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OP-EDS

To be, or not to Bibi – act four

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Taxi drivers in Israel are the best political barometer. A friend shared on Twitter a chat he had on a ride a week ago, when the driver preached to him during the drive, saying “Only Bibi can lead us in this coronavirus crisis!” “And how’s Bibi doing that?” my passenger friend asked. “Very bad. Very bad handling…” the taxi driver answered frankly.

Don’t be too overwhelmed with the vaccination operation in Israel. The situation in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic is pretty bad: three waves; a high death rate of 6 000 Israelis; endless lockdowns; no school; neurotic last-minute decision making; and a low-level of co-operation and compliance with regulations among specific leaders and sectors (mainly Haredim).

Our “start-up” nation might be good at improvising and invention, but not with long, disciplined processes. (South Africa should be commended for keeping the economy and schools more or less open most of the time, and for maintaining some trust with the citizens through limitations and public participation.)

Even though Israel is in a social, economic, and medical emergency, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still Israel’s apparently unbeatable leader.

Although some of the problems can be attributed to his political manoeuvring and survival tactics, Bibi is still considered on a par with David Ben Gurion and other Zionist forefathers. But in order to remain an icon, Netanyahu must somehow put a halt to his criminal procedures and any chance of going to jail.

Meanwhile, Israel moves forward to its fourth general election in two years, something clearly unprecedented in the country. And once again, it’s all around Netanyahu.

The crucial new potential gamechangers this time around are new political parties that emanated from Bibi’s own right wing, and which are clearly standing against him. The main new anti-Bibi power is Gideon Sa’ar and his “New Hope” party. These are pure Likud and right-wing candidates committed to moving Bibi aside. Then there is also Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party.

It doesn’t mean that these parties won’t eventually join Bibi in some coalition like Gantz and Blue & White did, but their general sentiment is critical towards the longest-ever-seated prime minister in Israel.

The only loyal partners left for Likud are the publicly unpopular Haredi parties and the extreme right party – backed by racist Meir Kahane’s Kach supporters.

Netanyahu, the marketing master, is once again framing his failure as a great success. In the Trump-era when no one was really interested in details and truth, Bibi could make Israelis buy the fact that they were the first to rid their country of this disease. However, they have done no such thing, and certainly won’t be the first to do so.

Even though people in Israel agree that the country is poorly managed, the prime minister’s effective propaganda machine insists he’s not responsible for the mess they are in and that he is the only one who can rescue Israel from the economic nightmare.

This strategy works for the taxi driver and for about 25% of Israelis who still support Bibi and his Likud party. They might even represent sufficient support to create a new government in the Israeli coalition-based system.

The prime minister might also get unprecedented low ratings and minimal support, but whatever happens, the public is sick and tired of so many elections.

It’s also apathetic about the fact that Netanyahu’s criminal corruption trial will start on evidence immediately after the elections, putting the prime minister on the bench three times a week.

Together with the deep disappointment over the political system during COVID-19 and the uncertainty about polling turnout under corona conditions, the status quo probably won’t dramatically change the political map or the outcome of the last three elections.

The current elections are all about small numbers. Four parties from the anti-Bibi block are in danger of not reaching the threshold.

Even the veteran Meretz left-wing party is in jeopardy, according to some polls. A few thousand ballots here or there, and the whole pro-Bibi block will be solid and secured.

Therefore, contrary to most of the surveys now, there’s still a real chance that Bibi will get through the elections with a majority of 61 Knesset-member supporters. It’s enough for a government and to legislate something to prevent the trial from going on – the so-called “French Law”.

It won’t be a landslide or a knockout but winning by points due to a lack of “killer instinct” and too much ego among his opponents, who didn’t co-operate enough.

The common scenario now of a majority against Bibi doesn’t mean an alternative government is going to be formed. With no clear rival and power as big as Likud, there’s no other option besides Bibi.

Nevertheless, this time, unlike in previous elections, “battle foxes” are playing poker with Bibi. Not lieutenant general and political novice Benny Ganz, who was easily manipulated by Netanyahu. This time, experienced politicians Avigdor Lieberman, Sa’ar, Lapid, and Bennett won’t let an option to remove Bibi from office sneak away.

If they have a block, they will find a formula, depending on the final results. Maybe some kind of a short-term deal. A coalition with rotation as prime ministers, or electing Netanyahu as the next president of Israel (who is protected from legal procedures).

Or maybe even a temporary emergency government led by the outgoing President Ruvi Rivlin. Everything is possible only to have Bibi out of Balfour Street for one hour, and make his house of cards collapse.

  • Zvika (Biko) Arran is an Israeli publicist, social entrepreneur, lawyer, advisor to philanthropists, and the host of a podcast. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife and four sons.

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