JERUSALEM – For a little over a month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held together the slimmest of coalitions, representing just 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. One of the two far-right parties in his government had dropped out over security differences concerning the Gaza Strip, and the other was now teetering in its support due to personal differences with the prime minister.
Finally, in late December, Netanyahu agreed to dissolve the Knesset and hold elections, to take place on April 9. He cited a looming deadlock regarding draft deferrals for ultra-Orthodox men, an issue of great import to two other parties in his coalition but deeply unpopular among the general electorate. Yet it’s widely agreed that he was far more worried about the timing of possible indictments for alleged corruption, believing that if he were to be quickly reelected, they might be delayed or even quashed.
The extent of the prime minister’s worry was on full display this week. On Monday, his office released word that he would make a “dramatic” live statement just in time for the evening news. For hours, the speculation churned: He’d announce his resignation in light of reports that the indictments were coming in February. He’d announce that he was firing Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, the man set to decide on the indictments. He’d announce a political merger that would be a winner at the polls. He’d announce a new peace initiative.
In the end, Netanyahu merely announced that he was willing to confront the state’s witnesses against him face to face, whether in police interrogation rooms or on live TV. He added that it would be unfair to hand down indictments before the election. He also made sure to say that the whole thing had been blown out of proportion by the left and the media. When it became clear that this was nothing more than an appeal to his political base, one channel cut him off.
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Netanyahu’s base is considerable and he plays to it much the way U.S. President Donald Trump plays to his – by denouncing the judiciary, demonizing the left and damning the media. But he has lost some ground within his Likud, which has been moving farther to the right, and there are those in the party who fear that his legal woes will take too much of his time and cost it support among voters.
More notable, though, is the fact that outside the Likud, the dissolution of the Knesset unleashed the beginnings of what could turn into a political realignment. Parties are splitting, others are forming, and an ex-IDF chief of staff with considerable popularity is taking a dive into the whirlpool.
If any of these developments have added to Netanyahu’s agita, it’s probably the last.
Benny Gantz is the wildest of wildcards now on the Israeli political scene. He has the right military credentials (Israelis usually look for security expertise in their leaders) as well as an aura of decency, grace and calm that is sorely lacking. He has yet to reveal his stance on peace with the Palestinians although it’s widely understood that he is a moderate.
Even before his mandated three-year post-military cooling-off period came to a close, parties across the political spectrum were wooing him. When he announced the formation of a party of his own on December 27, other parties were said to be looking to run with it on a joint list or otherwise make deals with it that would enhance their own standing among the electorate.
All of this says a lot about Gantz, and Netanyahu has begun sending out associates to do something about it. Science Minister Ofir Akunis told Army Radio on Sunday that Gantz was a closet leftist. On the same day, Culture Minister Miri Regev told reporters that Gantz had been a lousy chief of staff because of the tunnels coming into Israel from the Gaza Strip.
The day before, Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant – the man who had been tipped to become chief of staff instead of Gantz before having the nomination rescinded when it became known that he had illegally built his home on state land – hinted that the newcomer wasn’t saying much because he had something to hide. Gallant’s comment came a day after a news report said private investigators had been hired to dig up dirt about Gantz among former subordinates.
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If opinion polls are to be believed, the Likud will get the most votes of any single party come April. But a politician gets to be prime minister only if he or she is able to put together a coalition, and the same polls show that with Gantz in the game, this will be harder for Netanyahu to do – so hard, perhaps, that the president might give the nod to someone from the party that comes in second, which is exactly how Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s chair in 2009.
This is not to say that Gantz’s party would necessarily end up in second place or that he himself would be asked to form a government – no political novice in Israel has ever become prime minister. A more likely scenario would have him as defense minister or in charge of another weighty portfolio as a token of gratitude for having shifted the overall political balance to the center.
So Avichai Mandelblit is not the only person on Netanyahu’s mind. Yes, Mandelblit will decide whether or not to indict him, but according to legal experts, indictments at this level must take into account the good of the nation as a whole, meaning they could be deferred until a time when Netanyahu is no longer in office. With Benny Gantz in politics, that time could be soon.
Lawrence Rifkin is the Journal’s Jerusalem bureau chief.