The Netanyahu playbook: How the prime minister stays on top

The legal, security and political ramifications of Netanyahu’s attempt to prevent the Knesset’s dispersal, and why there are misconceptions on all three.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu celebrate this week’s political victory with a visit to the Knesset cafeteria (photo credit: GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu celebrate this week’s political victory with a visit to the Knesset cafeteria
(photo credit: GPO)
When National Football League quarterbacks win the Super Bowl, they go to Disneyland. When teams win championships in major American sports, the entire team is usually hosted by the president at the White House.
So where did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu go to celebrate this week’s political victory over his rivals on the Right and Left? The Knesset’s dairy cafeteria.
Netanyahu made an extremely rare appearance in the line for pasta and shakshuka at the parliament’s small dairy buffet, and his spokesman made a point of sending out the picture of his boss smiling at the spaghetti as though it were an Olympic gold medal.
The prime minister will have plenty of time to nod at noodles now that he has his wish: a coalition with a razor-thin majority of 61 to 59 that will prevent him from leaving the Knesset until late at night most Mondays and Wednesdays.
That spaghetti may appear unappetizing to the outside observer. Besides the obvious culinary deficiencies, there are legal, security and political reasons it is hard to understand why Netanyahu appeared to desperately want to avoid initiating an early election this week.
For legal reasons, one would think Netanyahu would want an election immediately. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to indict him for bribery in the first quarter of 2019 pending a hearing.
Wouldn’t Netanyahu want to preempt that indictment and ensure the election takes place before it?
On the security front, the report security cabinet ministers received from intelligence officials is that last week’s onslaught from Gaza was a onetime onslaught by Hamas to blow off steam and prove that Gaza’s rulers are not collaborators with the IDF, after Israel facilitated the delivery of three suitcases stuffed with $15 million of Qatari humanitarian aid.
If this aid, which will arrive monthly, is expected to stabilize the situation in Gaza, shouldn’t Netanyahu take advantage of the relative calm that is expected in the months ahead to initiate an early election?
And when it comes to politics, Netanyahu is doing well in the polls. His only serious competition is former IDF chief Benny Gantz, whose support is expected to erode the moment he enters politics and begins expressing political opinions. Gantz is also reportedly about to earn a windfall when his cybersecurity start-up company Fifth Dimension has its “exit,” and he needs more time before he leaves the business world.
So shouldn’t Netanyahu have caught Gantz and other opponents unprepared by initiating an election as early as possible in February?
THE ANSWERS to all three questions, according to political sources, are more complicated than they seem on the surface.
Legally, Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty. The “indictment pending a hearing” is a key legal stage, but it is neither a conviction nor a final indictment. Netanyahu’s associates say the prime minister believes he is innocent, and he therefore will not base political decisions on the attorney-general’s initial decision.
One other possibility is that Netanyahu wants the pre-hearing indictment to take place ahead of the election, so he can mock the charges in the expensive gift affair and the other cases and effectively run against them. Such a move could resonate with his antielitist right-wing political base.
Both former defense minister Avigdor Liberman and wannabe defense minister Naftali Bennett denied knowledge of a forthcoming security challenge that would make it irresponsible to initiate an early election, as Netanyahu said in this speech Sunday.
Is the security threat really just the threat to Netanyahu’s title as “Mr. Security” emanating from negative polls after his decision to not pursue a more forceful and longer-lasting response to the rocket fire from Gaza? Is it threats from Hezbollah that have remained unchanged for years and are put in check by the Russian presence in Syria and the current problems faced by Hezbollah’s patrons in Iran?
It is more logical that Netanyahu was referring to the opportunity to ensure Israel’s long-term security through the “deal of the century” plan being worked on by US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
Trump reportedly convened Kushner, Ambassador David Friedman and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt this week to finalize the content of the plan and the timing of its release. Trump had said it would come out by the end of the year, and perhaps, had an election been initiated, the deal’s release would have had to be postponed.
There is a limit to how long a major policy initiative can be delayed. Perhaps Netanyahu wanted to ensure the release of a plan that could change the paradigm of what a Middle East peace plan looks like and permanently end hopes in the international community that Israel would withdraw from the Samarian Hills overlooking the Coastal Plain.
That leaves the political reasons for postponing the race.
Netanyahu believes he will win by a landslide no matter when it is held, so it does not have to be held urgently after the publication of a positive poll. Completing a term in office for the first time in 30 years, or at least passing up David Ben-Gurion to become the longest-serving prime minister by the most stringent count on May 31 are accomplishments that can be pursued.
Holding the race after the AIPAC Policy Conference (March 24 to 26), after Independence Day (May 8 to 9) or after the Eurovision Song Contest (May 14 to 18) could all bring Netanyahu positive press. But Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi told Netanyahu Wednesday that the election should not be held during Ramadan, which is May 5 to June 4.
There is one more key political reason to hold the election as late as possible, and that is revenge.
Netanyahu can take revenge against Liberman for quitting his cabinet by making him sit long hours in the area of the Knesset plenum reserved for opposition legislators, near the Arab MKs he despises. He can also make Bennett jealous as he takes for himself the job of defense minister that Bennett so covets.
Revenge, like the pasta in the Knesset’s cafeteria, is best served cold. And that taste of victory will be savored by Netanyahu.