(Bloomberg Opinion) — On March 23, 2021, Israel will hold a national election. It will be the fourth in two years and, like the others, it will be a referendum on a single question: Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under indictment on charges of fraud, corruption and breach of trust, fit to lead the country?
In previous elections a narrow plurality of voters has answered in the affirmative, enabling Netanyahu to build and run a governing coalition. Recent polls show that the 202l election will be similarly close.
Bibi’s coalition partner Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, has been no match for the wily prime minister. Blue and White won more than a quarter of the votes in the last election and entered government as an equal partner. Through a combination of Gantz’s innocence, ineptitude and weakness, that party has fallen to pieces. There’s a reasonable chance it will not even clear the Knesset’s electoral minimum.
On the other hand, Bibi is facing a rebellion in his own Likud Party for the first time. Five of his Knesset members have already announced they’re jumping ship, and there will likely be more. The dissidents have started a party of their own: “New Hope,” led by veteran Likud politician Gideon Saar. Recent polls show New Hope nearly even with Likud.
Government minister and longtime Netanyahu intimate Zev Elkin puts the case bluntly. “Netanyahu has become dangerous, by placing his personal interests before the good of the country,” he has told interviewers. Bibi’s loyalists have responded predictably by accusing Saar, Elkin and other defectors of sour grapes. And they’ve rolled out a formidable set of talking points on Bibi’s behalf.
The list includes the Trump Plan for the West Bank, which was cut to Bibi’s specifications — a small, demilitarized Palestinian national entity on 70% of the area. The idea is embraced by the great majority of Israeli voters. The refusal by the Palestinian leadership to discuss the plan takes it off the election agenda. Even if the Biden administration intends to make modifications, they probably won’t come before the March vote.
Likud’s second talking point is this year’s normalization of Israel’s relations with four Arab states. “There will be many, many more to come,” Netanyahu boasted last week. The remark just weeks after his top-secret, aggressively leaked meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That it occurred in Saudi Arabia is an indication of how much diplomatic progress has taken place.
Saudi Arabia is the biggest strategic prize, but politically Morocco matters more. Last weekend Netanyahu informed the nation of his friendly phone call with the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI. The king, like his late father, is popular with the 750,000-strong Moroccan-Israeli community, which coincidentally forms the core of the Likud’s electoral base. Good relations with Rabat will help Netanyahu hold this base against his New Hope rivals.
Iran is another Likud talking point. For months, somebody has been sabotaging nuclear research and production sites there. Only a few weeks ago, the chief of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated. Netanyahu remained silent, a form of plausible deniability understood by all Israelis. The message, reinforced by current gunboat diplomacy in the Persian Gulf and continued air attacks on Iranian forces in Syria, is clear: Fear Iran? Vote Bibi.
The pandemic could have been Netanyahu’s undoing. When it broke out in March, he took sole command and put the country into a lockdown that seemed to have worked. Bibi accepted full credit at the time and grandly invited the public to go out and have a beer.
When the second wave hit, Bibi became a focus of public fury. He responded by fobbing off decision making and responsibility on indecisive cabinet ministers and hapless bureaucrats. At the same time, he used his international connections, and an open wallet, to unilaterally cut deals with Pfizer, Moderna and other vaccine manufacturers.
The tactic paid off, as vaccines began to arrive in Israel two weeks ago in a highly publicized airlift. Bibi met the flights, rolled up his sleeve on primetime TV and took the first shot. He paraphrased moonwalker Neil Armstrong by proclaiming it, “A small injection for a man, a big step for all of us.”
Israel now leads the world in per capita Covid inoculations. Almost the entire at-risk population will be immunized by the end of February, just in time for the election.
None of that means Netanyahu’s out of the woods. The public phase of his criminal trial is also due to begin in February. A darker side of the prime minister will be on display. There probably won’t be a courtroom decision before March 23, but the critical decision will come in the court of public opinion and at the ballot box.
For six months, anti-Bibi forces on the left have staged demonstrations against the “Crime Minister,” charging him with attempting to subvert the justice system to escape punishment. These attacks, while largely true, have been easily dismissed as partisan. But with bona fide ex-Likudniks affirming the charges, they’ll be taken more seriously.
The rebels won’t deny Bibi’s accomplishments. They don’t disagree with him on ideology or policy. But they have a deep understanding of Netanyahu and the party they left. They’ll draw on their knowledge of Netanyahu’s weaknesses to show voters that not only is it time for change — for the sake of Israeli democracy — but that finally there’s a viable alternative.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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