Israel Elections: Was Netanyahu bested in Purim political masquerade?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals found a way to beat him by outdeceiving him?

A LARGE BILLBOARD in Jerusalem for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explains that if voters go with Naftali Bennett or Gideon Sa’ar, they’ll get Yair Lapid as prime minister. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A LARGE BILLBOARD in Jerusalem for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explains that if voters go with Naftali Bennett or Gideon Sa’ar, they’ll get Yair Lapid as prime minister.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
 Purim is the one day a year on the Jewish calendar where Jews are encouraged to wear costumes and hide who they really are.
Ironically, many politicians are encouraged by their political strategists and campaign teams to do that all year long, especially during elections. 
It often happens that the candidates who do that best emerge victorious against their rivals. But deception is a big risk, because it is so easy to get caught.
Rightly or wrongly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has obtained a reputation over time as an expert at breaking promises and the art of deception before and after elections without paying a price for it. The 30 seats some polls give his Likud party on March 23 after breaking his promise to Benny Gantz on a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office that was the basis of the outgoing government are the latest proof that he is not being held accountable for undeniable deception. 
His political base is said to appreciate how he has used those abilities to help Israel on the world stage, as well as his political rivals at home. After 21 lies were counted in Netanyahu’s interview with Channel 12 anchor Yonit Levi, the prime minister was lavished with praise in Likud whatsapp groups and social media. 
In this space last week, the Post’s Lahav Harkov revealed the Likud’s strategy for winning next month’s election. Sources close to Netanyahu’s opponents revealed that their strategy for defeating the ruling party is simply to outdo him at his own games of political subterfuge.
The election started with Gideon Sa’ar leaving Likud after months of masquerading in the Knesset as a loyal MK honoring faction discipline. Instead, he was quietly crafting his strategy for the political upheaval he was planning.
He worked behind the scenes during the night that the outgoing government was toppled to ensure that the deadline for passing the state budget would not be extended and the current election would be initiated. His loyalists stayed home or voted at the last minute with the opposition.
Sa’ar’s departure created a rival party on the Right that provides an alternative for Likud voters who are sick of Netanyahu or upset with his handling of the coronavirus crisis and any number of other issues.
But to defeat Netanyahu, a new subterfuge was needed. That required right-wing parties that could attract voters who don’t have anything against the prime minister.
There already was one in Yisrael Beytenu, which takes pro-Netanyahu voters – mostly Russian-speaking immigrants – from the pro-Netanyahu camp to the anti-Netanyahu camp. But three elections proved that was not enough.
Naftali Bennett’s Yamina is filling that role. 
Bennett makes a point of refusing to be assigned to either of those political camps. He admits that he wants Netanyahu replaced, but he unequivocally refuses to rule out joining a government led by him. This enables him to woo pro-Netanyahu voters and anti-Netanyahu voters together.
Netanyahu has taken two steps to fight against this strategy. First of all, by forcing Shas, United Torah Judaism and the Religious Zionist Party to affirm their loyalty to him, he took away possible coalition partners for the anti-Netanyahu camp that get the same number of seats as Yesh Atid.
Then Netanyahu has made a point of constantly equating Bennett and Sa’ar with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, because without those three parties, there cannot be an anti-Netanyahu coalition without Lapid. It is obvious to voters that if Yesh Atid is the second-largest party, Lapid would be seen as the anti-Netanyahu camp’s candidate for prime minister.
After polls indicated that Netanyahu was succeeding in hammering that message home, Bennett needed to take action. He announced nonchalantly in a radio interview on Wednesday morning that he would not enter a government led by Lapid.  
Bennett made a point of delivering the bombshell in a radio interview and not a press conference or a political rally, because he is trying to keep his image as a professional who deals with the coronavirus and the economy, and not politics.
He never intended to join a government led by Lapid, who is extremely unpopular among Yamina’s voter base, and perhaps saying it in the key days closer to Election Day could have helped. But a source in Yamina admitted that Netanyahu’s messaging was eroding the party’s support and said “moneytime could have been too late.” Bennett wanted to get out the message that he does not believe Lapid could form a government even if given a chance.
So who can form a government? Speculation has been building that Sa’ar and Bennett have been conspiring for months. 
They would attack each other throughout the campaign, but after the votes were counted, they would join forces to form a faction led by whichever party won more seats that would outflank Yesh Atid as the largest in the anti-Netanyahu camp. Lapid would be forced to join under Sa’ar or Bennett. Together, they would receive 61 recommendations to form a government and would be given the mandate to build a coalition by President Reuven Rivlin.
Sources in both Yamina and New Hope confirmed that such an option has been discussed, but said Bennett and Sa’ar are far from coordinating strategy. Their criticism of each other was genuine and harmful, and even if they could join forces, they will have a very hard time deciding who gets to be prime minister.
New Hope gets more seats in the polls. But only Bennett has an option of joining Netanyahu, which is a powerful card he can play. 
Bennett intends to play the card to demand at least to go first in a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office, if not the entire term. He is counting on Lapid and Sa’ar, preferring that to another coalition with Netanyahu in power.
 Sources close to Bennett said that, while Sa’ar’s tactics of being an anti-Netanyahu party brought him more votes than Yamina, Bennett’s strategy of playing both sides will help him win the real game, which will be played after the election is over.
Bennett’s goals are deposing Netanyahu, keeping the Right in power and preventing another election. He will get all three whether he or Sa’ar forms the government. No matter which one becomes prime minister, their deceptions will have emerged victorious.
If that happens, the week of Purim will be remembered in retrospect as the time when an upheaval was advanced by defeating Netanyahu at his own game.