A statesman and a defendant: Netanyahu’s whirlwind week

On Sunday, both Netanyahu and Blue and White head Benny Gantz flew to Washington. On Monday, both men met, separately, with US President Donald Trump in the White House.

ARE THE walls closing in on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
ARE THE walls closing in on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
In the last eight days, the following took place:
Some 50 world leaders flocked to Jerusalem a week ago on Thursday to participate in an event commemorating 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin, US Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron and many, many other world leaders.
On Sunday, both Netanyahu and Blue and White head Benny Gantz flew to Washington. On Monday, both men met, separately, with US President Donald Trump in the White House.
On Tuesday morning – just hours before the Knesset was to begin taking up the issue of his request for immunity – Netanyahu declared that he was withdrawing his request. A couple hours later the indictment against him on various charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust was filed against him in Jerusalem District Court.
On Tuesday afternoon, Netanyahu – standing next to Trump at a ceremony in the White House’s East Room – welcomed a US plan that would allow Israel to retain all of the settlements, the Jordan Valley, a united Jerusalem inside the security barrier, and full security control from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. In exchange, Israel would agree to a pathway that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state on some 70% of the West Bank, if that state fulfills certain conditions.
On Thursday, Netanyahu flew from Washington to Moscow for another meeting with Putin, and brought back to Israel on his plane Naama Issachar, imprisoned for some 10 months on drug possession charges.
That, by any measuring stick, is one whirlwind of a week. What other leader in the world flies from Washington, after meeting Trump, via Moscow, to say hello to Putin?
Forget the week, on one news-packed day – Tuesday – Netanyahu became both a defendant in a criminal trial and the statesman under whose watch the US presented a plan whereby it gives Israel a green light to extend Israeli law to all the settlements in Judea and Samaria.
AND WHAT happened in the polls? How did the electorate react to all this dramatic news? What changed?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
On Wednesday night – after Netanyahu formally became a defendant accused of crimes, and after the unveiling of the “Deal of the Century” – the county’s three leading television stations broadcast polls showing that in terms of the political stalemate, nothing moved.
In the election in April, the right bloc won 60 seats, the center-left 55, and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu – which proved to be in neither camp – five. Fast-forward to September, the second election, and the right bloc slipped to 55 seats, the center-left went up to 57 and Liberman got stronger with eight mandates.
And on Wednesday, according to polls taken after the indictment was filed and the Trump plan presented, nothing changed, the stalemate has congealed, preventing either bloc from reaching 61 seats needed to form a government.
Both Channel 11 and Channel 12 had the two blocs at an even tie with 56 mandates each, and Channel 13 gave the center-left bloc a slight lead at 57-55. Another poll conducted that day, for the Israel Hayom newspaper, gave the Right a slight 58-55 lead. In each of the television polls, Liberman received eight seats, while in the Israel Hayom poll he took seven.
In other words, after all the drama of last week, which will be difficult to duplicate in the coming week, the needle did not move. Not even an iota.
Blue and White strategists must be sitting open-mouthed, asking themselves: “If a formal indictment filed against the prime minister in the Jerusalem District Court on charges of bribery and fraud does not get people to ditch Netanyahu, what will it take?”
And those in the Likud can sit equally open-mouthed and ask themselves: “If the diplomatic achievements of last week do not pull people over to Netanyahu – someone able to hop from Washington to Moscow and meet both Trump and Putin – what will do it?”
Nothing, apparently.
The country remains divided. Not about Trump’s peace plan, which instant polls showed that the country supports, but about Netanyahu.
Half the country wants to see him stay, no matter what; half the country wants to see him go, no matter what – and nothing is changing.
Which means the country is headed to an election in which there is no reason to believe that the voting patterns over the last two elections will be any different.
WHILE THE events of this past week did not – according to the polls – change many people’s minds, it did change the public conversation going forward into the March 2 elections.
By withdrawing his immunity request, Netanyahu has put himself at the mercy of the court, with the Jerusalem District Court now needing to schedule his first appearance in court.
Will it be before the elections? That would be a dream for Blue and White, being able to use photos of the prime minister – the same one who flits from Washington to Moscow – walking toward a courtroom to face criminal accusations.
But that will be a onetime photo op, used and gone. Had Netanyahu not withdrawn his immunity request, then the Knesset would have had to vote to set up a committee to deal with the request, and then the committee would have had to meet and deliberate and vote, and all that would have been covered extensively and would have dominated the news cycle for days. Now it won’t.
Instead, what is now dominating the news cycle is the Trump plan and the question of when, and exactly where, Israel can apply its sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. And that is an issue that Netanyahu definitely wants to be on the agenda.
Likud strategists are looking at the polls, and – like everyone else – staring into another stalemate. Both Blue and White and the Likud are trying to lure the “soft Right” into their camps – Blue and White trying to woo them from the Likud, and the Likud trying to get back some who have already floated over to Gantz.
But for the Likud, this is not enough – it has to get tens of thousands of people who apparently stayed away from the polling places last time to come out this time and vote. And the hope is that the Trump plan will be the great motivating factor.
The parties that make up the right-wing bloc, including two (the New Right and Zehut) that did not make it past the electoral threshold, garnered 2,216,543 votes in the April election. In September, that block lost 159,688 of these voters, who either voted for other parties (Blue and White gained some 25,000 new voters) or simply did not vote.
That’s a lot of lost votes; in fact, judging by September’s elections, it is almost most four-and-a-half Knesset seats.
And those are the voters that Netanyahu is going after. One way for him to do this is, for the five weeks remaining to the election, to highlight the Trump plan as a “historic opportunity” that only he can grasp and implement.
While last week’s dramatic action did little to shift voter opinion, it did change the conversation, moving it from Netanyahu the defendant (Blue and White’s dream) to Netanyahu the consummate statesman (the Likud’s plan). And a change of a conversation is one of the elements that Netanyahu needs to entice back into the voting booth those on the Right who stayed away last time in droves.