Elections will be greatest test of Netanyahu’s career

The prime minister’s decision this week to disperse the Knesset and go to early elections was an understanding that an indictment will be filed against him sooner than initially anticipated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 16th, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 16th, 2018
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a known admirer of Winston Churchill. He often quotes the former British prime minister, and a bust of Churchill has been featured prominently in the prime minister’s office.
That is why, when Netanyahu took the podium six weeks ago at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to explain why he was keeping the defense portfolio for himself, many compared his remarks to the famous “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech Churchill gave in 1940, which set the tone for his premiership during World War II.
Netanyahu spoke to the nation about his experience as a soldier, the battles in which he fought, and the tragic loss of his brother Yoni. Israel, he went on to say, was facing “one of our most difficult security periods” – and while Israel will ultimately defeat its enemies, “it will include the need for sacrifice.”
It was a speech that left many Israelis suffering from anxiety. Parents of soldiers had trouble sleeping that night. Active reservists wondered if they had been called up that week to fight in a war that was about to erupt with Syria or Hezbollah.
I, too, was perplexed. While Israelis are no strangers to politicians making use of security situations for political purposes, this seemed serious. Talk about “sacrifice,” imminent action and military plans made it sound like something big was brewing – as if Israel was again contemplating a military strike against a nuclear reactor, or a target no less important.
Out of concern, I checked with a number of cabinet ministers and government officials to see if they had any idea what the prime minister was hinting at. The answer was the same: There was nothing special going on. The prime minister was simply politicizing security issues and using Israel’s “standard” volatile situation to prevent the government from falling in the wake of Avigdor Liberman’s resignation from the coalition.
Even so, I found it hard to believe. If that was the case, I argued, he would not have spoken about sacrifices and the loss of life. Even if politics permits almost anything, Netanyahu, the country’s leader, would not want to cause parents anxiety and unfounded concern, would not want the country to worry that war was about to erupt if it wasn’t really going to.
Two weeks later, Israelis received something of an answer: the IDF launched Northern Shield, a defensive operation aimed at locating and destroying Hezbollah terror tunnels that had crossed into Israel. That – a defensive mission that has passed quietly – was what Netanyahu later admitted he was referring to in his solemn “sacrifice” speech.
THIS WEEK, all that changed. A little over a month ago, Netanyahu did everything possible to avoid elections. On Monday, elections suddenly became the preferred route. Was it the security situation that changed? Do Israelis no longer need to make sacrifices? Or is something else at play, unconnected to the nation’s security?
Based on conversations with senior members of the outgoing government, it seems that Netanyahu’s decision this week to disperse the Knesset and go to early elections had absolutely nothing to do with Israel’s security. What made him change his mind was an understanding that an indictment will be filed against him, and sooner rather than initially anticipated.
Six weeks ago it seems, the prime minister thought that the indictment would include charges of breach of trust and maybe fraud, but not bribery. Those charges are so vague and difficult to explain, let alone understand, that Netanyahu wanted to run for re-election after being indicted.
In that scenario, he would play the victim card and use the claims that he was going to be indicted for bribery to his benefit, by showing how the state’s entire case had gone from a mountain to a molehill. He would then run for re-election with the aim to win a minimum of 40 seats in the next Knesset.
But then last week, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan spoke at the Globes Business Conference and announced that his office had completed its work on the three Netanyahu cases, and a decision on an indictment would be made in the coming months. Soon after came a leak to the media that the team of prosecutors working on the Netanyahu probes was unanimous in its decision to charge the prime minister with bribery in at least one of the cases, if not two.
This led to an immediate recalculation. Bribery is the cardinal political sin. Unlike breach of trust or fraud, bribery is easy for the public to understand: instead of working on behalf of the people, Netanyahu had worked for himself. The electorate would say that Netanyahu lined his own pocket while misusing his political power – and that is a charge that not only would cost him votes, but possibly the entire election.
So Netanyahu decided that it made more sense to go to elections now, before an indictment. This way, he hopes to tie the hands of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who is now expected to wait until after the elections before announcing his decision on any indictments, and the charges they will contain.
MANDELBLIT, the Likud hopes, will not want to be like former FBI director James Comey, who announced 11 days before the 2016 presidential election that his office was again investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails, an announcement believed by many to be the reason she lost to Donald Trump.
That might be true, although it might be hard for Mandelblit – who held three days of consultations on the Netanyahu probes this week – to keep his decision from leaking out. He would not even need to make an official announcement once he reaches a decision – as often happens in cases like this, the decision will find its way to the media.
In the end, Netanyahu is playing a game of Russian roulette. If he knows he is going to be indicted, why doesn’t he try to reach a deal with Mandelblit, in which he steps down in exchange for closing all the cases against him? Mandelblit, close sources claim, is still willing to make such a deal.
Netanyahu’s plan seems based on the hope that the Likud will win by such a high margin, with so many more seats than it has today, that Mandelblit will be deterred from indicting him, or at the very least, from including the charge of bribery. Netanyahu also believes that he will be able to convince Mandelblit of his innocence – or at least to drop the bribery charge – at the hearing he will be given before a final decision is made on an indictment.
The upcoming elections will be the greatest test of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career. For him, this could literally be a fight for survival. But there also need to be red lines. Warning of sacrifices and complex security situations for political purposes should be beyond the pale.
Netanyahu has done all of that. What more can we expect throughout his re-election campaign?