Why is Israel going to the polls again? So Netanyahu can avoid prosecution

From Netanyahu’s perspective it is a gamble worth taking. But what about the public’s perspective? What is best for the State of Israel?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the media after the vote that dissolved the Knesset in May and sent Israel to a second election.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the media after the vote that dissolved the Knesset in May and sent Israel to a second election.
Israelis went to the polls in April because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to try to preempt the pending announcement regarding his indictment. In May, when he failed to form a coalition, Israelis were sent again to the polls, this time because Netanyahu wanted to try to preempt his indictment. And now, again on Wednesday, Israelis were sent to the polls for the third time this year so Netanyahu can try to secure for himself immunity.
Get the theme here?
People forget, but there was no reason for Israel to go to an election last December. The government that was formed in 2015 wasn’t supposed to be up for reelection until last month, in November. In that time, we have already had two elections and are now on the verge of a third, just 11 weeks and three days away.
Why? If you still have doubts, here is the reason: so Netanyahu can try to avoid a trial, avoid losing his seat, and avoid having to move out of the official Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street. In other words, an entire country is being stuck in a state of paralysis because of a single individual. Makes sense, right?
The problem is that it doesn’t. Putting aside for a moment the exorbitant amounts of money these three elections are costing Israel – some claim it reaches NIS 10 billion, the same amount needed to build five new hospitals – the country is stuck. People are wasting hours of their days in traffic jams, hospitals are overcrowded, and our children are failing in school as illustrated by the results of the PISA tests that showed Israel far below the OECD average. This is without even mentioning the growing security challenges along our borders and beyond.
But instead of dealing with all of this, what are we doing? Going to another election so Netanyahu can avoid prosecution.
As I wrote the day after Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit decided to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – it is unsustainable for him to remain in office. There are three primary reasons: it is difficult to understand how someone can go to trial in the morning and then run security cabinet meetings about Iran in the afternoon without being distracted; in addition, every decision Netanyahu now makes on matters of national security will be suspected as motivated by a desire to avoid trial; and finally, such a situation will erode the moral fiber of our country and lead to even greater contempt for our democratic institutions.
What happened this week is a symptom of this situation and was completely predictable. Once Benny Gantz failed last month to form a government when he had the presidential mandate, there was no way Netanyahu was going to really join a unity government with Blue and White. And why should he? If he had, it would have meant agreeing to be prime minister for just six months to a year.
Now he will anyhow remain prime minister for the next half a year, and even have a chance of getting a right-wing bloc of 61 that will allow him to receive immunity, evade a trial, and remain in office for years to come. If that fails, he will always have the option of trying to horse-trade with Mandelblit and make a deal that would see him step down from public office in exchange for a slap on the wrist in the worst case, and the closing of all of his cases in the best case.
From Netanyahu’s perspective it is a gamble worth taking. But what about the public’s perspective? What is best for Israel?
It is impossible to predict what will happen between now and March 2, like what parties will merge and who will ultimately win. One thing though is for certain: these elections will be ugly, probably the ugliest yet. If we thought that delegitimizing Arabs was the worst it could get, prepare yourselves. When people are desperate, anything is possible, and divisive rhetoric might just be the least of our problems.
To Netanyahu’s credit, even after his criminal indictment and even though people know that this election is only about him trying to avoid prosecution, there are still about a million people who will vote for him. They know all of the above, but they still believe that no one can replace Netanyahu. This is his greatest achievement after 13 years as prime minister: he has managed to convince people that there is no alternative to him.
The problem though is that at its core, this is wrong. While politicians can never really be expected to give 100% of their attention just to the public that they are meant to serve, they are supposed to care mostly about the people and advancing their nation. Personal agendas are meant to be secondary, if considered at all. With Netanyahu, it is obvious that the opposite is true – personal ambition before national interest.
Take the judicial reforms he is now pushing. For years, members of the Right have urged him to split the role of the attorney-general and to change the way Supreme Court justices are selected, but he refused. Now, when it comes to his own case, he suddenly is interested.
Here’s another example. For years the Right pushed him to annex the Jordan Valley, but Netanyahu always had an excuse. First it was the Obama administration. Then it was the Trump peace deal. Now, suddenly, it is at the top of his to-do list, if only, he stresses, he is reelected.
I’m skeptical. Something you haven’t done after 13 years in power is not likely to happen suddenly now.
This election is an opportunity for Israelis to make decisions. It is time to decide what type of country we want and what kind of future we desire for our children. Is our role as a people to protect a single leader, or is it to look for ways to advance the country? Is it to help a suspected criminal avoid trial, or to hold our leaders accountable and ensure they do their jobs improving the education system and our country’s public transportation?
What happens on March 2 is up to us and no one else. It is our future. All we have to do is seize it.
I was in Hollywood, Florida this past weekend and was in the audience when Trump spoke to the Israeli American Council. On the one hand it was an exemplary performance. Trump listed his long record of pro-Israel moves, from recognizing Jerusalem and the Golan Heights to pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. His invitation to the Shalva Band to join him on stage and the warm hug he gave its members, was, arguably, one of his more compassionate moments after three years as president.
But there were also the jarring comments about Jews: how the ones who vote for Democrats must not care enough about Israel, as well as the remark that Jews vote according to their money and therefore, even if they don’t like Trump, will have no choice but to choose him – over Elizabeth Warren – come November.
It was almost like listening to two different people: one who seems to adore Israel and the Jewish people, and the other a man who trades in antisemitic tropes.
What was interesting was how the audience heard what it wanted. There were those in the audience who didn’t hear any of the stereotypes but only remembered his pro-Israel remarks. And then there were those people who only heard the controversial comments about Jewish loyalty and wealth and nothing about what he has done for Israel.
One US official tried to explain to me that Trump makes these comments because he sees himself as being part of the mishpacha, the Jewish family. I invited the person to join my Shabbat dinner table with my mishpacha. There, I said, you won’t hear any canards about Jews.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that this administration has flipped the paradigm on US-Israel ties. The embassy, Jerusalem, the Golan, Iran, the legality of settlements and now the executive order on combating BDS are, each on their own, historic moves that deserve our appreciation.
Nevertheless, while I believe that claims of Trump being an antisemite are wrong, his comments are dangerous since they provide a foundation upon which real antisemites can build their ideology and act, whether in words or like happened this week in Jersey City.
But it is disingenuous to view Trump as just one or the other. It is possible to recognize the good and the bad, to appreciate his record on Israel, to be thankful for it, but at the same time, to call him out for the canards and tropes. It’s called having a bit of nuance, something sorely missing in today’s global political climate.
Nuance is needed in Israel as well. Yes, Netanyahu has done an impressive job leading Israel through tumultuous times, but he is also facing a severe criminal indictment for which he will need to stand trial.
We would do well to learn to say thank you, but also, how to say goodbye.