It is unclear which achievement will come first: the formation of a solid, right-leaning government, or the coronavirus vaccine that dedicated, innovative Israeli scientists are busily developing.
By RUTHIE BLUM
The biggest news in the Jewish state this week should have surrounded the Knesset elections. Instead, it focused on a different cause for mass hysteria: the coronavirus pandemic.Yes, while 16 people in Israel out of a population of nine million are suffering from what all report to be mild-to-moderate cold-like symptoms, the rest of the country is gradually being subjected to home isolation, increasingly stringent directives aimed at preventing the spread of the contagious flu, and panic-inducing warnings about the death toll certain to come.It’s one way to alleviate the nausea induced by the ills of the political system. After all, it was the third time in less than a year that we Israelis were called upon to go the polls. The first two hadn’t worked out so well where coalition-building was concerned.The nationwide hope, laced with pessimism, was that Monday’s vote would put an end to the deadlock. The only question was which bloc – that of Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, leader of Likud, or that of Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz – was going to garner enough mandates to establish a stable majority government.Though the months following the September election were relatively sleepy from a campaign perspective – with a weary public loath to going through the whole process yet again – renewed energy entered the scene a couple of weeks ago, when Netanyahu suddenly surged in the polls.This in itself was not surprising, given his tireless pavement-pounding and personal meets-and-greets with wayward Likud supporters, to persuade them not to succumb to apathy on Election Day.Nor was it shocking that this strategy was successful. Netanyahu, as even his worst enemies acknowledge, is a masterful politician. He’s also as widely beloved as he is hated in certain circles.No, what was odd was the fact that his recent major international accomplishments did not have as serious an impact on his poll numbers as his hand-shaking and proverbial baby-kissing. Ironically, even this worked in his favor.Take the attitude toward US President Donald Trump’s January 28 unveiling of the “Deal of the Century” at the White House, for instance. With a beaming Netanyahu at his side, Trump heaped praise on Israel that would have made God blush. Instead, it made critics sneer. Trump’s timing, they said, was not coincidental; he purposely scheduled the big reveal a mere month before the Israeli election in order to bolster Netanyahu’s standing.Trump wasn’t bothered by this silly expression of sour grapes on the part of Bibi’s detractors, most of whom are none too fond of the American president either. What he did do, to show that his administration’s close bond with Israel is not dependent on who its prime minister happens to be, was invite Gantz to meet with him and attend the event as well.But Gantz was afraid to look like some kind of second-class sidekick to Netanyahu. He thus traveled separately to Washington for his own face-to-face with the president. So there.Rather than remain for the rolling out of the “Peace to Prosperity” plan, however, Gantz was in a rush to return home. The wannabe premier had what he considered to be far more pressing business back in Israel: voting in the Knesset against Netanyahu’s request for temporary immunity from indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust for – get this – trying to obtain positive coverage in the hostile mainstream media.Being no match for Bibi in any realm, Gantz got outwitted in this endeavor. As soon as his flight from DC was in the air, Netanyahu announced on Facebook that he was withdrawing his request for Knesset immunity. He then proceeded to take his rightful place next to Trump at the podium in the East Room, in front of many adoring dignitaries and on the world stage, where he belongs.Apparently, this show of unparalleled statesmanship was too much to bear for Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, who promptly made an announcement of his own that he had filed a formal indictment – “The State of Israel versus Netanyahu” – to the secretary of the Jerusalem District Court, “as required by law.”Talk about timing.ASTONISHINGLY, THIS did not prevent Netanyahu from continuing to do his job, forging friendly relations with former enemy states, conducting military operations against terrorist targets beyond Israel’s northern and southern borders and strengthening the economy. Oh, and working out the details of the Trump plan in conjunction with American officials to make its most significant component – the annexation of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley – implementable within as short a period as possible. All this while campaigning for reelection.Such multitasking is no mean feat, to put it mildly. It does explain, however, why Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history: 14 years in total, and the last 11 consecutively. In the past 11 months alone, as so-called “interim” premier, his accomplishments have been as far-reaching as they have been frequent.It’s no wonder, then, that his rivals, unable to defeat him at the ballot box, have been trying to remove him from office through the courts. Indeed, on February 18 – three weeks after Netanyahu returned from the White House and two weeks before the Knesset elections – the Justice Ministry announced that his trial would begin on March 17.Nevertheless, Bibi’s party emerged on March 2 as the largest in the Knesset. In other words, the ongoing attempt to criminalize his activities and cast aspersions on his champions backfired badly.This is not to say that Netanyahu is or necessarily will be able to cobble together a coalition, since he is three seats short of a majority. Yet, contrary to the way Gantz & Co. are spinning the outcome to claim that the vote was actually a victory for the “anybody but Bibi” camp, Netanyahu came out ahead.In the first place, he’s still prime minister and will remain so, even in the event of a dreaded fourth round of elections. Second, he just might manage to create a coalition, possibly by persuading MKs from other parties to “defect,” or by establishing a minority government with unlikely outside backing from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party – which was responsible for the first deadlock in April, the second one in September and again today. (By the time this piece is published, Liberman may have made a decision on how he intends to leverage his “kingmaker” status.)This brings us to the latest maneuver being undertaken by Netanyahu’s nemeses: the drafting of legislation that would overturn the existing law enabling a prime minister under indictment to retain his seat. You know, as someone innocent until proven guilty.This situation in which the Netanyahu’s antagonists accuse him of crimes, and use their own allegations to disqualify him is reminiscent of a passage in the Bible from the Book of Kings (21:19): “Hast thou killed and also taken possession?”This ploy to “take possession” of the Netanyahu-led Likud’s legitimate leadership is unlikely to bear fruit in the immediate future, however. According to Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, no legislation can be passed until after the 23rd Knesset is sworn in on March 16. Conveniently for Gantz and his partners in collusion – the anti-Zionist Joint Arab List – the swearing-in of the new MKs falls a day before Netanyahu’s trial is set to begin.Speaking of which, the typically festive swearing-in ceremony, when each parliament member, with proud parents and children looking on lovingly, pledges to “bear allegiance to the state of Israel and faithfully discharge [his or her] mandate in the Knesset,” may be done in a more modest format this time, due – you guessed it – to corona considerations.This was bound to happen, what with the cancellation of Purim parades, concerts, soccer matches and marathons; the chief rabbi’s prohibition on the kissing of mezuzot; and Netanyahu’s advice to the public that handshakes be replaced by Indian-style “namaste” greetings.It is unclear which achievement will come first: the formation of a solid, right-leaning government, or the coronavirus vaccine that dedicated, innovative Israeli scientists are busily developing. Though my prayers are on the former, my money’s on the latter.In the meantime, it is important for Netanyahu backers not to become infected with the lie that if only Bibi would step down, national unity would erupt all over.
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