Like the Six Day War, the current election started with a successful preemptive strike ordered by an Israeli prime minister.
The target for Levi Eshkol in 1967 was Egypt, which had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and mobilized its forces on the border with Israel. The strike wiped out nearly the entire Egyptian Air Force.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first of three targets that had to be hit by preemptive strikes to win the election was Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit.
Leaks on December 23 that Mandelblit had started working on Netanyahu’s indictments pending a hearing led to the prime minister advancing the election the following day. It is hard to remember, but his excuse for initiating the race was the haredi enlistment bill.
“Can it be a coincidence that after two years of overcoming threats to his coalition, Netanyahu initiated an election the day after Mandelblit started working on his case?” The Jerusalem Post asked under the headline “Elections called because of graft, not draft” on December 25.
In the first weeks of the race, Netanyahu talked about his cases incessantly. A “dramatic announcement” Netanyahu rounded up the press for on January 7 ended up being about the probes and not about Syria, Hezbollah or Hamas.
A former Netanyahu strategist lamented in January that Netanyahu was making a mistake by highlighting his criminal investigations rather than downplaying or ignoring them.
“Netanyahu can run on his strengths of security and defense, but instead he is running on his weakness, his legal case,” the strategist said. “He has a huge electorate that loves him, but the dramatic announcement projects the wrong kind of Bibi. Even his hardcore voters don’t want a crybaby Bibi. They want a strong Bibi. I think he is making a huge mistake by running on his weaknesses.”
The strategist was proven wrong in retrospect. By the time Mandelblit made his February 28 announcement that he intended to indict Netanyahu pending a hearing on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Israelis had already heard of the three cases ad nauseam.
The result was that Netanyahu’s Likud did not lose a single mandate in the polls following Mandelblit’s announcement and the prime minister’s first preemptive strike had been proven successful.
The generals running against Netanyahu tried taking their own strategic steps. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz delayed delivering his promise to not sit in a Netanyahu-led government to immediately after Mandelblit made his move, to maximize the impact of his vow.
Saving his top ammunition for the rainiest day seemed smart at the time. But polls showed Gantz’s move misfired.
Netanyahu targeted Gantz with his second preemptive strike, by already starting to call him a leftist before he entered politics. Netanyahu has won elections before by smearing his opponents with that word that he made a slur, and Gantz would not be spared the potentially politically devastating moniker.
The day Gantz made his long-awaited announcement that he was entering politics on December 27, Netanyahu was about to leave for Brazil for the swearing-in of President Jair Bolsonaro.
It initially looked like Netanyahu would ignore his new rival. But before the plane took off, the prime minister approached reporters traveling with him and surprised them by answering their questions about Gantz.
“I do not interfere with how the Left divides its votes,” Netanyahu said with a wide grin.
When Gantz delivered his maiden campaign speech a month later, Netanyahu bashed the slogan that was the theme of the address.
“He who says that he is neither Right nor Left is Left,” Netanyahu said.
Another message Netanyahu delivered throughout the campaign was that Gantz would “form a left-wing government with Arab parties that are trying to destroy Israel.” No Arab party has ever agreed to join an Israeli government before the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved, but Netanyahu has kept hammering that message home.
Such attacks on the Arab minority upset President Reuven Rivlin, with whom Netanyahu has feuded for years. The bad blood between Netanyahu and Rivlin goes back to the days when their fathers were professors who did not get along, and some say even their grandfathers did not like each other.
In an effort to prevent Rivlin’s election in December 2014, Netanyahu tried abolishing the presidency and offering the job to Elie Wiesel, even though he was not even a citizen. Rivlin has an opportunity to take revenge when he decides who will form the next government after the election.
Knowing that risk, Netanyahu launched his third and final preemptive strike of the election on Tuesday. His office leaked to Channel 12 a tape of the prime minister warning Likud activists about Rivlin.
Rivlin “is just looking for an excuse” to choose a different candidate for prime minister, Netanyahu said. “If he has a gap of two, three, four, five Knesset seats, he’ll consider that an excuse and give it to Gantz.”
The campaign against Rivlin is expected to continue until Election Day. If repeated enough times, it could be enough of a rallying cry for complacent Likud voters for Netanyahu to not need to resort to cannibalizing his satellite parties on the Right like he did last time.
The first polls after Netanyahu’s attack on Rivlin appeared to show that it was working. If the Likud gets more seats than Blue and White and continues to head the largest political bloc and Netanyahu receives the most recommendations from party heads, Rivlin will have no choice but to let him form another government.
There is just one problem with attacking Rivlin that was not part of the plan: The sudden deterioration in the health of Rivlin’s wife, Nechama.
Rivlin cut short his trip to Canada and went straight from the airport to her bedside. Attacking Rivlin now would look merciless. If she dies, God forbid, the outpouring of support for the president sitting shiva would prevent any further criticism of him.
Any preemptive strike comes with plenty of risks. But as the Six Day War proved, preemptive strikes carried out successfully could be the key to victory in even the toughest battle.