Is Netanyahu heading for elections?

As soon as January date for testimony was declared, the die was cast.

COUNTING THE ballots last week, a day after the general elections. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
COUNTING THE ballots last week, a day after the general elections.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Although sworn in only two-and-a-half months ago, the wheels are already coming off the bus of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest administration, with talk of elections in November seen as an increasing possibility due to a government failure to pass the budget next month.
Not only is Netanyahu at daggers drawn with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, ostensibly his senior coalition ally and alternate prime minister, but Netanyahu’s loyal haredi partners have threatened to boycott votes in the Knesset plenum while tempers have reached boiling point within Netanyahu’s own Likud Party.
And in the real world, Israel is deep in the depths of coronavirus, with no coherent policy for restraining the pandemic. The daily number of people infected with the virus continues to rise alarmingly, as does the number of people seriously ill with COVID-19. The effect on the economy is disastrous, with an unemployment rate of over 20% and the national debt piling up.
Restaurants open or closed? Swimming pools OK or forbidden? Gyms up and running or closed down? NIS 750 cash handouts for all or criteria-based? Who knows? Decisions change daily for no apparent reason. As one very senior Bank of Israel official commented, current government policy is notable mostly for the lack of serious data behind it and a chaotic decision-making process.
It’s unlikely that the appointment of Prof. Ronni Gamzu as Israel’s coronavirus “czar” at the end of last week will do much to change this. After all, Gamzu’s appointment is itself an example of last-minute scrambling after Netanyahu’s preferred choice of Prof. Gabi Barbash fell through due to the government’s failure to provide Barbash with a clear mandate for his role.
When Gantz broke every promise he had made in three rounds of bitterly contested elections and decided to serve under Netanyahu, he argued he had done so because Israel needed a unity government to combat coronavirus. So far, it’s fair to say, the impact of Blue and White joining forces with the Likud has had absolutely no impact on Israel’s struggle against the pandemic.
The only realm where Gantz, alongside Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, has made a difference lies in the diplomatic arena and Blue and White’s success, for the moment at least, in preventing Netanyahu’s dangerous plans to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank. Their opposition to such a move convinced the Trump administration, laboring under its own myriad of problems, that now was not the time to destabilize the Middle East. But this will probably be their only accomplishment.
Gantz’s opposition to Netanyahu’s desire to push through a budget next month only for what’s left of 2020 – the factor behind the current tension between the two men ־ and not a dual budget for 2020 and 2021 as agreed upon in the coalition agreement, has nothing to do with economics.
The law states that if a government fails to pass the state budget, it has to stand down. Gantz fears, with good reason, that leaving the option of a 2021 budget open until next year will provide Netanyahu with a loophole to go to the polls in March 2021, thus ending Gantz’s hopes of replacing Netanyahu as alternate prime minister in November 2021 as per the coalition guidelines.
In Gantz’s mind, Netanyahu would prefer to go to elections next spring, when hopefully the worst effects of coronavirus are behind us and not this November, when the pandemic is still raging and the winter influenza season is about to begin and the hospital corridors are overflowing with sick people. Hence Gantz’s determination to force Netanyahu to stick to his written agreement to pass a dual budget for 2020 and 2021.
WHAT THE Blue and White leader is forgetting is that all of Netanyahu’s decisions are based on one thing, and one thing only: his own personal survival. The good of the country, the good of the Likud Party, all come second to the prime minister’s primary objective: staying out of jail.
The minute Jerusalem District Court president Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman announced her decision last week to start hearing evidence in the trial against Netanyahu in January, three days a week, the die was cast. Netanyahu will seek any opportunity to bring down this government and go to the polls before January.
The prime minister knows there is no way he can run a country either still in, or recovering from, the coronavirus pandemic while sitting in court three days a week. Even in a normal situation, it’s impossible to run a country like Israel while being locked in a courtroom for the majority of the week.
The minute his trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust starts, the calls to have Netanyahu declared incapacitated will become impossible to refute. Netanyahu’s only chance of escaping being forced to stand down while standing trial lies in throwing the country into chaos with a fourth round of elections beforehand.
That is the direction our prime minister is now leading the country, without a care for the consequences for the nation.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.