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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 3, 2017..(Photo by: REUTERS)
Netanyahu: From the probes to the polls?
"You can know what you look like at the start of an election but you can never know what you will look like at the end."
The late political strategist Arthur Finkelstein, who helped get Benjamin Netanyahu elected prime minister in 1996, was known for saying that “When you allow people to choose between the corrupt and the stupid, they’ll go for the corrupt.”

It’s counter-intuitive. One would expect the opposite, and therefore one would think Netanyahu would want the next election to be held as close as possible to its set date of Tuesday, November 5, 2019, when he hopes he will have been cleared of all corruption allegations.

But at least in Israel, Finkelstein’s theory has been proven. Politicians viewed as clean, like Tzipi Livni, have been rejected, while others such as Finkelstein’s client Avigdor Liberman – who has never been convicted but is viewed as corrupt – have thrived.

So should Netanyahu instead initiate elections as soon as possible, when the Knesset returns from its extended summer recess on October 23? There are those who think he will do just that, in order to get reelected and show law enforcement authorities that the public wants him so they should leave him alone.

A precedent for such a strategy is what happened three years ago with three corrupt mayors: Shlomo Lahiani of Bat Yam, Yitzhak Rochberger of Ramat Hasharon and Shimon Gafsou of Upper Nazareth nearly four years ago.

All three were fired by the High Court of Justice following their indictment for various financial crimes. All three were then reelected by the public in their respective municipalities after the Court said it lacked the power to prevent them from running.

Then attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein said the fact that the three mayors were reelected needed to be taken into account by the High Court and could even conceivably influence it to allow the mayors to stay in office despite having fired them pre-election for being under indictment for corruption.

When the Ometz watchdog group asked the High Court to fire them again, the court rejected the petition.

While there are also signs to the contrary, there have been more signs lately that Netanyahu intends to employ Finkelstein’s advice which worked well for former mayors Shlomo Lahiani, Yitzhak Rochberger, and Shimon Gafsou.

Twice in the past week, Netanyahu toured South Tel Aviv to protest African migrant workers. He has intensified his attacks against the press. He has ruled out evacuating settlements. And he has resumed his warnings about Iran, which are expected to be the focus of his speech to the annual United Nations General Assembly in two weeks.

Cabinet ministers and their top staff have noticed and have started expediting key projects and appointments. For instance, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has decided to hold additional lotteries for subsidized housing in upcoming weeks that had been intended for more than a year away, just in case elections are on the horizon.

Neither Kahlon, nor any of Netanyahu’s other coalition partners want to initiate elections any time soon. But they cannot afford to be caught off guard and unprepared if Netanyahu decides on his own that the time for has come to go back to the polls.

If Netanyahu decides he prefers to hold elections as late as possible, the ministers and their staff can be ready by then as well.

Netanyahu passed a two-year budget and has no real excuse to go to elections; both signs of him preferring that strategy.

Sources close to Netanyahu have said he wants to surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest serving prime minister on September 23, 2018. There is no guarantee of that happening if he initiates an election next month.

Netanyahu saw British prime minister Theresa May initiate an election against competition seen as far from formidable and nearly lose. He also remembers his own worries about losing in 2015 after initiating an election with a massive lead.

As Kahlon said in a statement so wise it could have been said by Finkelstein: “You can know what you look like at the start of an election but you can never know what you will look like at the end.”
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