Two Weeks Before The Elections, Netanyahu Has No Clear Path to Victory | Opinion

On Monday night, the Israeli public had a chance to hear recordings of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu screaming at his Communications Minister and violating the instructions of the Attorney General. The tapes are alleged to have provided indirect confirmation of Netanyahu's guilt in in which the Attorney General already announced his plans to indict the Prime Minister, pending a hearing. In the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics, the Likud, Netanyahu's party, promptly used these potentially incriminating recordings to craft created an election ad that used the recordings to show that argued what a strong leader Netanyahu is, as evidenced by his shrill criticism of the cabinet minister and his insistence that right-wing media have a voice.

The irony of the revelation of the tape broadcast on Israel Channel 13 is that over the weekend, the Prime Minister called for a boycott of the other major commercial channel — Channel 12 — both for producing the show "Our Boys" for HBO (a production which Netanyahu deemed anti-Israeli) and because a Channel 12 correspondent had the temerity to report on a leaked testimony, in which the Director-General of the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu provides evidence against the Prime Minister in one of his pending cases. Because of the personal nature of Netanyahu's attacks, the reporter has been assigned bodyguards.

Netanyahu seems to be working from a playbook nearly identical to that of President Donald J. Trump. He has been calling the mainstream media "fake news" and implying they are the enemy. The Likud put out a campaign ad depicting two sets of pictures—one set with the leader of Iran and the leader of Hezbollah together, and the second set with two Israeli reporters. Under both sets of pictures it says: "They don't want you to vote for the Likud—We will see you at the polling places." The Likud is now equating journalists who report negative items about Netanyahu to Israel's greatest enemies, much like Trump has taken to calling the media "the Enemy of the People".

The Israeli election is two weeks away. This election campaign is taking place almost entirely online, as none of the parties have any ground game to speak of. Despite that fact, this is the first election in many years in which Netanyahu's path to victory is not clear.

The last election ended in what was effectively a defeat for Netanyahu, as he was unable to form a coalition. Under the standard customs and laws, he should have returned his mandate to form a government back to the President, who would have granted that mantle to someone else. But Netanyahu could not accept defeat, as one mean not just ending his term as Prime Minister, but quite possibly, going to jail. So he employed a parliamentary maneuver that has never been used. He dissolved the Knesset, thereby forcing a rerun of the April election.

The person responsible for Netanyahu's failure to form a government is Avigdor Lieberman, former Defense Minister, and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Lieberman's campaign has been based on his call for a center-right unity government, without any of the religious parties, something that 68 percent of the Israeli public claim to want. However, Lieberman knows the only way a unity government can be forged is if Netanyahu is forced out as head of the Likud.

All members of the Likud in the Knesset have publicly pledged their support to Netanyahu, come what may. Nevertheless, Netanyahu who has been dubbed "King Bibi," knows that the king has support, until the moment he has none. Thus, he has been campaigning desperately to win a victory without the aid of Lieberman, something all current polls indicate is very unlikely.

Still, Netanyahu continues to pull out all the stops. On Tuesday, he released a recording of Donald Trump from 2013, praising the Prime Minister and calling on Israelis to vote for Netanyahu. Few will pay attention to the characters that display 2013, and instead will think Trump endorsed Netanyahu in this election. Many still expect a grand gesture to be made by Trump in advance of the vote, as an attempt to help Netanyahu.

There is one other element to this election campaign; one which until now, has always been the most consequential in any Israeli campaign — and that is the security situation. During the past few weeks, Israel has been involved in a public confrontation with both Iran and Hezbollah, in Syria and Lebanon. There is wall-to-wall political support for Israel's military actions to thwart any Iranian effort to set up bases in Syria, and to circumvent Hezbollah's attempts to build an arsenal of accurate missiles. However, the same cannot be said for the public announcements of these efforts by Netanyahu and his government.

Netanyahu's most vigorous opponents are former IDF Chiefs of Staff, two of whom also served as Defense Ministers, and all of whom have been vocal in their vehement criticism of Netanyahu's public disclosure of Israel actions in Syria and other places. These recent statements all stand in stark contrast to Israel's decades of silence regarding its actions beyond its own borders, (with the exception of Gaza and the West Bank.) Releasing of the names of the major players in the Hezbollah missile production network has been explained by Likud supporters as "part of a psychological war against Hezbollah". Others, including Israeli intelligence services veterans say these revelations burn invaluable intelligence resources, in the pursuit of political goals.

This phenomenon is even more true in the case of events earlier this week, where Israel carried out an elaborate deception on Hezbollah, to make them believe (erroneously) that their attack had been successful and caused casualties. However, the decision was made not only to announce we suffered no injuries, but to lay out how Israeli fooled Hezbollah. Again, the Likud claimed exposing the ruse was merely part of psychological warfare.

Yet, most independent observers believe that outcome served only one purpose — and that is political. When asked in a recent poll, 68% of the Israeli public believed politics are influencing security decisions — a problematic statistic, if Israelis are forced into a real war.

Netanyahu will fight hard until the moment the polls close. He is flying to London on Thursday to meet Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Next week he is expected to meet Vladamir Putin is Sochi. Anyone who counts Netanyahu out grievously underestimates him. At the same time, anyone who is certain that The Magician, as he was once known, will pull another rabbit out of his hat at the last moment, needs to look back no further than the previous election a mere six months ago. The stage was set, but the rabbit never really appeared.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​