Benjamin Netanyahu's strategy: What is it?

The real question is about Netanyahu’s strategy. What is it? While Netanyahu always seems to be a step ahead of his adversaries, this time there is no clear idea where he is going.

JUST GIVE HIM one more chance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump at the White House this week. (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
JUST GIVE HIM one more chance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump at the White House this week.
It was an impressive show of force. As President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marched into the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, they were met by some of the most important politicians and Jewish community leaders in the country.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader in the House, was there next to Mike Pompeo, Steve Mnuchin, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, and a slew of ambassadors, Israeli officials and top members of the Trump administration. Thunderous applause and standing ovations repeatedly interrupted Trump’s and Netanyahu’s speeches. It would have been impossible to find a friendlier audience.
Despite the celebration though, it was something of a split-screen moment. A few hours earlier, on Salah ad-Din Street in Jerusalem, prosecutors from the Justice Ministry walked up the stairs to the District Court and filed the indictment against Netanyahu, paving the way for his trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust to begin. The indictment followed Netanyahu withdrawing his request for immunity earlier that morning. The date of the trial has yet to be set.
It was a classic Netanyahu moment: here he was, Israel’s great statesman, receiving the most favorable peace plan ever created by a US administration, while at the same time dealing with the greatest threat ever to his political career and future freedom. The days of Barack Obama’s “not one brick” policy when it came to settlement construction were over.
On the other hand, Netanyahu’s time might also soon be coming to an end.
The real question is about Netanyahu’s strategy. What is it? While Netanyahu always seems to be a step ahead of his adversaries, this time there is no clear idea where he is going.
There was the quick tactical win of getting Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz to leave Washington on Monday afternoon, as he thought the immunity request was going to a vote on Tuesday, thereby missing the East Room ceremony.
It might feel nice sticking it to your opponent, but that is not a long-term strategy. That won’t keep him out of court or jail. By withdrawing his immunity request, Netanyahu literally opened the door to his future courtroom appearance, and the possibility of a pretrial hearing, which he will be required to attend and where he will be photographed. Why would he want that?
Even longtime Likud members are not sure. Netanyahu’s request for immunity was going to be rejected, but as long as it was in play, an indictment could not be filed. Now that the indictment has been filed, he cannot ask for immunity again, even if he stays on as interim prime minister after the March 2 election.
This leads to three possibilities: the first is that Netanyahu is banking on the Right receiving 61 seats, and that when he then forms a coalition he will pass legislation that will somehow keep him out of jail. Immunity legislation that works retroactively will be difficult to get through the Supreme Court, but then again, his coalition could pass legislation overruling the court, creating an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
But even if he can’t pass legislation, such a government has a strong likelihood of staying intact even during a Netanyahu trial. Legally he may stay on as PM and go to court at the same time. While that would not be easy to manage, a government made up of Naftali Bennett and the haredi parties could keep it going.
For this to happen though, Netanyahu would need to receive 61 seats on the Right without Avigdor Liberman, and the odds of that happening – based on the polls – are slim.
That is why a more likely option is that he simply plans to ride out the premiership for as long as he can. If the results of the upcoming election are like the last one, then the stalemate and deadlock could end up leading Israel to a fourth election. By then, maybe his trial will be over or at least mostly done.
And then there is the final option: Netanyahu will keep going until he feels that the walls are closing in on him, and then – at the very last second – jump for a plea bargain. If, for example, he doesn’t net 61 seats in this election and sees that his trial will begin, he could potentially offer his resignation – thus paving the way for forming a unity  government – in exchange for a deal. Will Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit give him one? Most predictions are that he would.
NETANYAHU IS DOING everything he can in this election season to show Israelis how much he is needed and what type of statesman he is. The idea is to convey what Israelis will lose if the prime minister loses his seat.
Netanyahu flew to Washington to get annexation; to Moscow to get Naama Issachar; and next week to Uganda, which is reportedly opening an embassy in Jerusalem. All of this just days after he hosted some 50 heads of state in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu wants to show that he is a statesman and a dealmaker, not a suspected criminal.
The problem is that there were some glitches along the way. The first and most obvious one had to do with annexation. At the peace plan rollout on Tuesday, Netanyahu said that he would work to apply Israeli law to the Jordan Valley and the settlements.
When the event ended, Netanyahu’s spokesman even tweeted: “Sovereignty over all settlements on Sunday.”
Netanyahu then met with the Israeli media at Blair House across the street from the White House. There he repeated to reporters what his spokesman had tweeted, and declared that he would bring an annexation proposal to the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Some of the reporters – from the right-wing Channel 20 and Yisrael Hayom – went outside and broke into a celebratory dance. Their dream of Israel annexing the settlements, they sang, had come true.
But it was premature. An hour after Netanyahu finished his briefing – at about 3:30 p.m. in Washington – Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and the chief architect behind the peace plan, went on CNN and said that he was not aware of any immediate annexation plans.
“I don’t believe that’s going to happen this weekend, at least not as far as I know,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
By the time Kushner’s interview was over, the prime minister’s spokesman had already deleted his tweet, and on Wednesday morning Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who was in Washington with Netanyahu, said that the proposal would not be brought to the cabinet in the end on Sunday because of “technical reasons.”
As the day went on, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that annexation would not come up on Sunday but rather on Tuesday, at the cabinet meeting that day.
But now, even that is in question. On Wednesday evening, Kushner gave an interview to another US outlet, declaring that annexation should not take place before the Israeli election on March 2.
That seemed to be the nail in the coffin of immediate annexation. There is little chance Netanyahu will openly defy Kushner.
Netanyahu’s initial interest in moving it along was obvious. He wanted to move fast to show the Israeli public that he can deliver even during an election campaign, and even ahead of his trial that could begin in just a few weeks.
The Americans want to move slower. They want to try to get the Palestinians to engage, and if they refuse, at the very least try to get more Arab countries to sign onto the vision behind the plan and support it. Immediate annexation does not mesh well with that.
But that is what happens when you release a peace plan during an election campaign. The plan is immediately politicized. The same is relevant when it comes to Gantz’s announcement on Wednesday that he will bring the entire plan to the Knesset next week to approve.
Why do that? Why bring the plan to the Knesset? Even if it gets Knesset approval, it wouldn’t mean much since there still is no deal. The Palestinians have four years to negotiate, and if there are negotiations, it is safe to assume that the details will change, meaning that the final deal will need to be voted on once again.
So why bring it to a vote? To embarrass Netanyahu and the Right.
Netanyahu wanted to bring a proposal of annexation to the cabinet, something the Right supports. But the plan also includes establishing a Palestinian state and giving the PA parts of east Jerusalem as their capital. It also talks about swapping parts of the Negev for parts of the West Bank, and connecting Gaza and the West Bank via a tunnel. All of these parts of the plan are problematic for the Likud as well as Naftali Bennett’s Yamina. Gantz wants to make them nervous, and the best way to do that is by bringing the plan to the Knesset for a vote.
While this is a smart move, it is also petty politics. The most favorable plan for Israel has been unveiled, and instead of thinking strategically about the best way to advance it, both candidates for prime minister are thinking about how to politicize it.
The Americans should have known that this would happen due to the upcoming election. Everything that is already political is now even more political.
There was one more part of Netanyahu’s Washington trip that left an uncomfortable feeling. On Wednesday morning, the day after the rollout, Netanyahu appeared on Fox and Friends and said that Trump is the “best friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.”
It is a version of a line that he has said many times before, but with the US in an election year, it was inappropriate. Netanyahu could have said that Trump is “one of the best friends Israel has ever had,” or that “he joins a long list of presidents who have been great friends of Israel.” Saying he is the best simply erases everyone else, Democrats and Republicans alike. Saying that about a president who is a polarizing character also deepens the wedge that already exists between Israel and the Democratic Party, with which the vast majority of American Jews identify.
Add to this the fact that during three days in Washington, Netanyahu did not meet a single Democrat. There wasn’t even an appearance on his part of reaching across the aisle.
The thing is, Netanyahu knows how important Israel’s relations are with the US, and he also knows that the foundation of those relations is that Israel has mostly always been viewed as an issue that receives bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle.
Why would he want to actively and knowingly undermine that?
Politics. Until March 2, that will continue to be the answer.