What Netanyahu really wants is a fourth election

Editor's Note: In the Arab sector there is an expectation that people who did not vote in the past will vote on March 2.

NETANYAHU AND GANTZ vote in April. Are we simply on our way to a fourth election?  (photo credit: REUTERS)
NETANYAHU AND GANTZ vote in April. Are we simply on our way to a fourth election?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After two elections, it is difficult to see what makes the upcoming vote different from the previous two. The campaign slogans are pretty much the same – Gantz will form a government with the Arabs, Gantz won’t annex settlements, Netanyahu is corrupt, Netanyahu doesn’t care about the people – with one exception: where everything is being said.
In the two previous elections, Benjamin Netanyahu made almost all of his announcements either in videos aired live on his Facebook and Twitter pages, or in “special announcements” he would schedule in the morning and then disappoint with in the early evening. This time, Netanyahu is On the Road – not in the Jack Kerouac carefree way, but more literally: hitting two cities a night for two different rallies.
On Wednesday he was in Ma’alot and Karmiel; on Tuesday it was in Bat Yam and Lod; Monday he traveled to Beit She’an and the Jordan Valley; Sunday saw him in Haifa and Nahariya and on Saturday night he hit Ma’aleh Adumim.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is also in a different city every day: Wednesday he was in Kfar Saba; Tuesday in Haifa; Monday in the South; and on Sunday in Beit She’an. For Gantz though, this is not new. This is what he has pretty much done for the past year. Netanyahu hasn’t.
Why the sudden change? Two primary reasons. The first is that nothing else seems to work. The accusations against Gantz that he is a leftist, that he is friends with ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert who met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that he is against religion and that he won’t annex settlements are not changing the way people vote. That keeps the right-wing voters within the right-wing camp, but it doesn’t move anyone from Blue and White over to the Right. It’s not been working. So why not try something new like daily rallies?
Where these rallies help are by electrifying the base and working up the voters who are already in Netanyahu’s pocket to make sure they come vote on March 2. Netanyahu knows that it will be almost impossible to convince Gantz voters to jump ship, but he can make an effort to get out the vote and ensure that the Right comes out in bigger numbers than the center-left, and maybe that way Netanyahu comes out on top.
He has reason to believe it might actually work. Ahead of Likud Party leadership primary in December, Netanyahu changed strategy and went out to the field, holding two-to-three rallies a night, something he had not done in years. It excited the Likud and helped deliver a decisive victory against Gideon Sa’ar, beating the polls and garnering more than 72% of the vote.
Getting out the vote is what will count. In the Arab sector, for example, there is an expectation that people who did not vote in the past will vote on March 2, spurred on by Netanyahu’s continued attacks against Arab-Israelis but also by US President Donald Trump administration’s peace plan, which proposed folding some Arab-Israeli cities into a future Palestinian state.
If more Arab-Israelis vote than in the past and the overall number of voters declines, it could make the difference for Netanyahu winning the coveted 61 seats on the Right, his preferred objective. Netanyahu wants to see Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism receive 61 seats without needing to rely on Avigdor Liberman. But it will depend on voter turnout, so Netanyahu hopes that his rallies across the country will bring out the vote.
But if that fails – and if the polls are right, it will – do not be fooled into believing that Netanyahu will try to form a national unity government. He might go through the moves and put on a show for the public so it looks like he is sincere, but it will be the same as it was after the September election: part of a blame game he will be playing with Gantz aimed at showing that the other is more at fault for the failure to form a coalition.
Don’t misunderstand, Gantz will be a full player in this charade: he will not agree to a rotation that has Netanyahu serving as prime minister first just weeks before his bribery trial begins. In closed meetings, Gantz says he learned from the last round of coalition talks that Netanyahu cannot be trusted. “Not a word or even half a word,” he has said.
Then there is Netanyahu. Agreeing to a unity government means he has to agree to a rotation. There is no way Netanyahu will allow Gantz to serve as prime minister first, and very little chance that he will stand by an agreement that lets Gantz serve second as well, putting an expiration tag on his own premiership.
As a result, the more likely scenario in the event of deadlock is that Netanyahu and Gantz will lead Israel to a fourth election.
From Netanyahu’s perspective, it might even be the best-case scenario. If that happens, he will do his utmost to expedite his trial that he will attend as the interim prime minister, thereby buying himself another six to seven months in the Prime Minister’s Office. That is ultimately what he wants: to remain prime minister, stay in power, wrap up the trial and then figure out the rest.
There is no grand strategy. It is all about one thing and one thing only: how to stay afloat.
All this would have been impossible to imagine a year ago. I remember meeting one of Israel’s most senior politicians just after the second election in September, as the coalition talks were getting started. He said that the Knesset and the government would never let a third election happen. It was nice to hear, but after the coalition talks collapsed a few weeks later, I watched that same politician raise his hand in favor of dispersing the Knesset and sending the country to the March 2 vote.
That is why with 17 days left until Election Day, many politicians are already openly speaking about yet a fourth election. The reason is simple: with polls showing no change in voting patterns and Netanyahu facing a criminal trial, it is unlikely that anyone is going to budge.
The countdown to election No. 4 has already begun.
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Had Ehud Olmert asked my opinion last week (not that he should) whether to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, I would have advised him not to. First, there is very little gained from sitting with the intransigent Palestinian leader, who consistently proves that he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Second, the move was seen as interference in Israeli-US politics and foreign policy. It did not bring Olmert any popularity.
What Abbas said at the meeting proved the point. He recalled the peace talks held 12 years ago when Olmert was prime minister, and called on Israel to resume negotiations from the point where he and Olmert had left off.
That is absurd.
Why didn’t Abbas then embrace the proposal? Why did he not try to forge ahead with it for the last 12 years? Why did he refuse to come talk to Israel during the 10-month settlement freeze that was announced in 2009? Why did he announce “1,000 nos” to the Trump peace plan and assume that he could just pick up where he left it with Olmert in 2008?
This is just another classic example of how the Palestinians fail themselves. What happened 12 years ago is no longer relevant, to put it mildly, and the intransigence and rejectionism that the Palestinians continue to exemplify first and foremost harm themselves.
But I would like to urge people to relax. Meeting with Abbas is not meeting with Israel’s arch-enemy. The number of expletives used against Olmert this week on social media as well as against J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami for hugging Abbas is part of a double standard that is heard far too often by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum.
Ben-Ami’s embrace of Abbas is wrong and Olmert’s joint news conference with him is wrong – but not Netanyahu’s meetings and embraces with Yasser Arafat, who unlike Abbas, who has consistently denounced terrorism for over a decade, was a real terrorist, one who proudly funded suicide bombings against Israel and orchestrated the Second Intifada.
Netanyahu voted in favor of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, signed the Hebron agreement that allowed the PA to deploy police in the city and was the first prime minister to enact a freeze on settlement construction. Does the Right ever talk about that? Of course not. All you will hear is how Olmert is a traitor and Benny Gantz will give away the keys to Jerusalem to the Arabs.
I have no problem with people criticizing Olmert, Gantz or Abbas but at least be consistent. If one is going to attack people for engaging with a Palestinian leader, don’t forget the other politicians who have done the same in the past.
If there is any lesson from all of this, it is this: Let’s stop the “anti” rhetoric that has only one purpose: to reject the other. This past year of non-stop electioneering has turned Israelis into a people that only talk about what they do not want, but not about what they do want. It’s as if that option – positive thinking – no longer exists. It’s only about who we don’t want: Gantz or Netanyahu.
Israelis can and should rise above it. We deserve better, but we also need to do better.