The calling for elections this coming April might elicit some soul-searching on the part of Israel’s center-left bloc. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged victorious in the last election cycle nearly four years ago intent on assembling a uniformly right-wing coalition, many in the opposition feared the worst. With the exception of incoming Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, none of the other parties recruited into the new coalition were committed to maintaining a semblance of democratic norms, leading to speculation of all sorts of legislative assaults on an already damaged system. But with this anxiety came certain advantages; the vaunted stability that Netanyahu had made a cornerstone of his successive terms could very well be endangered by reckless acts in the Knesset that might end up undermining Israel’s standing in the world, and bring about a wave of international condemnation and action that would convince voters of the dangers of continued Likud rule.
This “the worse, the better” attitude is hardly endemic to Israeli politics—witness those on the American left who hope that President Donald Trump’s series of mistakes will eventually anger even his most loyal supporters and lead them to abandon him en masse–and has been circulating long before the prime minister surrounded himself with a staunchly right-leaning set of political parties. Yet despite the slew of anti-democratic legislation passed since 2015, the alienation of progressive American Jews, and further entrenchment of the occupation, Netanyahu was able to reconcile these actions with Israel’s expanding influence on the world stage and its economy during this period.
Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 further confirmed for Netanyahu’s supporters his ability to navigate the treacherous waters of international relations (this, after years of holding his own against President Barack Obama), proving his indispensability. Thus, the opposition’s long-held assertions that somehow Netanyahu and his allies’ assault on democracy and neglect of the diplomatic front would somehow heavily impact Israel on the global stage has once again been proven to be, if not wrong, then once again premature. The most recent polls following the prime minister’s call for snap elections proves this point. Initial polling reveals Likud continuing its strong lead with around 30 mandates, trailed far behind by all other parties, with one major caveat: over 50% polled did not want Netanyahu to run again. However, this is the less likely indictment of the prime minister, and more a possible fear of “changing horses in midstream” as it were. It points to a contradictory tendency in Israeli society: while many suffer from “Bibi-fatigue”, one cannot dismiss his almost mystical ability to maintain a semblance of stability under even the most taxing of circumstances.
Nonetheless, the events of the last few days may vindicate the left’s strategy, and present a new starting point from which to attack the prime minister’s conduct. Under normal circumstances in what amounts to a normal election cycle, three months would be ample time for something to go awry, such as flare-up violence, throwing the prime minister’s victory into doubt. But of course, these are not normal circumstances; even the prime minister’s strongest supporters who would attribute to him little malice or cynicism understand that these elections were called just days after it became patently clear he would not be able to escape indictment recommendations against him, hoping that by forcing elections he might influence the decision-making process of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. The scandal surrounding the indictment would have likely been bad enough, the prime minister already prepping himself and his associates for a bruising campaign likely hyper-focused on this topic. Instead, he must also come to terms with President Trump’s shocking decision to pull troops from Syria, seemingly at the behest of Turkish President Recip Erdogan, and the power vacuum likely to be filled by elements all hostile in their intentions towards Israel.
Both of these elements—charges of corruption and the circus they entail, and the seemingly glaring misstep by the prime minister to put all his trust in a mercurial president who was painted by the Israeli right as reflexively enamored of Israel—are particularly problematic for Netanyahu’s image at this juncture. Many voters have been willing to put up with the Netanyahu family’s litany of scandals and the prime minister’s increasingly domineering behavior provided that he protects their children, their wallets, and their overall standard of living. That the center and the left have, time after time, failed to provide an alternative believed to be of Netanyahu’s stature only reinforced the myth of his being irreplaceable.
Trump’s military retrenchment from Syria and Afghanistan should have been fairly obvious given his overtly isolationist tendencies. That Netanyahu and those around him seemed to have been caught unaware by such a decision calls into question their judgment of international alliances, and points to cracks in his seemingly excellent record of governance. As opposed to his cozying up with the likes of other right-wing leaders whose adverse effects may not be apparent, Trump’s decision is already sowing discord. Russia’s insistence that an Israeli attack on Syrian targets close to Damascus endangered civilians may or not be true, but the aggressive tone taken by the Russians point to shrinking space for the IAF in which to operate.
Likewise, the prime minister’s upcoming campaign to exonerate himself and put pressure on Mandelblit to acquit him is not like the struggles he has dealt with in the realms of domestic and foreign affairs. It is a wholly personal issue that he views as existential, and will consume him in a way other matters have not. No doubt he will, as he has in the past, try to universalize his personal problems, and sell his fight against the attorney general as one liable to harm the entirety of the nation. Netanyahu has never been adept at separating the personal from the political (quite the contrary), and it is easy to envision that in a fight for his very political survival, he will likely be forced to compromise on issues of governance to a degree that he might not have allowed in the past, making desperate and ill-informed decisions. Once again, parallels can be seen in the mounting investigations against Trump and his increasingly erratic behavior.
It is easy to fall into the trap of despondency given the initial results pointing to yet another right-wing victory, especially when one factors in the divisions on the left. But much can occur in the next three months that will put Netanyahu on the defensive, likely pushing the prime minister to up the ante in a bid to secure a victory at all costs and exposing his vulnerability. Such arguments aren’t likely sufficient on their own to unseat him, but they should be added to the arsenal of weapons used to make the case for Netanyahu being voted out of office.