Is Netanyahu in a free-fall; trapped between COVID-19 and annexation?

Netanyahu’s worst nightmares have almost become reality, with Israelis taking to the streets shouting, “Netanyahu should be dismissed.”

Israelis protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, July 3, 2020 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Israelis protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, July 3, 2020
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worst nightmare, the Israeli public demands his dismissal and states it has more faith in one of his arch rivals, Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett, than it does in him.
In May, Netanyahu could have forced himself awake to a world where he had just formed a government after securing his best election results ever, 36 mandates for the Likud.
That May world was one in which Netanyahu was lauded worldwide for his successful preventative measures to keep a lid on the spread of COVID-19, while other world leaders were loath to admit that a global pandemic existed. Netanyahu had been in the news almost nightly for months. As if he was a military commander fighting a war, he mapped out strategies and campaigns. The public was so assuaged, an April poll gave him a 70% approval rating.
Then just as it seemed as if the crisis was over, and there were only some 2,000 Israelis sick with the virus, a series of missteps brought about a COVID-19 resurgence, with close to 1,600 new cases a day.
A Channel 13 poll released Sunday showed that 61% of Israelis were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of COVID-19. Another 45% said they had confidence in Bennett to handle COVID-19. As a former defense minister, Bennett had been tasked until May with tackling COVID-19 alongside Netanyahu.
Few paid attention when Bennett entered the opposition after failing to receive the Health Ministry portfolio. Now, newscasters hang on to his every word, with the understated presumption that the situation would never have gotten this bad had he been allowed to remain in a leadership position.
So it is that in the bright July sunlight, Netanyahu’s worst nightmares have almost become reality, with Israelis taking to the streets shouting, “Netanyahu should be dismissed.”
Netanyahu has remained at Israel’s helm for 11 years through skill and cunning, outwitting all his opponents outside his party and weakening his rivals within the Likud.
During that entire time, Netanyahu married his success to that of the state, so much so that it almost seemed to his supporters that it would be an existential threat to Israel’s very existence to remove him.
Who else could thwart an Iranian threat, be close to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, as well as advance ties with African and Arab countries. Then there was his success in securing US support for Israeli rights in Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu so suppressed his rivals, it was hard to imagine how anyone else could possibly outdo him when it came to leading the country. Not even his criminal trial on corruption charges tarnished his mythic image.
So it seems almost symbolic, for such a larger-than-life politician, that it has taken a pandemic to threaten his rule and quite potentially lead to his undoing.
Health experts have issued almost daily warnings that COVID-19 is spreading out of control in Israel. With each statement, the public hears that Netanyahu has lost control of the country.
In the past, Netanyahu had weathered low moments by calling for early elections. It is a strategy he has perfected almost to an art form.
But the nature of the pandemic makes such a step unwise, particularly since this government was formed precisely to handle COVID-19.
Israel has just come out of three costly election cycles, which froze government activity, and it is perceived that it cannot handle a fourth.
For Netanyahu to call elections now, it would seem as if he was placing his own political interests above those of the country, literally leaving it more vulnerable in the face of deadly coronavirus.
Nor is it likely he would win. Already Netanyahu had dropped by at least three seats in the polls, down to 33 mandates, while support for his rivals is growing. Polls have placed Bennett, for example, at 13 mandates, compared with the five he has now.
It would also be difficult for Netanyahu to head to elections without having made good on his promise to apply sovereignty to West Bank settlements. Effectively, he would have two strikes against him: COVID-19 and the absence of sovereignty.
He could not promise to do it later. If he goes to elections now, it would likely thwart any chance of applying sovereignty to West Bank settlements. Should he win, the window for annexation would be lost because a new government could only be formed in the aftermath of the US election in November.
Netanyahu would literally have to bet on a Trump victory. It is perceived that sovereignty must be done under Trump, who could prevent the UN Security Council from taking any retaliatory action against Israel.
Should Trump lose, it is unlikely Netanyahu could advance sovereignty, given that presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden opposes annexation.
In that scenario, Netanyahu might have kept his hold on power. But he would go down in the annals of Israeli history as the prime minister who failed to execute the one clear chance Israel had at sovereignty over West Bank settlements.
In typical fashion for Netanyahu, now would be the moment when he would move forward on sovereignty. Such a move would, theoretically, distract the Israeli public from his failures with COVID-19. It would also shore up support in his right-wing base, should he need to move to elections. Annexing West Bank settlements should remind them of one of the significant reasons they had voted for him in the first place.
But just when Netanyahu needs Trump, his diplomatic ally is absent. The US has yet to give Israel the green light to annex West Bank settlements, even though Trump’s peace plan allows for it.
Should Netanyahu move forward without a US green light, he risks angering his coalition rival, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who could retaliate by threatening to bring down the government. It is not a threat Netanyahu can afford, even if such a move is not in Gantz’s best electoral interest either.
If Netanyahu moves ahead on annexation without US support, he risks angering Trump, who might then withdraw his backing.
But as a sign of the chaos that now reigns in Israel, the final political strategy might not be in Netanyahu’s control anymore.
Right-wing politicians are already pushing to advance a sovereignty bill without him. If he kills the initiative, he weakens support among his right-wing base, which is already teetering out of his grasp. If he allows it to go forward, the bill, as it is designed, conflicts with Trump’s peace plan and would likely get him in trouble with the US.
If Netanyahu puts forward his own sovereignty bill, without Trump’s approval, he similarly risks US ire.
But annexation only adds fuel to the fire.
In the COVID-19 arena, Netanyahu shows signs of losing control, with votes moving forward over his opposition, such as the one to keep pools and gyms open.
With demonstrators rallying in front of his home, and no-confidence votes in the Knesset, it is possible that politicians emboldened by a public vision that other leadership is possible may simply successfully choose to pull the plug on Netanyahu’s reign.