Will Israel's Netanyahu lead or be led by Ben-Gvir, coalition partners?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The question is whether Netanyahu will be able to keep his coalition partners – the Religious Zionist Party, Shas and UTJ – in order.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU waves to well-wishers Tuesday night at his campaign victory celebration. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU waves to well-wishers Tuesday night at his campaign victory celebration.

The fifth time’s a charm.

Forty-four months and five elections after it all began, Israel’s political purgatory ended Tuesday when the nation – en masse – went to the polls and finally rendered a clear decision: it wants Benjamin Netanyahu back, and this time as the head of the most right-wing and religious coalition this country has ever seen.

Some will take issue with that statement about a “clear decision,” saying that the pro-Netanyahu bloc – the Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and the Religious Zionist Party – received only a few thousand more votes than the number received by the anti-Netanyahu bloc, made up of all the parties of the last government plus the Arab Balad and Hadash-Ta’al parties. A few thousand votes (13,000 as of Thursday morning), they will argue, do not make a clear mandate, are far short of a resounding victory, and are less than the clear mandate that the Netanyahu bloc is claiming.

While this might be true in terms of the popular vote, in terms of a parliamentary majority, there is no doubt that Netanyahu – with what is shaping up as a 65-seat coalition – has as clear a mandate as any government has had here in years.

In the US a candidate can become president by winning the electoral vote, even though he didn’t win the popular vote, and in Israel – because of the electoral threshold – one bloc may win the popular vote, yet not be able to form a coalition.

 Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu gestures to his supporters at his party headquarters during Israel's general election in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD) Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu gestures to his supporters at his party headquarters during Israel's general election in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

Just ask Netanyahu.

In the first election of this current cycle, back in April 2019, the pro-Netanyahu bloc won 233,000 more votes than the anti-Netanyahu bloc, yet Netanyahu couldn’t form a coalition, because the New Right of Naftali Bennett and the Zehut Party of Moshe Feiglin failed to pass the electoral threshold.

What happened to the Right in April 2019 happened to the Left this time: implosion from within, with the failure of Meretz and Balad to pass the 3.25% threshold a killer.

STILL, THE nation dramatically spoke on Tuesday. The Netanyahu bloc might have received only a few thousand votes more than the anti-Netanyahu bloc, but hundreds of thousands of votes ballooned the pro-Netanyahu bloc this time.

In the last election of March 2021, the eight parties that eventually formed the coalition – together with the Arab Joint List – received 2,488,368 votes, as opposed to the 1,856,932 ballots cast for Likud, Shas, UTJ and the Religious Zionist Party. That is a difference of more than 630,000 votes.

This time, the pro-Bibi bloc outpolled the anti-Bibi bloc by a few thousand votes. Going from being 630,000 votes in the red to a few thousand in the black is not an inconsiderable shift.

So the question is what happened? What changed so dramatically in the last year to cause such a move?

There are, of course, the political explanations: that the anti-Netanyahu bloc, headed by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, just ran a flat-footed campaign. While Netanyahu – well aware that the only way for him to grow his bloc was to get out more haredi and dormant Likud voters – was out barnstorming and holding meeting after meeting across the country, Lapid ran a “Rose Garden” campaign and talked about how US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron now meet him, not Netanyahu.

If one were charitable, one could argue that Lapid was playing a long game, that his goal was to build up his legitimacy in the eyes of the public as a prime minister and focus on trying to get as many votes for Yesh Atid from within his bloc as possible so he would rival the Likud in size, something that would make him – not Benny Gantz or Merav Michaeli – the undisputed and unassailable leader of the central-left bloc for the foreseeable future.

If that was his strategy, it failed miserably, because to get to the future you have to survive the present.

Lapid’s failure to put his bloc in order, as Netanyahu did to his bloc, and his failure to ensure that all the parties in his bloc make it into the Knesset, cost the anti-Netanyahu coalition dearly, and will lead now to reenergized challenges to Lapid’s leadership. Lapid’s lust to be the biggest party in the bloc and thereby secure his leadership of the Center-Left for years to come may have cost him his ability to lead that camp tomorrow.

But that is only part of the story.

THE REAL story is how all those who prematurely buried Netanyahu politically and trumpeted the end of the Netanyahu era underestimated Netanyahu the candidate. They also overestimated how much the public cares about the corruption charges against him, and they badly misread the Israeli public.

First to the misreading of the Israeli public.

Security issues to the Israeli public are what economic issues are to the American public: issues that determine elections. And security here is meant not in the sense of national security – Israel’s balance vs Iran or Hezbollah – but, rather, personal security, what people feel every day.

And just as a resurgence of terrorism preceded the 1988 election won by Yitzhak Shamir, just as a spate of bus bombings in 1996 preceded Netanyahu’s election victory that year over Shimon Peres, and just as the 2001 election won by Ariel Sharon came just a couple of months after the start of the Second Intifada, so, too, was Tuesday’s election preceded by a mini-wave of terrorism that has left many jittery.

The Religious Zionist Party of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich doubled its votes in a single year, going from 225,641 in March 2021 to some 460,000 this time. That was a pickup of an additional eight seats to Netanyahu’s bloc. Terrorism and the sense of a lack of personal security goes a long way toward explaining why so many more people voted for this far-right party this time than they did 20 months ago.

Likewise, the violent Arab rioting in the mixed Arab-Israeli cities in May 2021 during Operation Guardian of the Walls was traumatic, providing fertile ground for Ben-Gvir’s call that the Jews need to reassert themselves as this country’s “landlord.”

Neither Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, nor anyone else addressed the fears generated by that rioting to the degree that Ben-Gvir did. And his promise of law and order resonated loudly.

Ben-Gvir’s party also did extremely well in the settlements. Some 500,000 Israelis live in communities beyond the Green Line and drive on roads where the fear of a rock crashing into one’s car, or a bullet piercing one’s windshield, is real. The Religious Zionist Party spoke of this issue, but few others did.

And then there is the Netanyahu trial.

A healthy dose of the anti-Netanyahu campaign centered on the question – perpetually asked – of how a man on trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust can govern the country, and what would he do to the judiciary if returned to power.

What was not taken into consideration sufficiently, however, is that from the March 2021 election to the one on Tuesday, the case against Netanyahu has not gone particularly well. A case that many thought was a slam dunk against Netanyahu – at least that’s how it appeared to many in the early days when the media were being fed leaks by officials investigating the former prime minister – no longer appears so cut-and-dried.

The clumsy, sometimes questionable manner in which the case was handled by the police and the state prosecutor – including how evidence was collected and facts presented – has raised doubts about the strength of the prosecution’s cases against Netanyahu. Some who could not in previous election rounds vote for Netanyahu under a dark cloud of suspicion, now had doubts about those dark clouds themselves.

Call it “Bibi court case fatigue” – something understandable given that the investigations against Netanyahu began six years ago – but the “Bibi is a crook” campaign line lost some of its cachet.

FINALLY, THERE are those who underestimated Netanyahu the man, who thought that he would not survive in the opposition, who thought he would just try to cop a plea to stay out of jail, who believed that – stripped of the Prime Minister’s Office last June, without power, without the residence on Balfour Street, without the ability to set the agenda, without the deciding voice in the security cabinet – he would just fade away.

But Netanyahu is not the fading-away type.

Instead, he led an opposition that made life unbearable for Bennett, he continued to fight tooth and nail against the criminal charges against him, and then, when the government fell and an election was called, the 73-year-old campaigned as though this was his first time.

Campaign stop after campaign stop, social media clip after social media clip, he was everywhere, the indefatigable candidate.

When Netanyahu delivered a victory speech Wednesday morning to thrilled campaign workers, he looked as if he felt vindicated, becoming emotional – something he rarely does in public – when speaking of the sacrifice made by his family.

Why vindicated? Because the public brought him back for the third time. Regardless of how his trial ends, history will record that unlike David Ben-Gurion or Yitzhak Rabin or Peres or Shamir, Netanyahu staged not one, but two, political comebacks. That is not a chance afforded many politicians.

How will he now use that unique opportunity? Will he use it, as some fear, to run roughshod over the country’s judiciary, to trample the country’s democratic values and standards and sow divisions? Or will he use it to advance and strengthen the Jewish state economically, diplomatically and militarily, as he has done often in the past?

In the flush of his stunning victory on Tuesday, Netanyahu’s speech Wednesday morning was decidedly low-key and moderate. He said nothing about his trials or the courts; he pledged to be the prime minister of the whole country; he promised to act carefully and not embark on adventures.

Netanyahu, a man who cares about his legacy, is well aware of the third chance he has been given, and sounded – just hours after the polls closed – like someone intent on not squandering it, just as he sounded well aware of the challenges posed by a far-right party likely to be a central axis in his government.

The question is whether Netanyahu will be able to keep his coalition partners – the Religious Zionist Party, Shas and UTJ – in order. The question is whether he will lead, or be led by, them. If the former, he could significantly enhance his legacy. If the latter, his government could crash and burn quickly, and with it Netanyahu’s last chance to reinvent “Bibi.”•