Benjamin Netanyahu's election campaign boosted by Meron warning letter - analysis

In the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics, the warning letter sent by the Meron commission is likely to bolster Netanyahu’s bid to return to the premiership rather than sink it.

 Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to tesitfy before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2022 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to tesitfy before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2022
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In a normative universe, those involved in former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign should be having heart palpitations just about now.

That’s because any indication of possible culpability in the wrongful death of many innocent people is the kind of political disaster that ends careers.

Netanyahu’s campaign, therefore, should have entered that emergency zone on Tuesday when the State Commission of Inquiry sent warning letters blaming him and others for the Mount Meron disaster in April 2021 in which 45 people were trampled to death during the annual Lag Ba’omer celebration there.

But in the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics, and particularly in the case of this Teflon politician, such a conclusion is likely to help Netanyahu’s bid to return to the premiership rather than scupper it.

Likud questions integrity of Meron disaster commission

The Likud Party wasted no time in declaring the warning letter to be a blatant attempt to politicize the deadliest civilian disaster in Israel’s history because it was sent out in the midst of an election campaign.

In a terse message the Likud questioned both the integrity of the commission and the neutrality of its timing, noting that the probe was launched by a government headed by Netanyahu’s rivals, former prime minister Naftali Bennett and his successor, Yair Lapid.

“Since the state was established, no state commission of inquiry has sent warning letters to political candidates during the election period. It is saddening that the investigation, which was established at the Bennett-Lapid government’s initiative, chose to do so.”

Likud statement

“Since the state was established, no state commission of inquiry has sent warning letters to political candidates during the election period,” the Likud statement said.

“It is saddening that the investigation, which was established at the Bennett-Lapid government’s initiative, chose to do so,” it added.

It was not an erroneous stance. Any commission of inquiry would be savvy enough to understand that any conclusion issued would, of course, impact the elections and would have to take it into consideration.

If anything, by releasing warning letters now, rather than waiting until after the November election, it had to have known that it compromised the neutrality of its work.

Similarities to Hilary Clinton's 2016 investigation

In a way, the commission’s decision is akin to the actions of former FBI director James Comey in 2016 who sent a letter to Congress shortly before the November election saying that his office was holding an additional investigation into then-leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for possible misuse of her private e-mail server for classified information, only to then notify it a short time late that she was not facing charges.

Pundits have calculated that the move helped cost Clinton the race in an otherwise tight election that saw Donald Trump enter the White House.

 Former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton poses at an art exhibition, where she read out her leaked emails, in Venice, Italy September 10, 2019 (credit: VIA REUTERS) Former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton poses at an art exhibition, where she read out her leaked emails, in Venice, Italy September 10, 2019 (credit: VIA REUTERS)

The State Commission of Inquiry’s actions could appear even to be more suspect than Comey’s because, in a way, nothing was really revealed.

The public only knew of the FBI’s additional investigation into Clinton’s emails through Comey. But all of Israel knows about Meron and in a way, it doesn’t need a commission to hold Netanyahu, who at the time had been in office for just over 12 years, culpable in the court of public opinion.

Netanyahu and Israeli politics: Timing is everything

As prime minister and the country’s leader Netanyahu was in charge of public safety, and after 12 years of consecutive service at the country’s helm, it would be impossible to claim that he had nothing to do with ensuring the well-being of participants  at an event over which safety concerns had already been raised.

Timing is everything of course. It is impossible to know what the election results would have been if the Meron disaster had occurred just prior to when Israelis went to the polls on March 23, rather than right after on April 30.

It was just one of a number of disasters that marked Netanyahu’s last weeks in office. This included an 11-day Gaza war in May and the ethnic Arab-Jewish riots that accompanied it.

None of these events have appeared to harm Netanyahu’s standing with the eyes of his supporters. If anything he is more popular now than before.

In March 2021, Israelis who voted overwhelmingly chose Netanyahu giving him 30 mandates, a 13-seat lead over his closest rival Yair Lapid, who received 17 mandates.

This time around, polls done prior to the State Commission of Inquiry’s warning letter, have given Netanyahu as many as 33 or 35 seats, leaving him still with a wide margin of public support compared to Lapid who has been polling at 22 and 23.

This is true even though Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and the disasters that befell the country during his last weeks in office are well known to all Israelis.

Netanyahu is not plagued by lack of public support but rather by the absence of smaller sympathetic political parties strong enough to ensure that he can form a government.

Lapid’s failure to similarly coopt enough political partners to form a coalition makes it seem that the likeliest outcome of the November election will be continued political stalemate.

There was a time when Israeli politicians resigned over charges of wrongdoing. In 2008, former prime minister Ehud Olmert stepped down when faced with a criminal indictment, that’s because he viewed the court as independent of the political process.

Netanyahu is not that politician. In a political universe, where national loyalty can be measured by support for Netanyahu, and enemies are foes who want to destroy the state, there is no reason to resign particularly if the court and state probes can be rebranded as puppets in the hands of enemies who have targeted him.

Netanyahu has retained his popularity by depicting himself as a politician pursued by a corrupt politicized legal system, a move that has only gained him support. He has quickly done the same here.

The warning letter is likely, therefore, to strengthen that image and win Netanyahu even more support among the undecideds, even as his opponent uses it as cannon fodder for endless political attacks.

But the Teflon aspect is greater than just an attempt to deflect the enormity of the charge by chalking it up to a corrupt judicial system.

Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu on August 29, 2022 (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu on August 29, 2022 (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Meron disaster blame does not matter for Netanyahu supporters

Netanyahu has been in politics for over three decades and is the country’s longest-serving prime minister, effectively making him a brand name.

Those who hate him, hate him, those who love him love him, despite the Meron deaths, the Gaza wars and the criminal corruption charges against him.

This election will be won and lost by which smaller parties receive the most support rather than by those who head to the polls to vote for Netanyahu.

For those who do, it doesn’t matter if the Meron probe blames him for the deaths or not, if anything it might give his supporters more reason to come out in droves to back him on Election Day.