From a suspiciously timed lockdown lift to the recruitment of bizarre, extremist allies, Benjamin Netanyahu is sparing no effort to win Israel’s next election and establish what he calls “a full-on right-wing government.”
Ignoring the admonitions of his own scientific advisers, Netanyahu rushed to fully reopen Israel’s restaurants, bars, gyms, and schools just two weeks before the ballots are set to be cast. Meanwhile, he has consistently asserted that voters will reward him for the country’s unparalleled anti-COVID-19 vaccination drive, a saving grace for citizens after a long year of lockdowns and economic woes.
Unfortunately for Netanyahu, the polls show otherwise, and many observers believe he is assiduously preparing to undermine the legitimacy of the March 23 vote if it does not bring him a clear victory. If the direst predictions do come true, and COVID-19 infections resurge around Election Day, the ensuing mayhem could help maintain his grip on power.
The all-out effort to win has taken many forms. Im Tirzu, an extremist right-wing group close to Netanyahu, was caught trying to infiltrate the vote-counting staff. His party, the Likud, has been fined for its wanton use of the official prime minister’s residence to host political events.
Even while aggressively courting Arab-Israeli voters—who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s electorate—the Likud continued to spread unfounded claims about Arab attempts to ‘steal the election.’ Netanyahu went so far as to send an emissary to the Palestinian Authority, a government he routinely refers to as a terrorist entity, warning them against voting for the Arab-majority Joint List party to better his chances at filling Israel’s parliament with his own allies.
“Netanyahu has lost all shame,” protested Gideon Saar, a former Likud minister now challenging Netanyahu as head of the New Hope party. “He is trying to involve the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] in elections within the State of Israel.”
Yoaz Hendel, Netanyahu’s former director of communications who is now with Saar, compared the move to the Ukraine scheme that provoked Donald Trump’s first impeachment. “Netanyahu does the same without even thinking twice,” he said.
A spate of polls show that after 12 years of Netanyahu’s rule, most Israelis want to see a change. Surveys published by major media outlets this week showed the Likud hovering at 28 or 29 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, with the centrist Yesh Atid rising to 20.
Ben Caspit, author of The Netanyahu Years, is convinced that if Netanyahu loses, his inner circle would use the defeat as an opportunity to incite an insurrectionary event. “I don’t know if it’s him or those around him,” Caspit, a prominent political analyst, told the Daily Beast, adding that they could “have plans for a Capitol-style event. I thought it was impossible, but I’ve been convinced it is true.”
Caspit is not alone. Last month the left-wing Kibbutz Movement claimed that “Bibi is planning on Trumping the U.S. election.” “Netanyahu, and those who follow his orders, are laying the groundwork for claims the election was stolen in case they lose,” they warned. “They want to import what happened at the Capitol to Israel, and we cannot let them succeed.”
Even if that’s the case, the objective may be hard to achieve. Over the past year, all Likud bids to draw thousands of Netanyahu supporters to the streets have fizzled.
A former Netanyahu official who spoke under the condition of anonymity suggested Netanyahu had grown jealous of Trump over the past few years. “You could see it in their first meeting, in 2017,” he told The Daily Beast. “Netanyahu looked at Trump and you could see he was asking himself ‘how does he get away with it?’ He wanted the same for himself.”
“Trump and Netanyahu are the most different similar twosome. Trump is vulgar, shallow, and unintellectual whereas Netanyahu is a deep thinker, an inveterate reader, a great geopolitical analyst.”
In 2020, Netanyahu was charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust, becoming the first incumbent Israeli leader to face criminal indictment. Caspit described the police investigations into Netanyahu’s crimes as a turning point for the prime minister, who had spent his first years in office defending Israel’s institutions and boasted about protecting the courts.
Netanyahu has resorted to several new, unlikely allies to secure his goal of winning the election, including the Islamic Movement leader Mansour Abbas and the viciously anti-Arab Bezalel Smotrich. Smotrich, who identifies as “a proud homophobe” and hopes to turn secular Israel into a Jewish theocracy, shares only two things with Abbas: abhorrence of the LGBTQ community and indulgence of Netanyahu's dream of gaining legal immunity.
Through the past three previous electoral campaigns, Netanyahu has failed to win enough votes to form a functional government. None of his rivals have pulled significantly ahead, leaving him to serve as a caretaker prime minister and as co-prime minister in a doomed cabinet-of-rivals arrangement with centrist rival Benny Gantz.
So what is Netanyahu’s strategy if he doesn’t win?
“He can contend that votes were falsified, so that if anyone else is elected, it’s viewed as an illegitimate outcome,” Caspit explained, noting that Israel’s complex system of coalition-building offers Netanyahu an escape route from electoral setback.
If the Likud remains Israel’s largest political party, “the question will become ‘if so many people voted for Netanyahu, why was he not chosen to form the government?’” said Caspit, adding that Netanyahu could sow the seeds of doubt by “exploiting the fact that not all the public understands Israeli parliamentary democracy.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s trial continues. Jerusalem’s District Court has set April 5 as the first day of witness testimonies, obliging the prime minister to spend three full days a week in court.
According to the Israeli Voice Index, a monthly poll run by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, 59 percent of Israelis oppose legal immunity for the prime minister. But in this election, the fourth in under two years, Netanyahu appears to be solely focused on harnessing his base’s support.
“It’s a campaign of retention,” the political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin said in a recent podcast for Haaretz, the liberal newspaper. “There’s no outreach.”
If the polls hold and Netanyahu finds himself with no governing majority, several trump cards could help delegitimize the vote, and extend his hold on power.
Political deadlock and “a dreaded fifth election” may, in fact, be the best outcome for Netanyahu, Shalom Lipner, a 26-year veteran of the Israeli prime minister’s office and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told the Daily Beast.
Despite the success of Israel's vaccination campaign, it remains the only country that has denied entry to its own citizens as part of a policy aimed at curbing COVID-19. Israel’s attorney general has ordered the government to rescind the policy, which denies thousands of citizens the right to vote, but airlines can’t keep up with the number of flights needed to bring back all those stranded abroad in time for the election.
Public trust was further eroded by the revelation that Netanyahu cronies, particularly voters from his rightist bloc, had received up to 90 percent of the exemptions to the entry ban.
Netanyahu’s attacks against the state institution has further disenchanted voters. The Israeli Voice Index published on Tuesday shows that one-third of Israelis lack confidence in the integrity of the voting process. According to Tamar Herman, who ran the survey, most of them are right-wing constituents.
On Tuesday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, the titular head of state, warned that the ongoing political crisis “threatens to erode the trust of the people in government institutions, in the democratic system, and in our ability to argue, critique, but ultimately to compromise, to agree, to build and to lead the Jewish and democratic State of Israel, together.”
That erosion of trust may be Netanyahu's precise objective. But powerful forces are pushing back. The Knesset budgeted an unprecedented $209 million for the 2021 Central Elections Committee—almost double the price paid for previous votes. A portion of that will fund measures addressing the challenges of a pandemic election, such as mobile polling booths for the sick and huge tents transformed into sterile voting places, but committee director general Orly Ades told The Daily Beast that massive hires of vote count supervisors and live streaming of the vote count, among other measures, are being put in place to to protect the integrity of the vote, “making it very difficult to make any claims against us, and more so to prove anything. It will be very, very hard to make an accusation.”