Based on the early results, which point to Benjamin Netanyahu as the big winner in these elections, statements saying he cannot serve as prime minister are no longer legitimate.
Despite a campaign that went on for over a year and three rounds of voting, during which the prime minister’s legal situation went from bad to worse, and during which the main opposition party voiced the single message that Netanyahu cannot be prime minister because of public norms that they invented for this scenario, the public voted the way it voted, and no message can be clearer. The law says that Netanyahu can serve as prime minister while he is on trial, and on Monday, the public gave him a mandate to do so.
This is an almost unprecedented personal coup – a comeback the like of which Israeli politics has never seen. Remember, this isn’t some shiny new candidate who managed to attract a large following, but the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history who has reinvented himself.
But Netanyahu’s victory is also a victory for identity, for those who refused to follow the media, academia, the signers of petitions, and above all, a legal system that did everything it could to bring about the opposite result of what took place on Monday evening. Many voted as a form of protest against the enlistment of the entire system – in the past few months, former State Attorney Shai Nitzan, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Liat Ben Ari, and their friends threw off any restraint or shame and started using the system entrusted to them to make their own political vision a reality, ignoring the cries from a camp that wants justice no less than the other side. On Monday, these cries and that pain turned into a rain of ballots cast for the Likud and the other right-wing parties, and the rest is history.
The size of the prime minister’s victory translated into an equally massive failure for Benny Gantz and Blue and White. When the exit polls were announced, the main opposition party cried about losing their lead, but the root of their embarrassment anti-Netanyahu movement to heights no opposition leader in the past had ever known – not Tzipi Livni, not Isaac Herzog, not Avi Gabbay. In effect, Gantz was mere steps from the Prime Minister’s office. But he decided to give it up. If he had accepted the rotation deal Netanyahu offered him, he’d be in the Prime Minister’s Office a month from now. But Gantz couldn’t stand up to the pressure his comrades were putting on him, and he gave up. Even then, while it was all unfolding, it was clear this was a moment that wouldn’t return.
Over the course of a year, Gantz transformed himself from an esteemed if not particularly successful IDF chief of staff to a failed and battered politician who hasn’t had a single proud moment since he entered politics and won’t have one until he leaves, which will probably be soon.
Blue and White was and remains a failed initiative that was established for one purpose only, and which failed to achieve that purpose on Monday. So there is no longer any reason for it to exist. Without the tailwind from the media, and without its leader hiding facts and ignoring things and conducting himself in an improper – possibly criminal – manner, it would have broken apart long ago. As of Monday, it looked like the party had lost its flak jacket. It’s only a matter of time until it collapses entirely.
According to the exit polls, Netanyahu did not secure an absolute victory, but rather 59 seats for the Right. That is not enough to form a government. A similar number caused the Knesset to dissolve itself less than a year ago. But the numbers are different now than they were then. A fourth election would be too bizarre for anyone to take responsibility for causing one. Members of Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, or Labor could step in and save the situation. If the final results stay the same, we have long, tense days ahead.
The prime minister spoke with the leaders of right-wing parties and effectively revived the bloc, which increased from 55 seats to 60 overnight. The message was clear: that he was not seeking a unity government or to install left-wingers in place of right-wing officials. The bloc is alive and kicking, and needs Netanyahu as much as Netanyahu needs it.
So Yamina leader Naftali Bennett can relax, even though his list scored only six seats. He’ll hold onto the defense minister job. His relationship with Netanyahu still isn’t great, but Netanyahu doesn’t have many options for a government without Bennett.
Actually, it’s not only the right-wing parties that matter now. In a government of 61 seats, if one is formed, everyone is powerful. Everyone can make demands, extort, threaten, and get what they want. Everyone holds the keys to the coalition.
But a 61-seat coalition like the one that existed in 2015 is different from the one we are potentially seeing now. We have just held three elections. Anyone who dares make trouble and threaten to bring down the government and lead us into another election faces being trampled by an angry mob. Such a narrow government can’t last long, but after it is formed, there will be opportunities for more players to join it. We can bet on there not being another election this round, even if the Right only has 60 seats. Now we just have to wait to see what will save us and lead us to a stable government.
Header: A picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surround by Likud ballots at the Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Monday | Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Original by Mathi Tuchfeld for Israel Hayom