Israeli Lion in Winter’s Last Roar?

Many voters believe that unless Benjamin Netanyahu secures a clear-cut victory in Tuesday’s election, the former prime minister’s political career will be over.

AP/Ariel Schalit, file
A former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks at the Knesset June 30, 2022. AP/Ariel Schalit, file

One question — to Bibi or not to Bibi — has topped the agenda in an unprecedented five rounds of Israeli elections. Now, many voters believe that unless the former prime minister who is known by that nickname, Benjamin Netanyahu, secures a clear-cut victory in Tuesday’s round, his political career will be over.

Thus this one could be the Israeli Lion in Winter’s last roar. 

Mr. Netanyahu’s main opponent, Prime Minister Lapid, and another claimant to the throne, Benny Gantz, the defense minister, are brandishing their security and foreign policy credentials, which Mr. Netanyahu has long boasted as top leadership assets. 

In a biography that Mr. Netanyahu has written in English and published with a Hebrew translation on the eve of the election, “Bibi, My Story,” the former premier details his long devotion to Israel’s free economy, the country’s security, and — most recently — his success in signing the unprecedented Abraham Accords with four Arab countries. 

Not to be left behind, Mr. Lapid yesterday boasted of an American-brokered agreement on the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon. While the pact was far from a breakthrough toward peace with an enemy country dominated by Hezbollah, it too was unprecedented — and at least promised a temporary respite from the Iranian-backed terrorist group’s constant threats of war. 

Mr. Gantz didn’t want to be left behind either: He visited Turkey yesterday, meeting with President Erdogan and signing an agreement to renew long-frayed military ties between the countries. 

More so than in other democracies, Israelis focus on security and their place in the region and the world. Polls show, however, that the top issue this time around, one scantily addressed by the politicians, is the high cost of living, especially rising prices at the supermarket. Another round of elections? Israelis are far from excited, yet here they are.

Attempting to round up the support of 61 Knesset members out of the multitude of parties that vie for the legislature’s 120 seats is like herding cats. In the race to a majority, alliances shift, ideologies merge, and unpredictable politicians stab each other in the back. 

Supporters of Mr. Lapid’s ruling government include an Arab member of an Islamist party, right wingers formerly loyal to Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, left wingers of the Meretz and Labor parties, and Mr. Lapid’s own centrists. What unites them is a desire to rid the country of Mr. Netanyahu, who is fighting several court cases alleging corruption and breach of trust. Will this be his last hurrah? 

By law, the final political polls before Tuesday’s election may be issued no later than tonight. In the latest polls, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud is predicted to capture 31 Knesset seats. Along with religious and right wing parties that had pledged to support his premiership, Mr. Netanyhu may be in line to get a bloc of 6o or 61 Knesset supporters. 

That seemingly small difference could prove crucial: If Mr. Netanyahu fails to get to 61 this time, he should step aside, according to a majority of Israelis. Fifty-one percent of voters believe that unless he makes it, Mr. Netanyahu must resign from the Likud leadership, according to a pollster, Avi Dgani. Only 34 percent in that poll said he should even stay on in his current role as head of the opposition. 

On the other hand, “Lapid has no path at all to 61,” a top Likud stalwart, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, told the Sun.

Mr. Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the second-largest party behind Likud, is projected to capture some 25 Knesset seats on Tuesday. Along with smaller parties likely to support him, polls show Mr. Lapid’s bloc can, at most, get to 59, which would fall short of a win.

These numbers look even worse for Mr. Lapid if small parties are disqualified for failing to reach the mandatory four-seat threshold. Arab factions that, unlike in past election rounds, failed to unite this time around are teetering on extinction. So are at least two leftist parties, Meretz and Labor, as well as one party on the right. 

Then again, things can shift quickly. An avowed secularist, Mr. Lapid is widely despised by the religious-oriented parties. Yet his likely partner, Mr. Gantz, who heads the National Unity party, comes from an orthodox background. He claims that under his leadership, these parties can be lured to the anti-Bibi camp.  

Such defections can only happen if those parties are convinced that Mr. Netanyahu will fail to secure a ruling coalition. Worse for Bibi, Mr. Lapid’s supporters are convinced that even ambitious Likud members will desert Mr. Netanyahu if they, too, assume that for the second election in a row Bibi had failed to get to 61. 

Mr. Netanyahu is beloved by roughly half of all Israelis and deeply despised by the other half. His election ads urge Likudniks and right wingers to “wake up” and run to vote on Tuesday. If they fail him, the most well-known Israeli politician and statesman of the modern era could this time be gone for good — and even perhaps land in prison. 

The New York Sun

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