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The wildcards that could swing the election

Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle

Israeli elections are long, exhausting, and often influenced by what former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan reportedly most feared, events.

During the previous two election cycles in 2013 and 2015, Israelis experienced several such events that may sound familiar even to those with little memory: a well-known Israeli establishing a new party, mergers between several existing parties, the indictment of a senior Israeli politician for fraud, and a major flare up in the Palestinian arena.

With 45 days left to go till the 2019 elections, there will undoubtedly be many more twists and turns. Boring it won’t be.

Back in December, BICOM’s 2019 Annual Forecast identified four potential wildcards that could significantly alter the direction of the election and consistent projections predicting Netanyahu and his Likud party would win handily. One of these – the entry into the race of popular former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz – has already come to pass, and his merger with Yair Lapid, Moshe Yaalon and Gaby Ashkenazi constitutes a significant challenge to Netanyahu.

But with party lists now finalised, we are entering a new phase in the election cycle, in which a second and potentially third wildcard will play a roll. The fourth meanwhile, which is currently being cooked up in Washington, awaits Netanyahu – assuming he wins – in the post-election trading pit of coalition building.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement to indict the PM – pending a hearing – on a series of corruption charges in three separate cases is legally meaningless. Netanyahu can continue serving as PM. And while politically it will cause a stir, the bigger challenges for Netanyahu will come further down the road, when Mandelblit makes a final decision to indict (any time between July 2019 – April 2020) and when the Jerusalem District Court rules on the case (between January 2020 – November 2021). Political machinations which have favoured Netanyahu for so long may be about to turn. And while Netanyahu is safe for now, the AG’s announcement is the equivalent of a pistol hung on the wall in an early act of a Chekov play. It will be going off in a later act. And it may well be deadly.

Another potential wildcard is the far less metaphorical explosion in the Palestinian arena. The Israeli public considers the security situation to be stable. And for a population who generally vote on national security issues, this arena has been relatively peripheral in election discussions.  Yet Gaza and its crumbling infrastructure continues to pose short and long term dangers; tension over the Temple Mount and its ever-amorphous but volatile status quo has increased; and the cabinet decision to freeze the transfer of some tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in lieu of their financial aid to terrorists threatens the PA’s control on the ground. Netanyahu’s carefully crafted Mr Security credentials could be undermined if any of these issues spiral out of control.

That leaves the fourth wildcard, the much-hyped Trump Administration ‘Deal of the Century’, that is due to be rolled out after the elections.

Much ink has been spilled on a plan most know little about. Yet while there are some things we can assume about the plan (it’s unlikely to actually be the Deal of the Century) and other things we are still in the dark over (its position on core issues of the conflict), one thing is clear: its details will be completely unacceptable to the vast majority of the Likud party and most of its potential coalition partners. And that will pose a significant challenge to Netanyahu.

During his long and turbulent political career, Netanyahu has become an expert at extricating himself from tight spots.  Yet squaring the circle between disappointing Trump and losing his right-wing base – at exactly the moment he needs them most – will be a gargantuan challenge. Ironically, Netanyahu’s likely saviour in the Houdini like escape act will be PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who will reject the plan before Netanyahu has to.

Even so, Netanyahu’s ability to keep the security situation stable and beat Lapid and three former Chiefs of Staff, coupled with dancing between the raindrops of his right-wing partners and Trump, only to then have to outwit the Attorney General and his accusations may ultimately prove too much even for him. Netanyahu may win the 2019 elections. But that’s where his big challenges will begin.

A shortened version of this piece was published in the Jewish Chronicle on 1st March