For Netanyahu, an unprecedented election haul bodes well for political survival
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AnalysisGantz failed to breach insular right, but decimated the left

For Netanyahu, an unprecedented election haul bodes well for political survival

The PM made history when his Likud party became the first since Israel’s inception to win more than a million votes — a trove he hopes will fend off his legal woes

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara addresses their supporters as the results in the elections are announced, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 09, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara addresses their supporters as the results in the elections are announced, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 09, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The 2019 elections are over. Officials may yet be recounting votes, but nothing will change the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu has well and truly beaten the generals, the pollsters and the sourpusses. With 1,138,772 votes cast for Likud, Netanyahu’s party is the first in Israel’s history to cross the one-million-ballot threshold.

But the prime minister’s real challenges begin now, just as all eyes are turned toward Washington, in anticipation of President Donald Trump’s peace plan.

Will the reelected prime minister be able to hold onto his seat even if he is indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust? Will his renewed right-wing coalition be able to block the peace process, or will the Washington plan threaten his coalition stability? And will Netanyahu succeed in becoming a prime minister for all of Israel’s citizens — as he promised in his rather conciliatory winning speech — when he is so dependent on a coalition composed of radical right-wing and ultra-religious parties?

Ultimately, Netanyahu understands the value of his one million voters, and knows exactly where to invest them: in his own political survival.

The indictment coalition

The prime minister is now assembling a coalition that can prove loyal throughout his legal hearing process and even — if an indictment is served — while he stands trial in the Jerusalem District Court.

After his unprecedented win, and with contrarian Likud MKs Benny Begin and Oren Hazan out of the picture, Netanyahu has all 36 party members at his beck and call — none will dare to disobey or challenge him.

The ultra-Orthodox parties are also tightly bound to Netanyahu — come hell or high water or budget cuts — giving him 15 more seats of unconditional loyalty. The Union of Right-Wing Parties, with five seats, is also allied to the premier, who can be counted among its founders.

A worker prints election campaign posters for the Shas party showing pictures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, at Canaan Maxi Media Printing House in central Israel on March 7, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, also with five seats, may not be quite as beholden to Netanyahu, but Liberman loathes law enforcement agencies just enough to support the prime suspect.

As for Kulanu, with just four seats: Netanyahu is likely to take advantage of Moshe Kahlon’s deflated party and shaky situation to offer the former Likud MK a carrot and a stick: retain the Finance Ministry and assimilate Kulanu into the Likud mothership, thus guaranteeing the prime minister full political obedience. Kahlon knows firsthand how demanding his old party leader can be; after all, he was once Likud’s central committee chairman.

The gatekeepers’ deterrence

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at conference at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan on March 28, 2019. (Flash90)

Netanyahu’s victory speech delivered a clear message to law enforcement authorities: He won overwhelming national support, despite detailed and severe allegations of wrongdoing by him published by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit just weeks before the elections.

“One million people voted for us, so one civil servant will not sway public opinion,” a source close to the prime minister told The Times of Israel on Thursday. It won’t be an easy battle for the gatekeepers — both before and after the looming pre-trial hearing.

One million people voted for us, so one civil servant will not sway public opinion

Netanyahu, by the way, is confident he has extraordinary powers and will therefore have no problem standing trial while running the country — and may even continue to moonlight as defense minister.

The Blue and White disappearance

Benny Gantz jumped the gun when he boasted about his party’s “historic achievement” in a premature victory speech. Now, the only “achievement” he can claim is the decimation of the Zionist left, and possibly any opposition to Netanyahu.

Gantz and his Blue and White partners were unable to breach the insular right-wing bloc and effectively did not draw any seats from that side of the aisle. They did, however, destroy the Labor party, its spirit and leadership, leaving it with just six seats — an insignificant force even in Israel’s already shriveled opposition.

And if that were not enough, Blue and White also dented Meretz, completely ignored the Arab parties, and offered no alternatives to the nation-state law, thus contributing to an incredibly low Arab voter turnout.

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White political alliance, claims victory at the end of April 9, 2019’s elections, in a speech in Tel Aviv (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Gantz’s partner Yair Lapid now talks about building an opposition that will “make this government’s life miserable,” but in reality, Blue and White is an ad hoc political alliance, composed of three different parties, that will disband sooner or later during this term. In over four decades of covering politics, I have seen many centrist parties come and go. None survive.

In 1977 it was Yigal Yadin’s DASH party, later came the Merkaz party and Tomi Lapid’s Shinui, and then there were Kadima and several others — all long forgotten. As Shimon Peres once said, there is no third option. And Netanyahu, who successfully dismantled rivals Kadima and Labor in the previous decade, is not very bothered by the threat posed by his new and inexperienced rivals.

And then there’s Trump

US President Donald Trump (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk while walking to the West Wing of the White House for a meeting March 25, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

According to sources close to Netanyahu, Trump is set to propose a convenient peace plan for Israel. The plan will stipulate that Area A in the West Bank (which the Palestinian Authority already controls fully) will become the land for the Palestinian state, along with some East Jerusalem neighborhoods that will be excised from the capital’s municipal borders.

The Palestinians are not likely to accept such an offer, but Netanyahu could play the unity card and call for the opposition to support him in the peace process. He will find, in such a case, that the real opposition is within his own bloc, and his coalition partners will veto any such move.

This takes us back to Netanyahu’s legal battle: He’s so invested in his indictment-busting coalition that there is little chance of promoting any peace plan — even if it is likely to be the most accommodating settlement Israel will ever receive, from the most accommodating president Israel has ever seen.

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