Final Countdown 2019

Why Netanyahu’s Paranoid Hail Mary Might Turn Out to Be Political Hara-kiri

U.S. silence over the PM’s pledge to annex swaths of the West Bank could have a very simple reason: It’s part of Trump’s peace plan

Likud party supporters hold election campaign placards as they walk past stalls in Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, April 7, 2019. The placard reads in Hebrew: "Netanyahu Protector of Israel"
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Paranoia, strictly speaking, is a mental disorder. It is also applied in everyday usage, however, to so-called normal people who harbor exaggerated fears of persecution. In an effort to defend their portrayal of Benny Gantz as mentally unstable, advocates for Benjamin Netanyahu have created a false moral equivalence between the word “insane" — the term applied to Gantz — with “paranoid,” a condition often and widely ascribed to Netanyahu.

So, after disclaiming any insinuation about his sanity, one can state unequivocally that Netanyahu is paranoid through and through, which may explain his uncanny ability to manipulate the right-wing’s own built-in paranoias.

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Netanyahu’s parade of supposed persecutors is endless. With the exception of his wife Sara, Donald Trump and a handful of Likud toadies, everyone is out to get him: From the Israeli media and justice system to Europe and Barack Obama. Nonetheless, Netanyahu reserves a special place in his paranoid pit to President Reuven Rivlin, who, it is true, has made no secret of his distaste for the prime minister.

Netanyahu suspects that Rivlin will use any possible pretext to give Gantz first crack at forming a new government. Even if he emerges from Tuesday’s election with a solid majority of Knesset members who recommend him to the president, Netanyahu believes Rivlin will find a way around them. He fully expects Rivlin to disregard custom, which requires him to appoint the politician who “has the best chances of forming a government,” and which is helped by the precedent set in the 2009 election by former President Shimon Peres, who anointed Netanyahu, albeit grudgingly, despite Tzipi Livni’s one-seat edge.

>> Read more: Netanyahu vs. Gantz: Your comprehensive guide to the Israeli electionNetanyahu vs. an old version of himself | Aluf Benn ■ Live updates: With less than 48 hours, parties scramble to rally voters  Israeli election: Netanyahu hits the panic button | Analysis

Netanyahu’s fear of Rivlin is one of the main impetuses for his risky last-minute Hail Mary, aka his “gevalt” strategy, aka “hitting the panic button.” The polls may project a comfortable lead for Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, which would ostensibly leave Rivlin with no room for maneuver. But they also indicate that Gantz’s Kahol Lavan could outperform Likud by a small margin. In Netanyahu’s mind, that would suffice for Rivlin to give Gantz the nod.

Netanyahu’s paranoia, however, is hardly limited to Rivlin. He is also distrustful of his so-called “natural” partners. If Rivlin picks Gantz, Netanyahu worries that some leaders of Likud’s satellite parties, including Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Lieberman and possibly Naftali Bennett — who have all been burned by Netanyahu in the past — wouldn’t balk at negotiating with Gantz about joining his coalition. Netanyahu has, therefore, decided to do everything in his power to bolster Likud, even if that entails a clear risk that some of his partners will dip below the 3.25 percent threshold and be ejected from the Knesset altogether.

So Netanyahu is now promising the moon, sun and stars to anyone who will listen. This includes legalizing marijuana; caring for the LGBTQ community that he has consistently ignored; paying pensioners the sums he has so far denied; removing the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar; and — the jewel in the crown — raising the possibility of annexing at least parts of the West Bank.

It is a high-risk, scorched earth strategy that, if too successful, could motivate not only reluctant Likudniks but also those who had intended to vote for other right-wing parties — thus dipping them below the threshold. By his own hand and out of his own fears, Netanyahu could undermine the right-wing bloc and scuttle his own chances of being reelected.

And because even paranoids sometimes have real-life nemeses, one thing’s for sure: If Netanyahu isn’t backed by a clear-cut majority, Rivlin could legitimately deny him first crack at forming the next government. Which might turn Netanyahu’s Hail Mary into an act of political hara-kiri.

P.S.: The United States has reacted with “No comment” to Netanyahu’s pledge, which would have sent previous administrations into paroxysms of protest. The administration’s reticence could be explained by its wish not to harm Netanyahu’s chances. But there is another possibility: Trump’s “ultimate peace plan” envisages the very steps that Netanyahu is now promising — annexation of settlement blocs and non-removal of isolated Jewish settlements.

If this is the case, not only will Palestinians reject Trump’s plan outright, but even the most pro-Trump Arab regime will find it hard to refrain from breaking out in uncontrollable laughter.