Ahead of scheduled 2019 election, Netanyahu is launching preemptive strikes
It was an ironic coincidence that the city where former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar came to campaign Wednesday night was Ma’alot-Tarshiha.
Sa’ar has been in a different city every night, campaigning for the Likud’s candidates in next Tuesday’s municipal elections. Never before was he joined by journalists and cameras waiting for his every word.
They left disappointed, because all Sa’ar would say in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s accusations that Sa’ar had been conspiring to overthrow him after the 2019 election was that the prime minister should have a happy birthday.
The reason it was ironic that Sa’ar was accused of being an “underminer” when he was en route to Ma’alot was that the northern development town has a reputation of being the capital of political paranoia.
Its mayor, 75-year-old Shlomo Bohbot, has controlled the city since 1976, and he does not tolerate opposition. People are scared to admit they are not voting for him, because of the stories of his vengeance in the past.
For instance, when Bohbot saw a sticker for one of his opponents in a factory parking lot, he came into the factory and yelled at the foreman, demanding that he fire the owner of the car.
Sa’ar initially decided to not respond to the false charges against him. He has been very careful not to say anything against Netanyahu since he began his political comeback a year and a half ago, so no one could pretend he was undermining the prime minister.
But Sa’ar changed his mind and decided to go on the offensive when, on the way home from Ma’alot, he saw the video of Netanyahu at his birthday party suggesting that after the election, President Reuven Rivlin would ask Sa’ar to form the government instead of him. Without mentioning Sa’ar by name, Netanyahu said a former minister in the Likud had been speaking to officials in the coalition about such a maneuver.
The prime minister’s concerns about Sa’ar apparently were intensified by an article on the Likud activist website Likudnik about how Sa’ar’s power and connections had been increasing behind the scenes and how the next Likud faction could be dominated by Sa’ar loyalists.
Netanyahu’s associates had been trying to sell the story about the Sa’ar-Rivlin conspiracy for weeks, and it had been reported by three different media outlets before it finally grabbed attention when it hit the lead to Wednesday’s Israel Hayom. It was especially important to Netanyahu’s aides to dominate that morning’s news coverage to take attention away from a different scoop the night before.
Channel 2 reported that police had completed their work on Netanyahu’s investigations and would begin writing their recommendations to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit. The report said that after some three years and Netanyahu being questioned by police a dozen times, a source in the prosecution promised to “surprise everyone with their timetable” and Mandelblit would announce his indictment by April 2019.
The Israel Hayom story said Netanyahu decided to delay initiating an election, because he wanted to first pass a bill that could prevent the president from asking an MK who is not the leader of a party to form a government. But it could be that Netanyahu changed his plans because Mandelblit’s timetable had changed. The last thing he needs is a humiliating bribery indictment during a campaign.
Unlike imaginary putsches, his poor relationship with Rivlin or a challenge from any of the current MKs, the attorney-general is a very serious threat to end Netanyahu’s political career. That is why Netanyahu must proceed with caution when deciding when to initiate the election.
THE MOST likely scenario remains that Netanyahu will win the next election and somehow continue governing the country while under an indictment. Various ideas about how to avoid such a scenario have been floated via trial balloons.
The first was passing the French Law, which prevents a sitting president or prime minister from being investigated. But that would be messy because it would involve passing a Basic Law that is both personal and retroactive.
The revelation two weeks ago that a single vote in the Knesset could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution was much simpler. Likud MK Miki Zohar tried to make it even simpler this week by proposing a bill to make an MK’s immunity automatic.
But Netanyahu himself called Zohar to back down from the idea, and Zohar said he would no longer promote it. He also stressed that the idea had been his and his alone and not prompted by Netanyahu.
Despite the denials, all these ideas could come back into play after the election. Leaking them to the press now can be seen as a series of preemptive strikes by the prime minister to reveal the weapons in his arsenal before the real election battle begins.
The same can be said of the Rivlin-Sa’ar conspiracy. So far, Netanyahu has offered no proof that it is true, and the diagnosis of paranoia he received from the President’s Residence will not score the prime minister any political points.
But it could become a possibility a few months from now, following an election, a Netanyahu landslide victory and an indictment for bribery.
Raising the idea now, months in advance, was a good way to kill it, before it even entered the mind of Rivlin, Sa’ar or their confidants in the anti-Netanyahu Hebrew press.
There is a fine line between paranoia and smart politics. Netanyahu did not have to go to a factory and push for someone to be fired.
He fired first, before his potential political opponents even knew what hit them.
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