Netanyahu, undamaged by this week’s indictments pulls slightly ahead in the bloc calculus as his challengers are trying to organize their campaign
With just a month left before the election in Israel, this week was a good one for Israeli prime minister Netanyahu. The constant leaks by the office of the Attorney General regarding the investigations against him and the eagerness with which these leaks were picked up by the left-wing Israeli press gave Netanyahu a double victory; just like President Trump in the US, he was able to on one hand rail against this drip-drip of negative news on social media, while on the other hand benefiting from their inoculating effect. Once the conditional indictments were handed out, a big yawn ensued. Everyone has already heard every detail debated ad nauseam on Israeli news and the fact of the indictments was regarded by all as a fait accompli for quite some time.
Netanyahu, once again Trump-like, was able to roll with the punches and then reemerge with renewed vigor. He gave an important campaign kick-off speech in which he railed primarily against his political opponents on the left and only moderately against the police and the Attorney General. His newly-minted slogan “It’s Bibi (Netanyahu’s military nickname) or Tibi (one of the leaders of the Arab Knesset faction)” was reinforced this week when the Israeli Elections Commission disqualified many of the people running in the unified Arab list for the Knesset based on their anti-Jewish racism and support for terrorist organizations. The Elections Commission in Israel is very reluctant to disqualify candidates, preferring to allow as wide a range of opinions as possible to be available to the Israeli voters. In this case, however, Likud’s request to disqualify certain individuals from the Arab list was accepted, since their on-the-record rhetoric denying Israel’s right to exist and supporting the most murderous terrorist organizations such as Hamas was impossible to ignore.
While Tibi himself was not disqualified, no one in Israel doubts that he holds opinions that are identical to those members of his faction that were. This raises the ugly specter of a government made up from top generals of the IDF relying for its very existence on the parliamentary support of Israel’s worst enemies. Hardly an attractive proposition.
In a political tour de force, Netanyahu who was enjoined by the Elections Commission from posting photographs of himself with IDF troops (in order to keep the military out of politics), posted a picture of himself with American troops operating the THAAD ballistic defense system that was temporarily deployed in Israel as part of a joint exercise for strategic regional defense against Iranian missile strike. The photo-op underscored the excellent relationship Netanyahu was able to build with the Trump administration and also Israel’s own status, much of it developed under Netanyahu’s leadership, as a preeminent player in the area of missile defense.
On the other side of the political map, the newly cobbled together Blue and White party is having trouble defining its message and pushing it out to the voters. The combination of three lieutenant generals and three major generals does not often lead to harmony as the IDF top brass is not famous for playing well with others. IDF generals consult, not compromise. Their final word is law. In politics it is never my way or the highway, a lesson that the generals have only a short time to learn.
The bloc picture remains unchanged, with the smallest of margins in favor of Netanyahu’s center-right coalition. The bloc calculus presents the two largest parties with opposite challenges; Blue and White’s goal is to win the maximum number of Knesset seats and open such a large gap between itself and the Likud that the small right-wing and religious parties, though having pledged their allegiance to the Likud, will have to respect the will of the voters and join a center-left coalition. Likud must walk a fine line between keeping the seat gap between itself and the larger Blue and White party down to only two or three, while at the same time not gaining too many seats at the expense of its coalition partners, since that could push them under the four-seat minimum and thus squander indispensable seats in the next Knesset, making it impossible to form a center-right coalition government.
The next weeks will tell whether the generals can put aside their egos and come out with a compelling and unified message and whether they can overcome the fundamental flaw of having to rely on terror sympathizers to maintain their Knesset majority. Netanyahu will have to use every weapon in his extensive arsenal as Israel’s most successful politician of all times to fend off this challenge from a coalition of the traditional left and the security establishment, a challenge he had already failed to meet when he lost the 1999 election to the Labor party headed up by ex-Chief of Staff Ehud Barak. Of course, Barak proved to be a disaster as a prime minister leading the country down the path to significant deterioration in personal security. How much that lesson is still remembered by the Israeli public will only be known on April 9th.