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Netanyahu Is Afraid of This Election, Too

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, in May.
Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, in May.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Despite all the hype about how he succeeded in burrowing a tunnel under the “change” government, causing it to collapse, and in spite of the confidence the right is projecting as it goes from strength to strength in the polls to the safe shore of 61 mandates, make no mistake about it: Benjamin Netanyahu is afraid of this election. He is running scared too.

Before the Knesset dissolved itself, he made every effort – “insane proposals” to Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar, those close to the two men say – to form a government without going into an election. The proposals didn’t stand a chance because Netanyahu no longer has any credibility, but the desperation of the effort testifies to his worries: A person convinced of victory, or at least a result that will improve his Knesset position, doesn’t invest so much trying to prevent an election.

Many people remain skeptical about the Haredi parties’ threat to part ways with Netanyahu if he fails again to form a government. The Haredim are not in any hurry to abandon Netanyahu, certainly not at a time when he enjoys so much support among their voter base and the Haredi street has grown increasingly extreme over the past three decades. But the sea isn’t the same sea, certainly not the fifth time around.

The Haredim are coming into this election from the opposition wastelands. There’s a big difference between staying loyal when you’re in the government, including a caretaker government (which, in spite of the fatigue of repeated elections, does give those on the inside the powers and privileges of being in office), and when you’re down in the dumps of the opposition.

One member of the coalition says that two people had been driven insane by the “change” government – Ayman Odeh, who’s become a Palestinian nationalist, and Moshe Gafni, who’s grown tense and irritable. Gafni, who according to sources is now also in conflict with Arye Dery, is very uneasy. In short, being in the opposition is not doing the ultra-Orthodox any good.

Haredi lawmakers will never admit this on the record, but many of them have had enough of Netanyahu. They’re dying for this chapter to come to an end. Many of them clearly would prefer Benny Gantz.

Without 61 mandates, Netanyahu knows that the Haredim will pressure him into a rotation agreement with Gantz, with Gantz occupying the prime minister’s residence first. Unless Netanyahu agrees to that, he can’t be at all certain that Gantz or Sa’ar would agree to rotation at all. And that brings us to Netanyahu’s main problem.

Netanyahu can’t reach 61 seats on his own, even if he succeeds in bringing out more of the Likud’s traditional voters in its urban strongholds, something the party fantasizes about in every election. If Meretz reaches the threshold to enter the Knesset (and it seems, for now, that it will), the dream of 61 mandates is over. If Gantz keeps to his position and refuses to legitimize Netanyahu, the dream of 61 mandates is over.

This all comes at a time when Netanyahu’s criminal trial moves inexorably forward and his ability to stop it is waning. Hadas Klein’s testimony adds graphic illustration to the rumors that have long surrounded the family. A normal person, including the Netanyahu voters who have tried to deny it, will be hard-pressed to square Klein’s testimony with Netanyahu’s campaigning on the economy and Israel’s suffering consumers.

The truth is that despite his political strength and a firm bloc of supporters behind him, Netanyahu has so far been unable to defeat his opponents. There are good reasons for assuming he won’t be able to in the coming election either.

On the face of it, that spells political chaos and repeated elections. Netanyahu is trying to create the impression that he is a happy warrior, a gladiator ready to return to the arena stronger than ever and supported by fanatical believers. We don’t have to believe this. Perhaps it will take another round in the arena before it become evident, but the fact is that Netanyahu’s strength is receding.

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