Will it be ‘three strikes, you’re out’ for Netanyahu?

If the polls hold up, it is possible that Gantz could wind up as prime minister in a coalition government that would relegate Likud to a junior partner.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu checks the time during a meeting of the right-wing bloc at the Knesset in Jerusalem, last November .  (AFP)
The clock is ticking. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu checks the time during a meeting of the right-wing bloc at the Knesset in Jerusalem, last November . (AFP)

In American popular sports culture, when a batter in baseball gets three strikes at the plate, the umpire shouts: “You’re out!”

Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is getting one more chance at the plate but momentum is growing among the Israeli electorate for him to be thrown out.

Given that the latest two Israeli elections, within a few months, produced no governing coalition, new general elections are scheduled for March 2, 2020.

This means Israeli voters will go to the polls for the third time within the course of a year. Reports indicate they are exasperated by the governing class not being able to form a new government but Netanyahu may be taking more of the blame for the impasse than other politicians.

One Israeli poll suggests that Netanyahu’s Likud party has slipped 4 percentage points in recent weeks against its Blue and White alliance rival, headed by former military Chief-of-Staff Benny Gantz, and many Likudniks are not happy. One prominent Likud member of parliament, Gideon Saar, is challenging Netanyahu for leadership in a party primary December 26 and Saar has been picking up steam.

On December 15, Saar received the endorsement of Haim Katz, the head of the Likud Central Committee, as well as several current and former Knesset members of the party.

Netanyahu still has powerful support from the Likud rank and file, so he may be able to withstand the challenge from Saar. Nonetheless, the internal battle in Likud suggests that Netanyahu’s fortunes are slipping. Saar has made the point that, with Netanyahu indicted by the judiciary on corruption charges, he is jeopardising Likud’s chances in the March election.

Even if he should win the internal Likud contest, Netanyahu has no new ideas to present to the Israeli electorate except for the fact that he is touting his ability to possibly persuade US President Donald Trump to endorse Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank and perhaps negotiate a US-Israeli security treaty.

However, such a treaty is not a top issue for Israeli voters because Washington has demonstrated its security commitments to Israel and a treaty might tie Israel’s hands in some respects. Annexation of parts of the West Bank is seen by moderate and left-wing Israelis as unnecessarily provocative.

Trump has already done Netanyahu several favours — recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy to that city, recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and declaring explicitly that settlements in the West Bank are not illegal. There is not much more Trump can do.

Trump seems to be backing off from his friendship with Netanyahu, perhaps not wanting to hurt his chances with a future Israeli prime minister.

Many political observers, including a significant segment of Israeli voters, say Netanyahu’s chief goal is to stay in power for as long as possible so he can cut a deal for immunity from criminal charges. Former US peace process diplomat Aaron David Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written that Netanyahu staying on as prime minister “puts him in the best possible position to avoid a conviction and maybe cut a deal.”

This is one reason Gantz was reluctant to enter into a coalition government with Likud with Netanyahu at the helm. Gantz is signalling to Likud — and the Israeli electorate as a whole — that he is willing to play ball but not with Netanyahu in the game.

Netanyahu continues to rail against the media and the judiciary. Sounding much like Trump, Netanyahu is trying to portray his legal troubles as part of a left-wing conspiracy. However, for all of the rough and tumble of Israeli politics, there is respect among the electorate for the judiciary, so outside of his core supporters, Netanyahu may not get much traction by his rants.

If the polls hold up, it is possible that Gantz could wind up as prime minister in a coalition government that would relegate Likud to a junior partner, with or without Netanyahu. Such a government would not be a panacea for the Palestinians. Gantz supports some of the hard-line measures of Likud, such as Israel retaining the Jordan Valley, but he seems more sympathetic to the problems facing them and is on record stating: “We do not want to rule the Palestinians.”  This opens the possibility of a renewed peace process.

It is looking like Netanyahu is at the plate with two strikes — using the baseball metaphor once again — may be a swing, a miss and an out.

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