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NETANYAHU - ISRAEL'S WINSTON CHURCHILL OR RICHARD NIXON?

For two weeks Israel has been totally absorbed in a political frenzy focused on Prime minister Bibi Netanyahu and the question - is he an Israeli Winston Churchill or a Richard Nixon. The subject of no less than four full-blown investigations into corruption charges, Bibi was battling for his political life and possibly over serving jail time. He rose to the occasion - at his best, or worst, depending on whether you love or detest him. Contending that he was the victim of a witch-hunt, the PM portrayed himself as an Israel Winston C Churchill and only he can take on the threats to the Jewish state today, first and foremost Iran's vow to annihilate it (besides, Bibi also loves cigars). To the state-witnesses and mounting evidence that he was involved in a series of seedy dealings, Netanyahu pleaded innocent and declared loud and clear to the Israeli public: 'I am not a crook!'

When all was said and done, the opinion polls decided the issue, for the time being anyway. They showed that if an early election were held today Bibi's Likud, despite everything, would win hands down! Not only that, his Likud party would also bite into his Right-wing rivals as well as the ultra-orthodox party of Shas. The Center's Yair Lapid and Left-wing Labor would also be left out in the cold. Bibi proved to be a Machiavellian of the first order by threatening to call an early election before the police investigations were wrapped up and the Attorney General could decide whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute the PM. It was preemption at its peak.

Bibi called their bluff by simply saying: 'Okay, let's go to the people. I'll call an early election if you guys can't agree'.

Wow, Bibi has decided on an early election to preempt the police inquiries! The pollsters had a field day trying to determine the likely outcome. Lo and behold, Israeli voters would hand Bibi a mandate to form the next government! He was more popular than ever. His own coalition partners outside the Likud were shocked to the core, while Left-wing Labor was in shambles overtaken by Yair Lapid of the Center - but all were out in the cold except for, you guessed it, Bibi and his Right-wing Likud.

The post-mortem reveals that the Ultra-orthodox religious parties got too big for their britches by seeking to even stiffen the current law that allows religious young men and women to evade IDF military service. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon also got into the act by demanding that his revolutionary state budget be approved before the upcoming Passover holiday or else he would resign and topple Bibi's coalition government. Then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threw his considerable weight around by utterly rejecting the ultra-orthodox demands. Sensing Bibi's apparent weakness due to the investigations, the wolves were closing in. However, Bibi called their bluff by simply saying: 'Okay, let's go to the people. I'll call an early election if you guys can't agree'. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu

When the opinion polls showed that everyone, except Bibi and the Likud, would lose in an early election, all his coalition partners started backtracking while Bibi sat on the sidelines. Fearing for their political lives, his coalition colleagues sweated out a deal they could live with and would erase the specter of an early election. No one proved to be a match for Bibi's political cunning. That includes the main opposition parties of Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay's Labor who both failed to overtake Netanyahu. A general election is scheduled every four years if the government does not fall before then and the next ballot is due before November 2019 at the latest. 

'I see the color has come back to your cheeks, now that the government will not fall!'

In the closing Knesset session resolving the crisis, Bibi could not resist rubbing it in to his opposition critics in the House who had predicted the Israeli public was fed up with Bibi's 'corruption: 'I see the color has come back to your cheeks, now that the government will not fall!' 

Although he was met with an outburst of catcalls, Bibi was right. An early election would have also caught the opposition trailing far behind in the opinion polls. Yair Lapid's Centrist party has made gains but still trails Likud. Now that the polls show Labor is trailing abysmally, this could trigger a rebellion to depose party chief Avi Gabbay. Once considered to have the potential of taking on Bibi, Gabbay has conducted a lack-luster campaign that has taken Labor into a nose-dive. 

So after the political firestorm, the government is now firmly entrenched until the Attorney General's decision on whether to prosecute Bibi. But don't hold your breath - the process will take months and months - maybe even a year or so. 

There can be no overestimating how Israeli's feel about the need for American support...

And how did Bibi do it? Is he a political magician? There are a number of explanations. First of all, Netanyahu came home after a brilliant visit to Washington that enabled him to display his political skills unrivaled by any other Israeli politician at present. Bibi presented Israeli voters with an outstanding 'show' - he and President Donald Trump were buddies - not only had Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, he might even show up for its opening on Independence Day! There can be no overestimating how Israeli's feel about the need for American support, particularly after the testy days with Barack Obama, and particularly now that Russian President Vladimir Putin is peering at Israel from across the Syrian border. 

And let's face it - whether you love or hate Bibi, he is probably the most articulate, telegenic English-speaking leader on the world stage today. And English is not even his mother language. So Bibi came home, with even his harshest critics giving him credit. Buoyed by this feat, Netanyahu was ready to take on all comers. In the end, he had his coalition partners who tried to pressure him, and even the opposition, secretly pleading with him to stay on and not to call an early election! The truth of the matter is that other potential contenders for leadership are light weights, or at least have yet to show they have what it takes to lead the Jewish state at this time. 

...a majority of Israelis do not think that Israel has ever missed a chance to make peace with the Palestinians.

Moreover, although Bibi is considered to be hard-line and uncompromising on the Palestinian issue, the fact is that most Israelis do not believe there is a Palestinians majority for making peace. Even 'moderate' Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly declares he will never recognize the right of the Jews to their own state. So how does Israel negotiate with an entity that refuses to recognize its right to self- determination? Or putting it another way, a majority of Israelis do not think that Israel has ever missed a chance to make peace with the Palestinians. They have as examples Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert, all from Labor and the Centre who tried hard but were met with Palestinian rejection. 

Then there's Syria - Yitzhak Rabin was ready to negotiate the return of most of the Golan Heights to Syria, but even that deal fell through. So now just imagine, today if the Golan Heights were now in Syrian and Iranian hands. 

Six of the Premier's bodyguards were wounded and the convoy turned around and raced back to the West Bank.

So hard-line, uncompromising Likud has a mirror-image partner with the Palestinian leadership and most vociferous majority. Just look at what goes on inside the Palestinian camp. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sent his prime minister on a peacemaking mission with Hamas in Gaza. However driving inside Gaza, the PM's convoy was blown up by Palestinian terrorists. Who knows, Hamas, Islamic Jihadists, Salafists, and a long line of rejectionists? Six of the Premier's bodyguards were wounded and the convoy turned around and raced back to the West Bank. 

And a final comment of how Bibi has managed relations with US public opinion. A Gallop poll shows that 64% of Americans support Israel while only 19% back the Palestinians. In addition, 50% believe Washington should exert more pressure on the Palestinians while 25% feel Trump should lean more on Israel. As for Israeli supporters, 87% were Republicans whereas 49% were Democrat. 

PS: For the record, I am not a Likudnik and simply try to 'call them as I see them'. 

Political Analyst David Essing

 


David Essing

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