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To Bibi or Not to Bibi: Does Netanyahu Want Early Elections?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, March 11, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, March 11, 2018.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Does Benjamin Netanyahu want early elections or doesn’t he? Even his hairdresser doesn’t know for sure. What is indisputable, however, is that the prime minister has succeeded in driving Israel crazy. In the past 72 hours, the political pendulum has swung back and forth between early elections on June 26 to the government living out its life until November 2019 – or Netanyahu getting indicted, whichever comes first.

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The confusion is either a smokescreen set up by Netanyahu to conceal his true intentions or a reflection of his hesitation. If he wins early elections he could use his renewed mandate to try and reshuffle the country’s legal establishment in his favor, or to claim, at the very least, that the people want him to stay on despite his alleged wrongdoing. If he is defeated, however, the prime minister could lose the powerful pulpit that has allowed him to undermine the police investigations against him and to portray them as part of a leftist conspiracy

The cause of the current coalition crisis is a supposedly genuine confrontation concerning legislation that would regulate the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox youth – or rather, the lack thereof – to the Israeli army, a perennial point of contention between most of the Israeli public and its ultra-Orthodox sector. The latest twist in the plot is Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s pronouncement that he would reject the compromise reached by Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties, but wouldn’t pull the plug on the coalition just yet – unless Netanyahu compels him. 

Lieberman is calling Netanyahu’s bluff. The wily defense minister put the spotlight back on Netanyahu, who can now proclaim the crisis over, at least temporarily, or choose to escalate it by sacking members of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party who vote against the proposed compromise. It is a sign of Netanyahu’s credibility with his own political allies that none of them really believe his public statements against an early ballot.

The calendar provides Netanyahu with three major incentives for holding snap elections. The upcoming celebrations of Israel’s 70th anniversary could provide Netanyahu with an invaluable platform to tout his own achievements in what could be the height of an election campaign. U.S. President Donald Trump – who often seems like Netanyahu’s political doppelganger – is responsible for the other two enticements, both scheduled to take place in May: The inauguration of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and a possible American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Most of the Israeli public would view both developments as feathers in Netanyahu’s cap, though both could backfire if they result in an outbreak of violence.

Netanyahu is caught between his wish to capitalize on his current popularity among right wingers – who, like Trump supporters, view his troubles as a liberal plot – and the fear that police investigators or state attorneys might choose an opportune time right to leak damaging details from the investigations that would persuade many Netanyahu supporters that the prime minister is, after all, a crook. Perhaps Netanyahu should have thought of that before he decided to wage war against the police and to turn them into his enemy.

Netanyahu would like to preempt the possibility that the Jerusalem District Court will hear the case of the State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu with elections that would essentially boil down to Benjamin Netanyahu vs. the State of Israel and its legal institutions. It is a sad commentary on the current state of affairs, of course, that while many legal experts believe that he could very well be convicted in a court of law, Netanyahu could emerge victorious in the court of public opinion. If he does, there’ll be no stopping him. 

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