JERUSALEM—An elated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu roared, “This is the biggest victory of my life!”—but that was Monday.
By Thursday, his voice hoarse, a tired Netanyahu growled, “We won’t let them steal the election!” In the words of Netanyahu’s centrist rival and Israel’s probable next prime minister, Benny Gantz, “Someone here celebrated too early.”
Then came a remarkable cascade of bad news for Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, and its first to be indicted while in office.
Avigdor Lieberman, his onetime defense minister and now a fearsome nemesis, announced his support for a law proposed by Gantz, a former army chief of staff, which would bar an indicted legislator from being appointed to form the government.
Such a law would eliminate any route to immediate political survival for Netanyahu, whose trial in three separate cases of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust is scheduled to open in Jerusalem District Court on March 17.
In an almost never seen instance of Israeli multi-partisanship that Israeli media call “the anti-Bibi coalition,” this law enjoys the support of 62 members of the 120-member Knesset, from the majority-Arab Joint List through the left-wing Labor Party, and now, unto Lieberman, a hardline secular right-winger.
Further, Lieberman, who holds seven potentially king-making Knesset seats, announced that he would recommend Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin choose Gantz to form the next government.
It is the third election in under a year in which Netanyahu—and Gantz—have failed to secure an operating majority of the Knesset, but for Netanyahu the stakes are higher.
Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York and adviser to former prime minister Ehud Barak, noted in an interview with The Daily Beast, that, “For the third time in one year, Netanyahu pushed for an election with one goal in mind: getting a 61-seat majority to grant him an immunity from prosecution over three severe indictments he is facing. For the third time he failed.”
Netanyahu “could not form a government in April 2019, September 2019 and he cannot and will not form a government following the March 2020 election,” said Pinkas. “Cut the electorate however you want, in all three instances a [slim] majority sent a resounding ‘no’ to his anti-democratic, anti-legal, it’s-all-about-me message.”
And Netanyahu was about to receive another blow.
Late Thursday, Moshe Yaalon, another former army chief of staff and the most hardline rightist in the Gantz centrist coalition, agreed to support a minority government led by Gantz, with the support of the Joint List, the Arab-majority party that leaped from 13 Knesset seats to 15 even as Netanyahu intensified his attack on Arab citizens, who form 21 percent of Israel’s population.
“Gantz is joining forces with terror supporters!” Netanyahu declared in a meeting of his coalition members. “Gantz's move undermines the foundations of Israeli democracy and subverts the will of the voter. We’ll stand strong against it.”
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, 45, a Haifa attorney and one of the election's biggest winners, replied, “Netanyahu wouldn't recognize what democracy is.”
“Pack your things, Bibi,” Odeh tweeted. “You're going home."
As the situation unfolded Thursday night, Netanyahu asked his attorney general to “immediately” open a criminal investigation into alleged Lieberman electoral shenanigans a decade ago. Lieberman responded with a press release: seven laughing/crying emojis and not a single word.
By dawn on Friday, an increasingly cornered Netanyahu was accusing Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel, who chairs Israel’s electoral commission, the body responsible for counting the votes, of criminal malfeasance. Netanyahu promised to petition the supreme court to investigate Hendel’s political affiliations.
The commission condemned any implication of impropriety, and Gantz posted that “counting all the votes, including those of citizens under quarantine due to fears of the coronavirus, is the basis of a democratic country, and one must respect the results and the voters’ choice—and no less the work of the Electoral Commission.”
Former Chief of Staff Yaalon noted darkly that “Netanyahu is refusing to respect the results of the election. His incitement could lead to a political assassination.”
Acknowledging Netanyahu’s “cult following of around 20 or 30 seats that thinks he’s a god-send and indispensable national treasure,” Pinkas said, “a majority thinks perhaps it’s time to go.”
How did this happen?
Relying on exit polls, Monday’s Netanyahu believed that counting his own party’s votes and those of his coalition partners, he had secured 60 out of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats, and would find a way to squeak by on a narrow majority.
One route appeared to be poaching wavering opposition legislators. In a television interview on Tuesday, Netanyahu spokesman Yonatan Orich foresaw that “the establishment of a government is a matter of a few days.”
“We’ve already spoken with four to six opposition Knesset members,” he said. But the targeted legislators each denied any chance of their possible defection. “Nonsense. It won’t happen,” tweeted Omer Yankelevich, a young rising star in Gantz’s Blue and White, whom Netanyahu’s Likud party threatened to blackmail by releasing videos of her that were of a “personal nature.”
As Netanyahu increasingly catered in recent years to the demands of religious-right-wing coalition partners who squeezed him for funding and favorable policies in exchange for their support, his base has shrunk from a once loose, big-tent alliance of conservative voters to a smaller clique of true believers.
The Nation-State Law, which he passed in July 2018 to satisfy the ultra-right-wingers in his cabinet, may have lost him the election.
The law has no practical effect, but by declaring that only Jews in Israel have “the right to exercise national self-determination,” and by downgrading Arabic from an official language to one with an undefined “special status,” Netanyahu alienated the last traditional rule-of-law Likud voters while kicking out of the tent conservative Arabs and the Druze, a minority group that traditionally supported the Likud.
Druze voters who once gave the party over 90 percent of their ballots have switched en masse to Gantz, whose first campaign promise was to amend the law. Fewer than 10 percent of Druze votes went to Netanyahu on Monday.
“The Druze vote should be seen as a protest against the Likud and against the right, who betrayed them with the Nation-State Law,” said Amal Asad, a retired Israeli army general and leader of the protest movement against the law told The Daily Beast. “With the cameras rolling, the Blue and White leadership promised us they would fix it. That is what the Druze voted for.”
Meanwhile, votes were being counted. Over two and a half days, the Likud’s coalition slipped from an high of 60 seats to 59 to 58, where it hovered for a day before the pollsters’ disbelieving eyes.
Odeh said his party gained 20,000 new ballots from leftwing Jewish voters "disgusted” by the right-wing establishment.
A generation of Israelis has known no other prime minister than Netanyahu, who has been in office for close to 12 years. As Israel’s political arena appeared to veer close to the danger zone, Gantz felt he had to reassure Israelis that “there will be no civil war.”