Israel Elections Redux

A single question will determine the outcome of tomorrows national elections. After all of the twists and turns, the fundamental decision of the voters remains unchanged. Should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should serve a fifth term or not?

Until calling the elections in December, Netanyahu used security tensions as a reason to avoid holding them. He employed the security consideration to shield himself from coalition tensions with his right-wing rival, Naftali Bennet, saying that the time was not right to head to the polls.

Then, quite suddenly, in December, Netanyahu broke up the Israeli parliament and launched the country into elections season.

The reason for his decision can only be found in the progress that was made by the Israel Police and state prosecution, who were working on three criminal investigations into the prime minister’s past actions.

A succession of police recommendations to the attorney general to turn these investigations into criminal charges began to tarnish Netanyahu’s image. The police said Netanyahu should stand trial for corruption and breach of public trust in three separate investigations, and the attorney general adopted some of these recommendations. Netanyahu realized that the countdown clock had begun ticking to the appearance of indictments.

This development contradicted his initial assessments, which was that the investigations would turn into indictments later. Thus, he brought the elections forward, hoping that he could stay one step ahead of the attorney general.

To be clear, this was Netanyahu’s primary consideration in the timing of the elections. To compliment the strategy, the premier began applying heavy pressure on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit  to refrain from publicizing his decision on whether to charge Netanyahu before the elections, saying that doing so would unfairly influence voters.

But Mandelblit held the opposite view – not publicizing his decision before the elections is what would influence voters inappropriately.

Mandelblit believed that the Israeli voter had the right to be aware of the gravity of the suspicions, before they enter the voting booth. At the end of February, he announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust spanning three criminal cases.

Post elections scenarios

The resulting situation has created multiple scenarios, many of which do not guarantee that Netanyahu will continue serving as prime minister even if he does win the elections. On both the Right and the Left, political actors sense a major opportunity for change, based on the assessment that Netanyahu will find it extremely difficult to serve after charge sheets against him become a fait accompli.

This assessment has led to maneuvers in the political arena based on projections of what a post-Netanyahu reality could look like. The Center and Left blocs hope for a paradigm shift, and that the investigations will help gain them an elections victory.

In Netanyahu’s own Likud party, the prime minister’s influence has weakened, with many party members voting for Netanyahu’s rival, Gideon Sa’ar, in internal primary elections that determine the party’s list.

Netanyahu made large, aggressive efforts to sabotage Sa’ar’s candidacy, yet he still earned a high spot on the Likud’s list. This reflects an understanding by Likud members that they need to prepare for the day after Netanyahu.

These assessments have also fueled changes in the rightist bloc. Education Minister Naftali Bennet and his ally, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, split from the national religious party, Habayit Hayehdui, which they led, and assembled a new rightist party. This move is based on the hope that they will be able to position themselves as a national alternative for the day after the Netanyahu era ends, and not be confined by a sectorial party.

They may even hope to enter the Likud in the future, after Netanyahu’s departure.

Netanyahu, for his part, has no intention being forced to leave if he wins. One likely scenario is that he will seek to pass the ‘French Law’ if he wins, which will make him immune to legal charges so long as he is in office.

A big surprise has been the appearance of the Blue and White Party, formed by ex-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid. This party is positioning itself as a centrist political force that can lead the country.

Gantz also joined forces with Moshe Ya’alon, himself a former chief of staff and ex defense minister, former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and recruited two right-wing former Netanyahu aides. This line up will made it practically impossible for Netanyahu to tag his rivals as hallucinatory left-wingers who lack security experience.

Such accusations have been effective in the past in Netanyahu’s bid to discredit his political competitors.

As the elections approach, they will likely focus on the central question of whether Netanyahu should quit before being indicted. Will he be able to function as prime minister while dealing with criminal charges?

To help ease the pressure, Netanyahu has communicated the message to his base that an illegitimate maneuver to try and topple him is underway. According to this conspiratorial view, Netanyahu’s enemies are using the police and state prosecution to replace the government, and overthrow the prime minister in an illegitimate manner.

The message has been effective in getting through, because the Likud base is not swayed by the criminal investigations against Netanyahu. On the contrary, it has been energized by Netanyahu’s accusations of a great injustice.

As a result, and somewhat ironically, Netanyahu had a political interest in seeing the investigations turn into charges, and turning a main elections issue. Along the way, he has delegitimized Israel’s law enforcement community.

This is the core issue defining Israel’s current elections. Substantial issues, such as social gaps and the cost of living, have become marginal. Opposition parties have tried to raise them with little success.

Overall, Israel’s economic situation is reasonably good. The lack of affordable housing does not disturb enough of the voters – 70% are home owners, and are satisfied with rising property prices. Unemployment remains low.

The security situation – which has been a crucial issue in past elections – could either end up harming or serving Netanyahu’s reelection bid. Usually, in the face of security challenges, the population has gotten behind the leadership.

Netanyahu has also stressed his international standing by way of notable developments such as the recognition of the Trump administration on Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and his measured leadership of the volatile situation in Lebanon and in Syria, where Israel has been combatting an Iranian presence.

He has underlined his close friendship with U.S. President Donald Trump, and their shared world view.

Irrespective of these ‘elections cards,’ all still hinges on the personal question: Netanyahu – yes or no? The elections are, at heart, a national referendum on this issue alone.  Tomorrow brings us the answer of the Israeli voter.

About the Author
Ambassador Arthur Koll is the former Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he concluded his service as the head of the Media and Public Affairs Division. He is a former Ambassador of Israel to the Republic of Serbia and to Montenegro and served as instructor of the National Defense College. Mr. Koll also served as Consul of the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, USA.
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