Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not having the best of times. The committee overseeing the General Election closed the door on further submissions to the list of candidates last Thursday. It’s too late, therefore, to make any changes. Opinion polls suggest that there is the serious possibility of Likud losing the election; even the possibility of the traditional right wing losing, which would mean Netanyahu himself losing. This comes after the election campaign, called ahead of schedule by the Prime Minister, seemed like a formality for him.
A mistake made by a clever individual is like a thousand mistakes; it can be catastrophic. On the final day of submissions for the electoral lists of candidates, something happened that may end Netanyahu’s political career: he tied himself to extreme right-wingers in the rump Jewish Home party, the National Union and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party. The latter are the political heirs of Kach, the party outlawed for being too racist and extremist — even for Israel — since 1988.
In trying to block Naftali Bennett’s attempt to challenge him for the premiership with his New Right party, Netanyahu overlooked his battle with the non-right wing parties which used to be called the left and centre groups. By leaving Jewish Home, Bennett believes that he has an opportunity to win the election or, at least, be an attractive proposition as a coalition partner.
While Netanyahu has grown accustomed to containing right-wing parties when they first join the Knesset and limiting their ambitions to one or two ministerial positions, he has had to clip their wings in recent parliaments. That’s what happened with his former coalition partner, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman.
In appearing alongside the leaders of the National Union and Jewish Power parties, promising them the 28th seat on the Likud list and the ministries of education and housing, Netanyahu has angered AIPAC, the American Israel Public affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby group. Furthermore, he has also upset Jason Greenblatt, the US Special Envoy to the Middle East and one of the godfathers of the “deal of the century”, along with Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser. “There should be no room for racism,” said Greenblatt, “and no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy.”
AIPAC’s response is very important for the outcome of Israeli elections, not least because the lobby’s defence of Israel rests on the claim that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Netanyahu himself was counting on his visit to the US next month and his annual speech to AIPAC to boost his election campaign. It is fair to say, therefore, that he is in trouble, and perhaps even Likud too, as his defeat has become a real possibility; this could be a prelude to the party’s collapse, as was the case with his erstwhile rival, the Labour Party.
To make matters worse for the Prime Minister, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has announced that he will reveal his decisions regarding the legal charges against Netanyahu next week. He faces possible indictments, which would almost guarantee his defeat at the ballot boxes in April.
This news revived the list dominated by ex-military figures and Likud’s rival. The four leading figures on this list — Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon — have all stressed that they will not join a government headed by Netanyahu, who is now facing the prospect of a right wing riddled with disputes standing against a strong centre/military list. Opinion polls suggest that the group are ahead of Likud for the first time, by at least six seats.
A Likud-far right alliance victory is no longer certain, although with six weeks to go before the election, nothing will be definite until the results are announced. There have, though, been surprise results before. In 1996, for example, when Labour led by Shimon Peres held early elections after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in an effort to use the incident for electoral gain, Peres lost and opened the way for Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister.
I predict that Netanyahu will not give up. He has been behind in the opinion polls before, only to roll up his sleeves, fight a fierce campaign, and win. However, the downfall of the Labour party, Tzipi Livni’s retirement from politics, Lieberman’s slide into the shadows and the blocking of Bennett’s ambition may prompt Israeli voters to want a change at the top. Netanyahu might thus be forced to make a real concession to Bennett specifically, who urged him to add the Kulanu party, led by Moshe Kahlon, to the right-wing alliance to strengthen his chances of winning the election.
Overall, I think that change is on the horizon and this will have a great impact on the “deal of the century”, which has been put together by the US and Netanyahu. The cult of personality surrounding him and his party — a common trait in the Middle East — has been weakened. He will most likely rethink the terms of the deal, which could mean that the possibility of it going ahead is more likely, given the participation of the Blue and White list in the election, a reference to the Israeli flag and putting loyalty to the state before loyalty to right-wing ideology. If the amended terms of the deal are favourable, even the Palestinians might accept it, which would give the Trump administration a way out of a key foreign policy quandary.
Who knows? If Netanyahu’s days are numbered, this could re-write America’s relationships across the region, with positive effects for all of the crises therein, as well as for the Palestinians.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Ayyam on 26 February 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.