in fact have been so contrived and preposterous that it became a bridge too far even for his devoted followers. In any case, Netanyahu’s failure to carry through with his own grand strategy – to have the High Court of Justice annul a hastily-approved “camera law” and thus expose itself to attack as a leftist front – does not bode well for a candidate who stakes his reputation on political acumen and success.

Said camera law was cited by Begin as the straw that broke his back and convinced him not to vote for Likud. The news that the son of the late and great Likud leader was bolting the Likud ship sent shockwaves throughout the political arena and media, symbolizing the growing gap between today’s populist Likud and the liberal-conservative Likud of yesteryear. But it should not be taken in and of itself as a sign of any mass flight from Netanyahu – most Likudniks who, like Begin, are appalled by Netanyahu’s policies and tactics abandoned the party long ago.

It is a process that mirrors the effect that Trump has had on the GOP. Begin is the “Never-Netanyahuer” whose denunciation of his party’s leader garners headlines and social media debates but actually represents only a small minority of dedicated Likudniks. His defection is a shot in the arm for Netanyahu’s rivals, but one that provides more spiritual comfort than actual political dividends.