Netanyahu back from brink with big election gain; now two court battles loom

Prime minister out-campaigned Blue and White rival Gantz, reasserting his ‘King Bibi’ credentials. Will he prove as successful in the legal battles that lie ahead?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates in his Jerusalem office, soon after exit polls come out late on election day, March 2, 2020. (Twitter)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates in his Jerusalem office, soon after exit polls come out late on election day, March 2, 2020. (Twitter)

Assuming that Monday night’s TV exit polls are borne out as the actual results flow in over the coming hours, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who campaigned with a near-desperate vigor in recent weeks, has achieved an extraordinary resurgence in Israel’s third election inside a year.

On the brink of political oblivion after the last round less than six months ago, he has strengthened his hold on the prime ministership, reestablished Likud as Israel’s biggest political party, and boosted the bloc of parties he leads to an all-but impregnable position.

Rather than his own position being under threat, it is his rival Benny Gantz, the Blue and White leader who has failed three times to defeat him, whose diverse alliance of anyone-but-Bibi parties could splinter and whose own political future is now in doubt.

Netanyahu’s rebound is all the more remarkable because, in the interim since September’s elections — in which Blue and White outscored Likud, and Gantz passed up the opportunity to rotate the leadership of the country — the prime minister has been indicted in three criminal cases. His trial is due to start at Jerusalem District Court in just two weeks’ time. Self-evidently, this did not deter his voters.

Likud supporters at the party’s electoral headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu promised that he would not advance or support legislation designed to thwart that legal process. He vowed, rather, to defeat the allegations against him in court, saying he had faith in Israel’s judges. Depending on the final election results, however, he might again seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution (an effort he abandoned in the outgoing Knesset, when it became clear he had insufficient support), or encourage other legislation that would yet avert his prosecution.

Netanyahu out-campaigned Gantz with a mixture of fair means and foul. He and his supporters worked assiduously to depict the former chief of staff as weak, inarticulate, and possibly corrupt. Gantz was forced to deny that he suffers from mental problems, after the Netanyahu camp mocked his occasionally hesitant speech patterns, and to remind Israelis that he is a little hard of hearing after almost four decades of things blowing up close to him during his military career.

Netanyahu made much play of an entirely unproven allegation that Gantz’s phone had been hacked by Iran, and that he was thus vulnerable to extortion. And the prime minister was boosted by a tape recording in which a political adviser who was working for Gantz was heard, in a conversation with his rabbi, branding the Blue and White leader a potential danger to Israel who was too fearful to attack Iran.

Netanyahu was probably more significantly boosted, though, by an extremely effective get-out-the-vote campaign, which, among other elements, utilized data from the national electoral register to target Likud voters and potential Likud voters, and make sure they actually went to the polls.

And his allegation that Blue and White aimed to form a minority coalition, with the outside support of the Joint List of mainly Arab parties — a claim denied by Gantz, but confirmed by Labor leader Amir Peretz — likely alienated swaths of potential Blue and White voters.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz campaigns at the Grand Canyon Mall in Haifa on election day, March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

Gantz, for his part, ran a largely reactive campaign, hurriedly denying each damaging allegation as it was raised by Netanyahu and his supporters, rather than taking the offensive. Rockets rained in from Gaza last week. But Gantz failed to take political advantage of even this Netanyahu vulnerability.

Netanyahu’s path back from the brink was not entirely smooth. After US President Donald Trump unveiled his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on January 28, with Netanyahu at his side, the prime minister immediately promised that he would annex all West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley area within days. But he was slapped down by Trump envoy Jared Kushner, to the fury of the settler leadership.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive for an event in the East Room of the White House at which Trump presented his Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Now, having fared so well in the elections, Netanyahu can likely determine the pace and scale of any such annexation, and do so in patient coordination with the US administration, having demonstrated to the settlers that he remains their best bet to ensure the ongoing right-wing domination of Israeli politics.

His championing of annexation appears to have led to an unusually high turnout among Israeli Arab voters, many of whom are particularly incensed by a clause in the Trump plan that provides for the possible re-designation of some Arab areas just inside northern and central Israel to become part of a future Palestinian entity in the West Bank. But the rise of the Joint List, which could have badly hurt Netanyahu on Monday, seems to have been more than offset by the increased turnout for his own Likud. Even the right-wing’s own embarrassing tape-recording, in which an aide to Netanyahu declares that “hate is what unites our camp,” evidently did little if any significant damage.

Legal battles ahead

In acute contrast to September’s result, in which the right-wing and Orthodox bloc mustered only 55 seats, Netanyahu and his supporters began celebrating the moment that all three TV exit polls at 10 p.m. gave their alliance a predicted 60 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Again assuming the final results are similar, Netanyahu is emphatically back in command of Israel; he’s the leader who’ll be invited by President Reuven Rivlin to form the next coalition. But what that also means is that Israeli politics may now move quickly into the legal realm.

The prime minister and his supporters are adamant that there is nothing in Israeli law to prevent a prime minister who has been indicted from forming and then heading a new government. The Supreme Court, however, chose not to issue a definitive ruling on the matter in recent months, when the issue was only theoretical. Now, it has become practical and urgent.

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