Analysis

Israel Election Results: If Netanyahu’s Right, Get Ready for a Third General Election

'Only two governments are possible,' he said, 'one led by me, or of the left and the Arab parties.' But will Likud let Bibi lead it if he's indicted?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Likud headquarters, September 18, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent a long time with the heads of the rightist-ultra-Orthodox bloc Wednesday. To them he looked deathly tired, which is natural, but he didn’t appear despairing in any way.

After he received their consent that now, through Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, he would be conducting coalition talks, they asked how they could know he wouldn’t betray them somewhere down the line. “I promise you, that won’t happen,” he told them. United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni pressed him again and again, and he repeated: “I won’t abandon you. We’re together in this.”

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The conversation continued in a bitter tone. “I lost because the media deliberately anesthetized the Likudniks,” he complained. “They conveyed that I’d definitely bring in 61 [seats]. It wasn’t even close.”

It was as if he was thinking out loud. “Next time,” he said, “we have to improve the way we work, prevent the waste of votes, unite from the start, exploit the amazing potential of the right.”

The others stared at him in shock. Was he preparing them for a third election campaign? What he later said to the subdued Likud legislators who met in the Knesset only reinforced this feeling. “Only two governments are possible,” he said, “one led by me, or of the left and the Arab parties.” If he sticks to this notion, there’s almost no way to prevent another dissolution of the Knesset in 100 days.

Let’s dwell a little on what this means. On October 2 and 3, a hearing will take place for Netanyahu in the three corruption cases he faces. The chances of the charges being dropped are slim. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is expected to announce his decision by the end of December. In other words, if there indeed is another election in March, Netanyahu will be contending under indictment.

Would Likud, assuming it wants to survive, let something like that happen? Likud has its own DNA. It doesn’t depose its leader, no matter how much of a failure he is. On the other hand, over the past decade the ruling party has developed another kind of DNA: the desire to remain in power. Or in the words of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, “God has chosen us to rule.” Which will prevail?

>> Israel election results: Netanyahu will pull out all the stops - including military action - to hold on to power | Opinion

The time has never been riper for a changing of the guard in a party that has had only four leaders: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu. The only way to do this is to hold a primary for the party leadership, but the time for that isn’t ripe. Such a scenario could only happen after the current leader maxes out his efforts to form a government. Then the party will face a choice: forming the next government with a different chairman or a new election under the worst circumstances possible, with the party’s candidate for prime minister appearing in court between election rallies.

In the meantime, Netanyahu finds himself in the shoes of African leaders, or of the Eastern European dictators of old. He can’t go abroad for fear that he won’t have anywhere or anything to return to. He has been forced to forgo one of his favorite hobbies, addressing the UN General Assembly, and the meeting planned with U.S. President Donald Trump. They were meant to discuss a defense agreement (a “historic” one, of course). In these hard political times, hysteria has beaten history.

The full column will appear on Friday.