Even for a country like Israel, in which breathless breaking news occurs on a daily basis, Monday morning was quite a shocker. After 48 hours of admiring Benjamin Netanyahu’s brilliant ploy of floating snap elections and thus diverting headlines away from his criminal investigations, the earth suddenly shook under his feet, the sky fell in on his head and the noose around the prime minister’s neck tightened dramatically.
The news flash that Nir Hefetz – Netanyahu’s longtime confidant, journalist turned media adviser and all-round Rasputin-Haldeman-Stephen Miller kind of guy – has become a state witness sent tremors throughout the Israeli media, politics and judicial system. If his plea bargain bears fruit, many people believe it will be nothing less than an earthquake.
Hefetz was at the crossroads of virtually everything. In the service of Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, whose obsession with the media turned pathological long ago, Hefetz was the mover, shaker, planner and executor of their darkest desires. He can testify to all four of the “major” investigations in which Netanyahu is involved or implicated, as well as to his own pivotal role in an alleged attempt to bribe a judge with an appointment as attorney general, in exchange for a pledge not to prosecute Sara Netanyahu. Hefetz was the agent of Netanyahu’s ugliness and, if he tells all, Netanyahu is supposedly done for.
The question is, does what seems like his impending unraveling spur Netanyahu to call early elections or, to the contrary, hold on in office for as long as he can? Conventional wisdom holds that the former is the case. If Netanyahu assumes, as everyone else does, that Hefetz’s testimony will soon cook his goose, his only Hail Mary option is to ask for a renewed mandate from Israelis – which might allow him to somehow quash the investigations if he gets one. The downside of a quick election campaign is that it’s likely to be dominated by damning leaks about him from the various police probes, though so far these don’t seem to have hurt Netanyahu in the polls. Like Donald Trump not losing voters if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, Netanyahu’s alleged wrongdoing, as well as his frontal assault on his police investigators, haven’t hurt him at all. If anything, his standing with his core constituency seems stronger today than it has been for quite a while.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu knows all too well that polls can be illusory and election campaigns are like wars: you know how to start them, but you can’t know how they will end. Someone such as former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar might suddenly jump up to challenge Netanyahu inside Likud. Some of the Likud voters who now support Netanyahu in the polls could get nauseous inside the ballot booth and opt for one of his more palatable right or center-right alternatives, including Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Kahlon or, worst of all from Likud’s point of view, even Yair Lapid. The right-wing bloc could splinter, the center would rally behind Lapid, the left might split between Labor and Meretz and – unlike Netanyahu’s fabrication – Arabs might decide to really come out in their hordes this time around.
Israel may seem to have a built-in right-wing majority, but if Likud itself underperforms, all kinds of possibilities open up. Netanyahu could find himself out of a job, stripped of his powerful platform in the Prime Minister’s Office and still facing indictment.
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His ace in the hole could be Trump, who could help focus the electorate on Netanyahu’s glorious achievements in cementing U.S.-Israeli relations in the post-Obama era – especially in Jerusalem – rather than on the prime minister’s questionable ethics or distorted sense of right and wrong. If the U.S. president delivers, rest assured that the time will come when he will expect Netanyahu to return the favor.