These elections are Israel's Judgment Day - comment

All issues will pale compared to the legal crisis that is at the heart of Israel’s 21st general election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enters a press conference, February 28th, 2019 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enters a press conference, February 28th, 2019
“I don’t think he is gone,” cautioned Shimon Peres in 1999, when asked about Benjamin Netanyahu’s future following his electoral trouncing by Ehud Barak.
Twenty springs on, with Netanyahu’s name already defining an era, the embattled prime minister remains the axis around which Israeli politics revolves.
So central has Netanyahu become here that, whether as savior or Antichrist, he is the lynchpin of both Right and Left as they spar today over the leadership and character of the Jewish state.
The leadership contest has taken a turn no one foresaw even several months ago, when it wasn’t clear that Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz would enter politics, much less that he would prove popular enough to rival Netanyahu himself.
Back then, it seemed Gantz could at most garner a mid-sized faction that, after hardly scratching Netanyahu’s armor, would join his coalition, perhaps as defense minister. Instead, he managed to weld three parties and form the most potent challenge Likud has faced in a decade.
While impressive, especially for a political novice, this achievement will doubtfully produce victory.
In fact, parallel to Gantz’s achievement looms its inversion, namely Netanyahu’s success in circling his wagons and the apparent retention of his electoral core. Unlike recent electoral collapses here, like Labor’s in 2001 or Likud’s in 2006, there is no sense of approaching defeat among the ruling coalition’s voters.
Then again, Likud’s opponents have a new and potent cause.
Unlike all elections since 1996, Likud’s main opponent cannot be identified with the Oslo process, as Labor was, or the disengagement program, as Kadima was. If anything, Gantz’s Number Three, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon, was the disengagement’s staunchest opponent, and in fact was fired as IDF chief of general staff by Ariel Sharon, because of that hawkish stance.
Free of such liabilities, Gantz et al focused on Netanyahu’s legal situation, even at the expense of highlighting a major domestic program – the way, for instance, that Yitzhak Rabin did when he produced his plan to build highways, raise teachers’ and doctors’ salaries, and universalize healthcare.
Gantz’s Blue and White did produce a plan for domestic reforms, but there was no dramatic presentation of a specific program – for instance, one that would display budgeting and deadlines for reinventing public transportation and unclogging Israel’s notorious traffic jams.
The prudence of this tactic – to let the moral and legal debate dominate the campaign – is part of what will be tested today, as Netanyahu’s supporters argue that he has presided over a decade of relative security, economic prosperity and diplomatic sway.
The other part that will be tested is the very cause that drove Gantz’s tactic, namely, what the public makes of the legal allegations Netanyahu faces.
The moral campaign has been successful in the sense that this contest has indeed come to be about Netanyahu the man. That is why time-honored satellite parties, from Meretz on the Left to Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu on the Right, are struggling to cross the electoral threshold. People want to vote either for or against Netanyahu, directly.
In a vote so personalized, the Netanyahu-Gantz showdown is also about antithetical styles.
Gantz’s patent lack of Netanyahu’s communications skills has evidently cost him, but that damage may be partly offset by the very Israeli baggage of a born farmer and lifelong warrior for whom friendship is a value second only to Zionism, and for whom doing comes more naturally than talking.
Similarly, Netanyahu’s dominance within the Right, and his shedding over the years of multiple allies and lieutenants, are the perfect opposite of Gantz’s effort to display team play, most notably by running on a rotational ticket with Yair Lapid.
These aspects of the contest will surely be on voters’ minds, as will the widespread deployment in recent months of the Internet as an engine of deceit, and the siege it helped lay on truth. However, all issues will pale compared to the legal crisis that is at the heart of Israel’s 21st general election.
Netanyahu’s voters belittle the severity of the allegations he faces, and see no need to back the judiciary in its looming confrontation with the executive branch.
This is the better case. In the worst case, they happily join the war that Netanyahu has arguably waged on the judicial branch of the Jewish state. The prime minister’s opponents, at the same time, feel they are voting to protect of the rule of law.