Israel’s Political Musical Chairs Are Just Noise – Netanyahu Is the Only Player in the Game

As the campaign kicks off for the March 23 Knesset election, the situation is simple and clear; Benjamin Netanyahu is alone on the soccer field, facing six or seven empty goal nets. The media buzz over the politicians’ games of musical chairs, the creation of new political parties and the breakup of some of the longstanding ones doesn’t alter the Israeli political system’s balance of forces.

On one side, there is the “only Bibi” bloc of Likud, Shas and United Torah Judaism, centered around Netanyahu’s single, large, dominant Likud party. Facing them is a salad bowl of small and medium-sized parties that are having difficulty uniting behind an agreed upon leader or ideology.

Just this Tuesday, Netanyahu scored another small victory with the removal of Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn from the cabinet. Nissenkorn had been the only opponent who had tried to stand up to him in recent months, even if their power was unequal.

Granted, the opinion polls are projecting that the “not Bibi” parties have a theoretical majority in the next Knesset, just as they garnered an actual majority in the last two elections. But unlike Netanyahu’s supporters, who are united in their desire to have the prime minister remain at the helm, the camp seeking to oust him from power can’t even agree on the reasons justifying replacing him.

Those opposing Netanyahu on the right – Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar and Avigdor Lieberman – will never speak about corruption and the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that the prime minister is facing. They are no less hostile to the prosecutor’s office and the judicial system than Netanyahu, and they would be just as pleased if the prosecutors and judges were to go to hell and if the attorney general and the High Court of Justice were to be turned into right-wing puppets.

They’re angry at Netanyahu over his cult of personality, the influence that he has handed to his wife and elder son, that he has replaced the elites in the Likud party, pushed his rivals into a corner and blocked their path to the top – and they’re looking for revenge. The foreign policy of the prime minister, who has prioritized peace with four Arab countries over annexation of territory in the West Bank, may be too left-wing for their taste, but they are aware of its popularity among the public and are therefore laying low when it comes to their own positions.

The “center-left” opposition is attempting to resurrect some sort of imaginary heroic past associated with Mapai, the predecessor of the Labor Party, now represented by Ron Huldai – fighter pilot, kibbutznik, and mayor of a secular city, someone who gets things down non-stop. His newly launched party, Hayisraelim – which means “the Israelis” – is facing “the Jews” of the right-wing bloc. In Huldai’s party, as in his jet squadron, you won’t find politicians the likes of Likud stars from the outgoing Knesset such as Osnat Mark, Shlomo Karhi or Miki Zohar.

Gideon Sa'ar speaks during a tour of Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, December 16, 2020.
Gideon Sa’ar speaks during a tour of Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, December 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Huldai and his colleagues have no problem with Netanyahu’s foreign and defense policy or with his economic policy, which has enriched supporters of the Hayisraelim party in Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon, Savyon and Arsuf. Huldai and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who represent the same electoral base, are aiming their criticism at Netanyahu’s corruption but aren’t offering a real alternative path for Israel.

It’s particularly ironic that in entering the race for the Knesset, Huldai is actually strengthening Netanyahu. That’s because the Tel Aviv mayor is expected to receive the support of some of those who have been disappointed by Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party and who gravitated to Sa’ar and Bennett. That would weaken the anti-Bibi right wing.

And then there’s the Joint List, which presents the country’s Arab community and is heading into the election bruised and splintered. Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi had dreamed of grabbing a central role in the bloc that would replace Netanyahu, a hope that prompted a high voter turnout in Arab communities in the last election. But that dream got shelved due to Benny Gantz’s betrayal, when he linked up with Likud in the current coalition government rather than siding with the Joint List.

Later on, Netanyahu managed to recruit Mansour Abbas of the United Arab List, one of the four parties that make up the Joint List, partially annexing the United Arab List to the right-wing bloc. In the process, he shattered the impressive unity that the Arabs demonstrated following the discrimination against them with passage of the nation-state law. The prime minister created an opening for future cooperation while undercutting his prior warning that “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves.” And when the alternative to Netanyahu is Sa’ar, Bennett, Hauser and Smotrich, the prospect of a Jewish-Arab coalition replacing the current government is out of the question.

Under such circumstances, as long as Netanyahu manages to maintain Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties at their current strength in the polls, he would only need to pick up one or two partners from among the rival parties and he would have a majority coalition. Alternatively, if he can’t put together a majority of at least 61 Knesset seats, he can drag things out as the prime minister in the current transitional government until another election is called and until the ones after that.

There’s no point getting all excited about the assurances of those who say they won’t sit in a government with Netanyahu. Such promises have been broken in the past. It’s all a question of the price to be paid and what is received in return.

Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset, 2015
Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset, 2015Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Netanyahu’s goal is clear and indispensable – legislation that would put a halt to his trial or a pardon that would permit him to remain in office (and also determine the selection of the country’s next president and justice minister). He would also set out on ten election campaigns in a row until he gets the requisite support for immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu’s major accomplishment in his outgoing term has been getting public opinion used to the concept equating political stability and immunity from prosecution – the shocking idea that halting his criminal trial in a shady political deal would be seen as a reasonable step, the chances of success which may be disputable, rather than considering his lack of morality and the damage that it would cause to Israeli democracy.

The situation on the other side is much more complicated. Let’s assume that Sa’ar finishes first – or second by a relatively small margin behind Likud, as the current polling data shows – and that he even manages to recruit one or two defectors from Likud.

What could he offer Bennett at that point that would be better than Netanyahu’s offer so Bennett doesn’t join a Likud-led government? And what would Sa’ar offer the ultra-Orthodox parties to defect to him? And to the extent that he offers them more – more annexation, more government funding and money for the yeshivas, more limited activity in the country on Shabbat, more loyalty legislation against the Arabs, more abuse of asylum-seekers – he would drive Lapid and Huldai away.

And if Sa’ar were actually to break to the left, pointing out that he’s actually a secular resident of Tel Aviv like the leaders of the left wing, he would lose the support of the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers and even some of those identified with the ideological hard right. So Netanyahu is entering the current election campaign with a clear advantage, even more so than in the last three election campaigns in which he faced a more united bloc headed by Benny Gantz.

He’ll talk about the numbers – four peace agreements, four million coronavirus vaccinations, and the three indictments against him, led by the “the old elites.” He will appeal to his supporters, “who are on trial along with him.”

On Tuesday, he was also joined by Jonathan Pollard, who is perceived on the right wing as a national hero and a victim of the American judicial system. The defendant at the Prime Minister’s Residence and the man who had been released from a North Carolina prison are linking up.

None of this means that Netanyahu can take it slow between now and March 23. As always, he will wage an intense and aggressive campaign. His rivals may still hope for a miracle – for a colossal blunder on Netanyahu’s part, for the breakup of Likud and a massive shift by politicians and voters into the arms of Sa’ar and Huldai, for a collapse of the public health and economic situation that wrests the broader public from its apathy.

For the time being, there is no sign of such a miracle, and that’s worth remembering when the reports come, as expected, of additional political bombshells large and small.

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