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Netanyahu Could Crash and Burn in the Next Elections – While His Rivals Are Sleeping

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to attend a trilateral summit between the US, Israel and Russia, in Jerusalemת Israel, June 25, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to attend a trilateral summit between the US, Israel and Russia, in Jerusalemת Israel, June 25, 2019.Credit: AFP

Most center-left voters in Israel - excluding the chronically defeatist, dejected and depressed - keep to a strict ritual in advance of new elections. First they rationally remind themselves that they don’t have a chance, then they are enticed to believe that just maybe, on Election Day they get pumped and excited despite themselves, paving the way for the ecstasy of the exit polls and the inevitable agony of the actual results. It’s like a polished routine.

Signs of laxity in maintaining the established tradition were already apparent in advance of the April 9 elections: Many leftists opted to spare themselves the inevitable heartbreak of disappointment and to reconcile themselves to another rout by Benjamin Netanyahu from the outset. In retrospect, however, the doldrums of their first election campaign in 2019 seems like zealous over-enthusiasm, especially when compared to the despondence and fatalism that seems to be percolating from the center-left’s leadership on down, as they face their second.

>> Read more: Voter fatigue and empowered extremists: The possible effects of Israel's constant elections ■ Netanyahu’s losing rivals need open primaries or even a reality show: The Choice | Analysis

One incontrovertible piece of evidence: Everyone, including the center-left, is talking about the makeup of Netanyahu’s future government. No one is contemplating Gantz’s.

Possibly because they had nothing to do with it, the leaders of center-left seems to regard the unexpected second chance it was given to defeat Netanyahu - and to purportedly save Israel’s democracy - almost as a nuisance and headache they could easily live without. The combination of campaign fatigue, summer lethargy and one too many past disappointments are demoralizing the center-left camp: most seem resigned to the absolute certainty of yet another Netanyahu triumph. Other than anticipation/apprehension that Ehud Barak will soon enter the ring and drive both sides crazy, the center-left’s expectations are virtually non-existent, along with its passion.

In their melancholy, however, depressed lefties are ignoring the first public hints of displeasure with Netanyahu emanating from still-anonymous senior figures in Likud. They discount the numerous reports of fear and trepidation spreading among Netanyahu’s confidantes about his electoral prospects. They are oblivious to the possibility that while they wallow in recriminations and finger pointing about the last elections, the ground under Netanyahu’s feet has started to quiver. Netanyahu, whose political instincts are as accurate as a sensitive seismograph, can certainly sense the tremors.

Despite the resignation on the left to the Netanyahu-era axiom by which the more things stay the same, the more they change for the worse, there have been two significant and potentially consequential developments since the April 9 elections: One is certain, the other still theoretical. Avigdor Lieberman’s decision to leave the right-wing lineup and to declare himself a free agent playing for secular national unity have shaken the accepted divisions between left and right.

But even before one gets to calculating potential coalitions, there are indications that Netanyahu may have done himself damage by dispersing the Knesset and imposing new elections before the normal constitutional procedures ran their course.

Having failed to set up his own coalition because of Lieberman’s calculated obstinacy, Netanyahu was frantic to prevent President Reuven Rivlin from passing the mantle to give Benny Gantz a try. Although the odds of Gantz succeeding where Netanyahu had failed were less than minimal, the prime minister didn’t want the Israeli public to be exposed for even one minute to the notion that he may not be indispensable.

Netanyahu’s decision to impose new elections on an electorate and body politic yearning for peace and quiet could come back to haunt him. It may be seen in the future as the tipping point that precedes the creation of a critical mass that could drive a sufficient number of Likud voters to abandon ship, to the left or to the right, and to leave Netanyahu in the lurch.

Netanyahu’s Likud party has shielded him like a devoted bodyguard, dismissed his alleged transgressions as petty or trumped up, volunteered for the front lines of his war against the media, assaulted the rule of law in his service, made him into a virtual martyr and swore allegiance to him and his eternal rule all the way to a sweeping victory on April 9 - only to have Netanyahu show them his finger.

They somehow made peace with his refusal to consider a national unity government because it would not supply with the Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card he covets, but his decision to decree new elections which no one besides him - and possibly Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennet, who almost made it into the Knesset - wants or needs could turn out to be a bridge too far for some of his less committed admirers. Netanyahu suddenly seemed ungrateful, desperate and worst of all, for many of his die-hard fans, like a loser who had squandered the hard-earned credit they had given him.

A dramatic defeat for Likud wouldn’t necessarily translate into a clear-cut victory for the center-left: it could also create a political dead-end and lead to extended and potentially dangerous instability. One thing’s for sure: If Netanyahu’s career crashes and burns on September 17, as currently unforeseen, it will have happened while his rivals were sleeping.

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