Naomi Chazan

Call Netanyahu’s bluff

The genius threat of early elections buys the PM time and cements his increasingly shaky political standing -- to Israel's detriment

The last thing Bibi Netanyahu wants is elections. This is precisely why he’s threatening to break up the government over the public broadcasting conundrum and send Israelis to the ballot box barely two years after the last polls. The purpose of the prime minister’s latest grand political exercise is as transparent as it is real: to buy some more time in office with the assistance of his fiercest rivals. At the moment, it looks like Netanyahu, a true master of political manipulation, will succeed once again — unless, of course, someone has the courage to challenge his latest maneuver.

The current crisis purportedly revolves around the prime minister’s determination to backtrack on the decision (vigorously promoted at the time by Netanyahu himself) to dismantle the bloated and inefficient Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and replace it with a new, streamlined and independent Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC). The Minister of Finance, Moshe Kahlon — who was not part of the coalition when the original policy was conceived and is now responsible for its implementation — has insisted on opening the new IBC on schedule on April 30th, leading to the forced retirement or dismissal of hundreds of workers. Netanyahu is now presenting himself as the champion of the old IBA — to the extent that he is willing to break up his own government if he doesn’t get his way.

This campaign has gained credibility in the public arena because the prime minister is known for his fixation with the media and his desire to control the way he is depicted in its various outlets (vide his proprietary defense of his Adelson-backed daily, Israel Hayom, and his present investigation on allegations of news-fixing with the publisher of its major rival, Yedioth Ahronoth, in what is known as Case 2000). Indeed, many observers, puzzled by his determination to go all out to prevent the launching of the new broadcasting corporation, attribute this obstinacy to his obsession in this regard.

What they ignore, however, is the manufactured nature of this political battle, which is nothing but a convenient smokescreen for Netanyahu’s unbridled desire to remain in power. Focusing on the media serves this objective in several major respects. First, it undermines the political position of Finance Minister Kahlon, whose independence and popularity have been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side for quite some time. Second, it enables him to achieve what has long eluded him: direct oversight of all the media (and not only of the public broadcasting system) through new legislation. And third, threatening elections on what many deem to be a subsidiary issue reduces their probability in the near future.

This is why some observers explain the latest crisis as a means to divert attention away from the investigations currently being conducted against the prime minister. In this view, Netanyahu’s latest ploy is designed to reduce the ongoing public preoccupation with the various cases in which he is implicated — including those relating to charges of breach of trust (Case 1000), and a series of issues regarding navy procurements by some of his closest associates (Case 3000). This theory has some traction: the concentration on the future of public broadcasting has succeeded in temporarily pushing the investigations against the prime minister from the headlines. But it has not totally removed these issues from the public eye — nor, for that matter, has it muted further revelations. Since elections would hardly halt the various police activities on these matters, what this diversionary tactic has succeeded in doing is giving Netanyahu what he wants most: a bit more time.

The threat of elections to defray their realization in the near future may therefore appear to signify a more studied effort on the part of the prime minister to tie the continuation of his tenure in office to the increasingly complicated relations between Israel and the new Trump administration in Washington. The hope of working with a US president especially friendly to the current government (to the point of supporting its wildest whims) is fast dissipating, with Netanyahu stuck somewhere between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he is under increased pressure from the White House to comply with the demand for even a minimal settlement freeze to promote the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. On the other hand, his key coalition partners (especially Naftali Bennett) are calling for partial or full annexation of the West Bank.

Caught in this vise, the threat of new elections serves Netanyahu’s power concerns well. To his foes in the coalition and in his own party, the prospect of an electoral clash with unknown results is far more frightening than the continuation of an uneasy status quo under his aegis. By locking them into the present coalition, Netanyahu buys time in Washington as well: he is well aware that the only way to stem further American demands is to prove that he cannot make any binding decisions at this juncture because of internal political constraints. He thus links foot-dragging on the most important issue related to Israel’s future to his continuation in office — buttressed by much greater support than he has mustered in recent months.

On several counts, therefore, Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest act of political brinkmanship is beyond self-serving. He stands to gain increased leverage on the media, to enfeeble political competitors, to buy some more time while averting constant public discussions on charges of multiple abuses in office, and, at the same time, to reassert his centrality as the ultimate broker between Israel’s right and its most important international backer, the United States as long as he remains in office. The best way to do so is to dangle the specter of elections before his skeptics within and outside the government.

In this high-risk, high-return gamble, Netanyahu stands to gain substantially. He has already been able to extract declarations of opposition to new elections (disingenuously wrapped in a concern for their prohibitive cost) from almost all political parties with the notable exception of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid — the slated beneficiary of an early return to the ballot box.

According to all recent polls, the Zionist Union is likely to lose more than 60 percent of its strength if elections are held soon — hence Isaac Herzog’s doomed scramble to form an alternative government in the present Knesset. The ultra-Orthodox parties dread such an eventuality: they would forfeit what is for them a dream government. Meretz and the Joint Arab List are ill-prepared for an electoral skirmish at this time (although they can live with such a prospect). Liberman has nothing to gain; Kahlon is set to lose voters; and Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which will probably benefit from snap elections, prefers to stall at this time rather than invite a change in what for them is a coalition subjugated to their own agenda.

Within the prime minister’s own party, the majority of backbenchers are averse to the idea of early elections (they stand to forfeit their seats) and potential successors are still squabbling for primacy in the race to replace Netanyahu. The prime minister has thus stuck his neck out to achieve what he hasn’t been able to get lately by any other means: a broad dependence on the continuation of his already lengthy tenure.

Simultaneously, Netanyahu seems to have avoided his greatest nightmare: having to stand for reelection at a time when all bets are against his performing yet another miracle at the polls. Indeed, he has proven himself once again to be a brilliant political mastermind — one capable of proposing the outrageous to tame his own opposition and emerging victorious from a series of self-induced political upheavals devised to (at least temporarily) cement his power base.

Benjamin Netanyahu may be poised to win in the short-term. Such a victory may yet prove to be his comeuppance. Every day he is in power diminishes his domestic popularity, making it more likely that he will not be able to survive another electoral season. And the more he stays in office, the less the country will be able to contend with the fundamental questions of its very existence, rendering his political legacy — devoid of vision and substance — vacuous at best.

Israel is currently suspended in mid-air. Netanyahu’s success now is Israel’s loss — unless even those most inconvenienced by his proposals overcome their heuristic fears and call his bluff.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.