Election fever

Only a major upset will prevent Netanyahu from winning a historic fifth term.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: The biggest threat he faces is not at the ballot box but from the courts (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: The biggest threat he faces is not at the ballot box but from the courts
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The week that followed the surprise announcement of early elections to be held on April 9 was followed by significant realignments in both the right- and left-wing camps with predictions that more surprises were in store.
Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked dropped the first bombshell on December 29, separating from the Bayit Yehudi party they established to form the New Right (Hayamin Hehadash) party, aimed at attracting right-wing secular voters put off by the influence the rabbinical establishment held over Bayit Yehudi.
The New Right pitched itself as a solidly right-wing party, with an equal balance between religious and secular, and championing a more liberal approach on issues such as LGBT rights and businesses operating on the Sabbath. The aim was to woo the traditional Likud base.
A few days later there was a major shock in the left-wing camp when Avi Gabbay dramatically ended his partnership with Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, breaking up the Zionist Union and leaving Livni and her Hatnuah faction desperately seeking a new alliance before the Knesset lists have to be presented in February.
Polls in early January showed a number of smaller parties either failing to reach the 4-seat electoral threshold or hovering perilously above the 3.25 percent minimum required to gain representation in the next Knesset.
These parties included Livni’s Hatnuah, the new party formed by former defense minister and IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, Bayit Yehudi, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Gesher, the new party led by Orly Levy-Abekasis, the daughter of former Likud stalwart David Levy, with a strong socioeconomic platform. And even the left-wing Meretz and the centrist Kulanu led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, according to some polls, were not significantly ahead of the threshold.
The overall picture was one of electoral confusion, adding increased urgency to the calls in both camps for mergers, makeshift marriages of convenience and political alliances to avoid wasted votes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed concern that the launch of the New Right party could cause a number of smaller right-wing factions to fail to reach the minimum threshold, crippling the right and leading to the election of a left-wing government. Initial feelers for a merger between Likud and Kulanu were rejected by both Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon and by senior Likud politicians.
Despite talk of the need for a grand anti-Netanyahu alliance among the center-left parties, such efforts have failed to gain momentum.
As the election campaign kicks off, it is clear that only a major upset will prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from winning a historic fifth term as premier and that the biggest threat he faces is not at the ballot box but from the courts.
In December, police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on fraud, bribery, and charges of breach of trust, and accused him of granting regulatory favors to telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for flattering news coverage of himself and his wife Sara on the popular Walla website, owned by Bezeq’s CEO Shaul Elovitz.
The Bezeq Case 4000 was believed to be the most serious of the three corruption cases in which police have recommended Netanyahu would be charged and the one most likely to result in an indictment.
Following reports that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit intends to indict him pending a hearing, probably in late February, the prime minister made it clear that he had no intention of stepping down.
“For years, the left-wing demonstrators and the media have been applying thuggish and inhuman pressure on the attorney general for him to indict me in any event, even when there’s nothing,” he said. “They are trying to force the attorney general to intervene crudely in the elections by summoning me to a hearing, when it is known in advance that the hearing cannot be completed before the elections. They know that our team always wins, so they are trying to pressure the referee to take Messi out of the game.”
The new head of the Opposition, Shelly Yachimovich, said that Netanyahu’s “violent statements” enjoining the law enforcement agencies to leave him alone were no different from the statements made by any other person facing severe criminal suspicions, but as prime minister he holds the power to bring down with him the institutions upholding the rule of law.
Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid said that a prime minister who was confident that “there is nothing because there was nothing” should have demanded that the attorney general issue his recommendations as quickly as possible.
A poll commissioned by Ma’ariv in early January found that an indictment against the prime minister, pending a hearing, before the elections would have little impact on the outcome. Under such a scenario the Likud would lose two seats to Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right, but it would still remain by far the largest party in the Knesset.
According to the poll, if the attorney general decided to indict Netanyahu pending a hearing, the Likud would win 30 seats – exactly the same as in the last election. The ruling party has a significant lead over the other parties – the predominantly Arab Joint List becomes the second largest party with 13 seats, the same number as the new Israel Resilience party led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Yesh Atid headed by Yair Lapid would receive 12 seats, one seat less than what it has now.
The most intriguing question is how the most courted man in Israeli politics fares – Benny Gantz, who joined the political fray and formed a party, but had yet to outline his political thinking at the time of the Ma’ariv poll.
The poll showed that  the New Right headed by Bennett and Shaked would receive 11 seats, whereas the Jewish Home hovers around the electoral threshold with only four seats.
The Left poses no significant threat to the hegemony of the right-religious bloc. Avi Gabbay, after dismantling the Zionist Union on live television, goes down to single-digit seats, gaining an unprecedented low of eight seats, prompting commentary that the Labor party’s traditional role in Israeli politics has come to an end.
Barring a dramatic unforeseen development, it’s a fair bet that the Likud will once again emerge as the largest party after the April election and the right-religious bloc will again have the best chance of forming a governing coalition.
It’s also clear that Benjamin Netanyahu will not resign, even if he is facing a pre-indictment hearing.
But what’s not clear is how his potential coalition partners will respond to such a scenario. Will they be ready to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin a candidate for prime minister who is facing a potentially long and complicated legal battle in the courts, plunging Israel into an uncharted constitutional predicament?
And almost all the party heads have scores to settle with Netanyahu. They will only give a definitive answer if and when an indictment is issued and the details of the corruption charges are revealed.
While reluctant to talk about it in public, politicians, including those in the Likud and the other right-wing parties, are already jockeying for position, ahead of the post-Netanyahu era.