Netanyahu: Instead of advancing the country, he's fighting to survive

How will Benjamin Netanyahu's immunity request impact the election in March?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the country on Wednesday night. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the country on Wednesday night.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"What? No way. The answer is no."
That was how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed a question last March from a Channel 12 News anchor when asked whether he would seek immunity from prosecution. It was a Saturday night and Netanyahu was on his way to the airport for a flight to Washington, where he would end up receiving a presidential decree recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Little did he know that the throwaway line from almost a year ago would come back to haunt him on New Year’s Day, when he announced his decision to formally ask the Knesset to provide him with immunity. It was quite the reversal.
Last March came after the attorney-general announced a declaration of intent to indict Netanyahu, but the prime minister still did not know the charges; he still had not yet had his formal pre-indictment hearing. It was also before the first election of the past year, when Netanyahu still thought he had a strong chance of forming a coalition.
What nine months, an indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust plus two failed elections can do to a man.
The truth is that Netanyahu’s decision to request immunity on Wednesday was not surprising. The whole reason Israel has been stuck in this continuing electoral stalemate has been so Netanyahu can try to avoid a criminal trial. He called an early election in December 2018, to try to preempt the announcement that he will be indicted; he dispersed the Knesset in May to prevent Benny Gantz from getting a chance to form a coalition, leaving him out in the cold; and again, just a few weeks ago, he led Israel to its third election within 11 months.
A formal request for immunity was the next natural step.
The question now is how the immunity request will impact the election in March. While most of the public is opposed to Netanyahu’s immunity move it nonetheless expected him to ask for it, so when the request finally came on Wednesday it didn’t really surprise anyone.
This was exactly what happened in March: everyone knew Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit was going to announce his intention to indict Netanyahu, so when he finally did the polls barely moved. Something that is expected will not easily change the way someone votes, especially Netanyahu’s base that will remain by his side even after the immunity request. The people who support him will probably continue to support him even if he gets convicted.
Conversations with the “Only Bibi” supporters remind me of conversations with followers of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’s longtime spiritual leader. In the years preceding his death in 2013, Yosef often stirred controversy, for example calling victims of the Holocaust the reincarnation of sinners. If you criticized the rabbi though, his followers would explain that you simply didn’t understand him. Seeing what he said as wrong was simply not an option for them. He was infallible.
The same has happened with Netanyahu. The attorney-general, whom he appointed, decided to indict him? That’s because he is framing him. The police investigated him? They are all left-wingers who want to topple the Right. The media criticize him? They want to anoint Gantz.
Everything has an excuse. It doesn’t even matter what is true anymore. Netanyahu and his supporters, for example, claim that there is a witch-hunt against him, and he is being framed only because he is a right-winger (that is questionable but we will leave it for another time). That Ehud Olmert, who was on the Left, was indicted, convicted and jailed means nothing. Facts are pointless.
This reality is sad for a number of reasons, but primarily because instead of focusing on running or advancing the country, Netanyahu needs to fight for his political survival.
THERE WAS no better week to illustrate this reality than this past one. On Tuesday, the Leviathan gas rig began operations. For any prime minister this would have been an occasion for a celebration. Leviathan has been in the works for about a decade, and the amount of gas that it holds is expected to bring tens of billions of dollars and possibly more into Israel’s economy.
For Netanyahu, though, this was a personal achievement. He was the one who pushed and steered Leviathan through the approval process, fighting with the regulator, the Knesset and his fellow ministers. He should have been cracking open a bottle of champagne while watching the rig blow smoke from the beach opposite Zichron Ya’acov. Instead, he had to keep his eye on what was happening in Jerusalem, where his lawyers were arguing before the Supreme Court he should be allowed to continue serving as prime minister even though he is under indictment.
This is the tragedy today for Netanyahu. As Israel’s leader for the last 10 years, there is no questioning his credit for many of the country’s successes, from finally getting the gas out of the Mediterranean to obtaining strategic benefits from the Trump administration. The problem is that today all of this is no longer at the top of his priorities. His focus is singular and it is about survival. The problem is that there is a country to run and little good comes from having it run by someone who is preoccupied with the battle of his life, the one that could determine whether he spends the next few years in a jail cell or at home in Caesarea.
Netanyahu’s debate this week when it came to immunity wasn’t whether he should ask for it – of that there was little doubt – but rather if he should make a big deal about the request or play it down.
On the one hand, there were those around him who argued that it made sense to keep the request quiet and try to slip it under the media’s nose. Others explained that no matter how he does it, immunity will be the focus of Blue and White’s and Yisrael Beytenu’s campaigns, and if there is no way to hide it, you might as well try to set the narrative. That’s what Netanyahu ultimately attempted to do on Wednesday evening.
Surprisingly, his speech was good. He appeared relaxed, calm and jovial. He even broke out laughing at one point. It was starkly different from some of his other recent televised addresses, like when he responded to the indictment against him a month-and-a-half ago. It seems that the advisers he brought to Israel from the US – some of whom have worked with Donald Trump – are having an effect.
Their fingerprints were seen during the run-up to the Likud primary race against Gideon Sa’ar, which electrified the Likud electorate. After years of never holding rallies or town halls, Netanyahu held dozens, sometimes even four or five a day. Veteran Likudniks spoke of an energy they had never seen. While these gatherings were nowhere near the size of the massive rallies Trump regularly holds across the US, they were similar in style. Large crowds, placards, and talk about the elites – “us” and “them.”
On Wednesday, Netanyahu took a similar tone. He spoke about “our successes,” what “we have accomplished,” and how “they are against us.”
Don’t worry. The “we” wasn’t a reference to the other members of Likud, and Netanyahu wasn’t suddenly overcome with a need to share credit with his fellow party members. The “we” was the people, the regular folks Netanyahu is trying to connect with to make them feel – like Trump – that he is just like them, a regular guy fighting on their behalf.
His trip to Athens for an energy summit just happened to be scheduled for the day after he submitted his immunity request, all part of a plan to show the public that he is working for the people and not for himself.
Will all this work? That remains to be seen. But it does give us a glimpse of what to expect over the next two months until Israelis return, once again, to the polls. One thing we know for certain: it ain’t going to be pretty.