With silence, indifference and resignation, the State of Israel finds itself today in its third election campaign in less than a year. The masses haven’t taken to the streets, roads haven’t been blocked, and no tire has been set on fire. Five more months (at least) of continued paralysis and grave damage to the economy, the country’s weaker communities and the ailing health-care and social-welfare systems, are being accepted with equanimity. It’s as if we’re talking about a decree of fate or an act of God.
The phrase, “There won’t be a third election” has been repeated incessantly by politicians, not just during the past 85 days but even before the second election, in September, which was also perceived as insane. But all the basic assumptions that were supposed to prevent that collapsed one after another.
The right-wing bloc survived; there was no revolt in Likud; Avigdor Lieberman kept his word and didn’t join either side, despite the far-reaching promises he got; ditto Amir Peretz, notwithstanding fantastic offers thrown his way like confetti; Benny Gantz figured out all the stunts of the experienced trickster, and though he almost was tempted to go into partnership with the incumbent prime minister, preferred to preserve the unity of Kahol Lavan; and what was supposed to be a political death blow to the prime minister – being charged with bribery – didn’t put off a single coalition member.
This suicidal spiral that has gripped Israel’s political world in the past year stems from one person: Benjamin Netanyahu. The coming election campaign, like the ones before it, in April and September, is the result of his ongoing attempt to evade a trial that may very well land him in prison. So his motive is clear. What has long since crossed the lines of absurdity and logic is the obsequiousness of the other 54 members of Likud and its partner parties who continue to huddle around him and accept all his caprices.
What spell has he cast over them? What magical influence does he wield? What primal fear does he instill in them? In private conversations, all of them, without exception, admit that Netanyahu is already “in the waning hours of the waning hours,” well past the beginning of the end, deep into twilight. But with eyes wide shut, as if moonstruck, they have followed him into this unnecessary, expensive and contemptible adventure.
Again we’ll start the countdown: 81, 80, 79. Since last December, this country has been counting itself down into oblivion, calculating its end of days in reverse. Its elected representatives are choosing to commit hara-kiri as the emissaries of one person and on his behalf, as though he were still “King Bibi,” as Time magazine labeled him back in 2012.
But he no longer is. He’s weak and more vulnerable than ever before. His escape routes have all been blocked. For years we have been accustomed to victory being his default. When Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni won 24 seats in 2015 at the head of Zionist Union, the left exulted. But Netanyahu and Likud won 30 seats. Checkmate. It was the same in 2013 and in 2009.
Now, after two consecutive campaigns, he is no longer undefeated. In September, the bloc he leads was badly battered. Gantz and his colleagues in the so-called cockpit of Kahol Lavan are teaching the premier a lesson. They are displaying resilience, they are not straying from their path, and they have a future (as the Hebrew names of Kahol Lavan’s partner parties suggest). They are not going away, they are going forward. Netanyahu has a strong base and a low glass ceiling. Gantz’s base is brittle but his glass ceiling is high.
During the campaign for the April election, Likud sunk as low as possible. They portrayed the former Chief of Staff – who during his years of working alongside Netanyahu received only praise – as mentally ill, delusional, a bumbling fool who is "incapable of securing his phone," and other ugly blows, all well below the belt.
What lies will they make up about him now, when Netanyahu and his ministers have been trying for two months to convince him to join them, share the power and even, if you believe them, serve as prime minister with their support?
The wooing of Gantz, and his training in the ways of the right-wing (as if he needs it), work in both directions. For example, A religious party leader like Arye Dery, who signed on to Netanyahu's 55-seat right-wing bloc, has been heard lately saying "Benny is an excellent guy," and that in the upcoming election, "we won't rule him out." Dery's spokesperson was quick to clarify that this doesn't mean that Shas will join a narrow government led by Kahol Lavan. But perhaps we should pay attention to the music and not just the lyrics. Naftali Bennett too, after quite a few conversations with Gantz, has only good things to say about the "guy."
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As in most of the election campaigns over the past decade, the March 2020 vote will be over “Bibi – yes or no.” This time, even more than in the past, the public will be more acutely conscious that the game is between the big boys, that the headline act is between the two candidates for prime minister. That’s why Yair Lapid stepped aside: He grasped that he had no place on the field with the big boys, and that his presence could only do damage. The person who, after the 2013 election, when he won 19 seats, replied nonchalantly, “I assume so,” to the question of whether in the next election he would be elected prime minister – this person read the map right. He’s finally grown up.
Gantz is entering this campaign in the best possible position he could hope for: Kahol Lavan is ahead of Likud in the polls, which show that he has drawn even with Netanyahu in terms of his perceived suitability to be prime minister, even though he has spent not a single day as any kind of minister and has barely even managed to be an MK. The person who helped him get this far is his rival, with his inciting, divisive, aggressive behavior toward law enforcement officials. Gantz needn’t do anything except continue to be himself: statesmanlike, credible, level-headed. With his rash decision to dissolve the 21st Knesset, Netanyahu has helped Gantz mature, become professional, learn lessons on the fly, smooth out the sharp edges.
Netanyahu is the glue that’s holding the disparate parts of Kahol Lavan strongly together. It’s true that Gantz, at one stage, was ready to consider (with unequivocal support from Gabi Ashkenazi) making a concession in the spirit of President Reuven Rivlin’s “blueprint” for forming a government. That’s immaterial now. What is material is the bottom line: Gantz did not reprise Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog. The situation that has arisen created a position – and that position is optimal for him. The polls are favorable, no one is challenging him and his Knesset slate is united behind him.
The truth is that Gantz did not have any real option to sign a coalition deal with Netanyahu. Contrary to what we thought, it was not just Lapid who cast a veto – which would have meant the departure of Yesh Atid, with its 13 MKs, from Kahol Lavan. Moshe Ya’alon, head of the party’s Telem faction, also never considered lending a hand to a deal with Netanyahu.
The assumption making the rounds in the media in the past few weeks was that Ya’alon would agree to serve as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Relations and Defense Committee in a unity government, until Gantz would replace Netanyahu as part of a rotation agreement. But that was never in the cards, Ya’alon said in private conversations this week. There were indeed people who toyed with the idea, but I never agreed to it, he said. Entering a government with Netanyahu would have spelled the demise of Kahol Lavan, he claimed, and I would have left, together with all the Telem MKs, for sure.
Telem has five MKs, so Gantz would have been left, suicidally, with the platoon-sized 15 MKs of his mother ship, Hosen L’Yisrael, while the rival side would have showed up at roll call with a company of 55 MKs. Hopeless. It would have been a failure writ large on the wall, a beaching of whales.
Ya’alon warned Gantz that Netanyahu was setting a trap for them. If you say yes to him, he told Gantz, Lapid and I are outta here. Bibi will conduct long negotiations with you. Just before the deal is finalized he’ll vanish and you’ll find yourself in an election campaign where Kahol Lavan doesn’t exist, it’s been split into three, and you violated your main election promise.
To divine exactly what Rivlin intended with his blueprint, Ya’alon went to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. At the conclusion of their conversation, his impression was – to put it mildly – that any correlation between the interpretation of the person who conceived the idea and the reading given it by Likud was purely coincidental. And nowhere more so than regarding the volatile issue of the period when the premier would take a leave of absence: its essence, starting point and duration. And of course there was the immunity issue: How would that be compatible with a period of incapacitation? It’s not compatible. Netanyahu’s insistence on retaining the right to seek immunity from the Knesset’s House Committee does not indicate good faith, it’s more suggestive of a plot being cooked up in his brain.
Ya’alon is not the only one who believed that Netanyahu was not acting in good faith. Additional political sources maintain that the same conclusion was reached by the president as well. After Gantz failed to form a government, Rivlin summoned the negotiating teams of the two big players. Netanyahu joined Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin at Rivlin’s residence.
“Mr. President,” Levin said, “only you can save us from a third election.”
“State publicly that you support a proposal for the prime minister to serve first [as part of a rotation agreement], for half a year, in the unity government,” Levin suggested.
Rivlin never entertained any such idea. “That’s a matter for negotiations between you and Kahol Lavan,” he scolded them. “You never really accepted my blueprint. I placed something general on the table, something very problematic constitutionally. I knew I’d be criticized. But since you, Bibi, are unable to form a government, and since Gantz is unable to form a government – I tried to present a course that would make it possible to form a government and avoid an election. And yes, I also wanted to give you, Mr. Prime Minister, a dignified way out. You never dreamed for a moment of implementing the blueprint in its original spirit.”
Why was Rivlin infuriated by Levin’s suggestion? Here’s my interpretation, for which I take full responsibility: Netanyahu has never intended to declare himself incapacitated, not of his own volition, and not as part of any agreement. Hence, immunity. The idea that the president would make it possible for him to serve as prime minister for half a year while under indictment, was intended to consolidate the principle that a prime minister can continue in office even if he is charged with criminal wrongdoing (as opposed to a cabinet minister, who is obliged, in the wake of the High Court of Justice’s ruling, to resign the moment he is indicted, or face being fired by the prime minister).
The moment the president, the embodiment of statesmanlike behavior, were to give Netanyahu that seal of approval, the prime minister would have terminated the agreement with Kahol Lavan (or would have broken off negotiations with the party, as Ya’alon surmised) and called an election. Afterward, if he were successful, as was likely, in enlisting a majority of MKs to recommend that he form the next government, he would have claimed not only that the people had spoken and wanted him to continue, but that the president himself had allowed him to remain in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Only for half a year, yes, but time is ephemeral. Half a year, a year, two years – those are trivialities. What matters is the principle. And Netanyahu, we know, is a man of principles.
Winter of discontent
On Wednesday evening, the Prime Minister’s Bureau organized a conference call between Netanyahu and several Likud ministers and MKs. This was immediately after Likud’s spokesman denied reports that the premier was considering the possibility of forgoing immunity from prosecution in return for establishment of a national unity government. The reports were disseminated by members of the prime minister’s close circle, though that didn’t stop him from telling his interlocutors that they were “a Kahol Lavan spin.”
His listeners formed the impression that he had in fact contemplated the idea but that the “home,” as one of them referred to it, cast a veto. The “home,” as I’ve noted in this column, badly wanted another election. The “home,” as has also been noted here, is the cause of Bibi’s current troubles and is dragging him to certain perdition.
Netanyahu dictated some messages to his listeners relating to the start of the new election campaign: Gantz wants to form a government with Arabs; Likud went a long way in its proposals, but they were rejected by Kahol Lavan; Gantz sacrificed the unity of the nation for unity with Lapid; and so on. He was asked about the justice system, what the message was regarding it.
“Say that they used improper means in the investigation,” he replied.
Is that all? What about a frame-up? What about a governmental coup? After all, nothing fires up the right-wing base more than the injustice done to you by means of the state’s witnesses.
For now, he told them, that is what you will say.
Maybe, one of the participants in the meeting told me later, Bibi’s polls show that a campaign against the state prosecution won’t get him new voters. Or maybe he’s still checking it out and in the meantime has put us on hold.
They nod their heads to him, cluck their tongues. Their hearts go out to him. In their meetings, the man almost slumps onto the table. His eyes are swollen. He’s prone to lapses in speech. On the plane that took him to Lisbon last week, he called his chief mouthpiece Miki “Cohen” (instead of Zohar). A few days later, in a speech at a conference organized by the newspaper Makor Rishon, he said he had met with “Defense Secretary Mike Pompeo.”
This is atypical behavior for him. Something bad is happening to him. The nights on Balfour Street aren’t easy. The days in the bureau are long and gloomy. Winter is descending on Jerusalem, and winter is descending on him, too.
Netanyahu is taking the battle being waged between him and MK Gideon Sa’ar (so far at a low to moderate intensity) more seriously than might seem evident from the outside. He is not complacent and far from being arrogant about it. He’s spending many hours, almost every day, with activists, heads of local authorities and vote wranglers. In his spare time he works the phone, imploring, urging, pressuring.
As has been said of Netanyahu a million times: No one is better versed in reading polls than he. He’s an unparalleled specialist when it comes to analyzing deep-seated currents, intentions and trends. What the relevant surveys are telling him – at least those receiving coverage in the media – is not likely to reassure him. There’s no doubt that he’s the leading candidate in the upcoming Likud primary, and the clear favorite to win, but Sa’ar’s entry into the arena holds up a worrisome mirror to him.
According to four polls, published in various media outlets, Sa’ar would bring an average of two to three more seats to the right-wing bloc overall than Netanyahu, and two to three seats less to Likud. In other words, Sa’ar brings home moderate right-wing voters who found refuge in Kahol Lavan; Netanyahu leaves them there. The more that Bibi entrenches himself in the hard core of the right-wing base, the more he distances mainstream Likudniks who are fed up with what their party has become under him.
Also, in those four polls, Sa’ar gets between 29 and 31 seats for Likud, and Netanyahu gets only two or three seats more than that. Given the fact that Sa’ar hasn’t been elected yet as party leader and that he is running against a very long-serving prime minister with proven magnetic capabilities, this is a very small difference, and it could augur the potential for significant improvement.
From a cold, rational viewpoint, Netanyahu is far from being the best candidate Likud can run in this election. He’s failed twice to form a government, first in a political failure and then in an electoral debacle. His catastrophic relations with Lieberman, who is likely to hold the balance of power after the March election, too, promise the continuation of a disastrous deadlock. The indictment he’s been served with is not a surefire means for garnering voters who didn’t side with him in September. And it’s not certain that he will be found legally qualified to receive the mandate from the president to form a government and/or that the High Court of Justice will allow him to serve, next time around, after having been indicted.
Support for Bibi is largely emotional, and also stems from gratitude for what he did for Likud over the past decade, when he led the party to power time and time and time again. His ouster is perceived by many as not collegial and inhumane. Like handing a victory to the dark forces of evil – not Sa’ar but Shai Nitzan, the state prosecutor. From this point of view, Likud truly is an exceptional party, more like a family than a political framework.
As one Likud minister told me, reflecting a widespread sentiment: I would prefer 27 seats and even a term in the opposition, over 33 seats and a unity government based on rotation, with a traumatized party that deposed its leader. One of the minister’s colleagues chose a less morbid and more zoological image: Likud folks, he said, prefer a wounded lion to a healthy cat.