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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Netanyahu is a cancer on Israeli body politic, and arguably the single greatest threat to the continued existence of the state of Israel.
That he is going on trial, and likely is going to jail, is an unalloyed good.