Down But Not Beaten, Keep Your Eyes on Bibi

Perhaps the most important takeaway from yesterday’s Knesset election is one of procedure, entirely disconnected from the election itself: Benjamin Netanyahu is still prime minister, running the same interim government that he’s been running since April. And that situation is not going to change in the weeks to come.

Acquiring immunity from prosecution on charges of corruption has been Netanyahu’s driving force since before the previous election in April. His preferred method of getting what he needs has been political until now – offering cabinet posts, financial subsidies and other goodies to parties which agree to support immunity bills in the Knesset.

That political option was predicated on Netanyahu himself being mandated to form the next government. But things gave changed. Netanyahu’s Likud Party is lagging by one seat behind the opposition Blue & White coalition, according to the latest figures (with 90% of the votes counted), and his likely right-religious coalition is five to seven seats short of a 61-seat majority.

If those numbers hold true, the president will entrust the task of forming the next government to White & Blue leader Benny Gantz.

That is a prospect that Netanyahu will fight to smash, derail or disqualify over the coming weeks, while he is still prime minister and head of the entire state apparatus. The time available to him could last from a few weeks to about three months, judging by past precedent. But it could be a lot longer if he manages to call yet another election or deepen the political impasse in some other way.

As sitting prime minister, Netanyahu has significant power – not to alter the results of the election, but to create circumstances that could significantly influence the creation of a new government – and, no less important, that could impact the ongoing legal process against him.

He could, for instance, declare war or some other military emergency, something he was prevented from doing by the chief of staff and attorney general only last week, days before the election. Now, as a lame duck with limited political prospects, he may well decide to override his senior officials and launch military action on the basis of the support he possibly still commands in the Security Cabinet.

Who would he attack? Hamas in Gaza, probably, but Hezbollah in Lebanon and even Iran are also potential targets. Netanyahu has threatened all three in the recent past.

Israelis rally around the flag in time of war and the leadership is given considerable leeway by law, precedent and public opinion. By definition, war is an emergency, during which human and civil liberties may be superseded by military-political edicts. Israel has experienced martial law in the past – the entire Palestinian population of the country was under military rule between 1948 and 1966 – and it’s not a great leap to foresee it happening again.

I, for one, would not be at all surprised to hear air raid sirens and the other accoutrements of war within the next week or two, accompanied by emergency regulations freezing the coalition-building process.

Short of war, Netanyahu is likely to attempt to have the election invalidated due to ostensible voting irregularities. Warning of such irregularities was a key motif of his campaign, particularly in the final two weeks and with specific focus on the Palestinian community. In his oft-stated opinion, Palestinians who vote against him are “dangerous” – how much more so when they’ve cooked the ballots.

And he probably has other cards up his sleeve. Netanyahu’s chief bête noire, is Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, whose refusal to join Netanyahu’s coalition in April triggered yesterday’s rerun and who remains adamant that he will only support a wide, so-called National Unity government. Lieberman himself was acquitted on corruption charges in 2013 in a verdict that was widely criticized, not least because a number of witnesses for the state disappeared mysteriously before the trial.

Lieberman and Netanyahu were once close collaborators. It’s not at all beyond reason that evidence incriminating Lieberman exists in Netanyahu’s orbit or that it makes its way to the police and prosecution over the next few days. Netanyahu’s loathes Lieberman and is likely to go far in bringing him down. Lieberman’s party would collapse without him, potentially freeing up several right-wing legislators whose natural home is in the Netanyahu camp.

It’s a long shot and it will take time. But I have little doubt it will be in the back of Netanyahu’s mind.

A Likud campaign to delegitimize the election is virtually a given, once the final numbers have been released. Add in a military emergency and a possible crisis involving Lieberman, and Netanyahu could still be running the country for a long time to come.

The status of war leader could also protect Netanyahu from any internal threat in his Likud Party to remove him. The latest election has tarnished Netanyahu; robbed him of his all-powerful image. There are those in the party who have been waiting for well over a decade for their term at the helm – and their time may well have arrived.

Lieberman, currently the kingmaker, is demanding a wide government encompassing both Blue & White and the Likud, as well as his own party. But it’s difficult to see that happening if Netanyahu remains in charge; Gantz is on record as saying he won’t serve with Netanyahu. A Likud reshuffle, resulting in Netanyahu’s departure, is shaping up to be the sine qua non of the Likud’s participation in any new government.

It is difficult to imagine a man of Netanyahu’s pride, paranoia and appetite for power leaving the stage quietly – particularly with criminal indictments looming. Anybody betting on the composition of the next government, would be wise to take concerted trouble-making from Netanyahu into account.