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Netanyahu—on Trial and Trying to Form a Government—Is Promoting His Own Big Lie

The Israeli election that was held on March 23rd, the fourth such contest in two years, may have seemed yet another referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership. But that is not quite right. This was a referendum, also, on Netanyahu’s Big Lie, which is not, like Donald Trump’s, about voter fraud, but about whether Israel’s judicial professionals—the police, the state prosecutor, and the Attorney General—contrived an élite-leftist putsch against him. In Netanyahu’s telling, they “stitched together cases,” abetted by media cheerleaders, which led to phony indictments for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, for which he is now on trial. Last week, Israel marked Memorial Day and the seventy-third anniversary of its founding. Hanging over the celebrations was the menace of the lie.

This time, Netanyahu’s Likud Party won thirty seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Together, his bloc, composed of hard-nationalist and theocratic parties, won fifty-two seats, a plurality that earned him, on April 6th, the first Presidential “mandate”—twenty-eight days in which to try to form a coalition government. (Sixty-one seats are needed for a majority.) To maximize his chances, Netanyahu needs a manifestly loyal Likud base to believe or, at least, to abide the lie, and needs to make potential coalition partners believe that the base at least abides it. Those partners are hardly guardians of democratic norms—Netanyahu’s bloc has six national orthodox seats, including an extremist faction inspired by the late Meir Kahane. So Netanyahu is counting on any new coalition to provide him some form of immunity from further prosecution. More important, this coalition would likely pass a law—which most rightists want, in any case—that would subordinate the Supreme Court’s right to review the constitutionality of laws to a simple majority vote in the Knesset. These actions would confirm Netanyahu’s turn to authoritarian rule. The state’s democratic institutions—which were arguably improvised too quickly in 1949—have never seemed more vulnerable.

As if to dramatize the point, Netanyahu’s trial resumed, in Jerusalem, on April 5th, the same day that President Reuven Rivlin called Party representatives to his residence to determine which leader would be awarded the mandate. The trial could hardly have gone worse for Netanyahu. The prosecution’s first witness, Ilan Yeshua, the former C.E.O. of the news site Walla!, a division of the telecommunications giant Bezeq, testified that his boss, Shaul Elovitch—then the head of Bezeq—had directly ordered him to “skew” coverage of Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in favorable ways. Elovitch’s reward, the prosecutors alleged (and Yeshua confirmed on subsequent days), was a regulatory decision from Netanyahu’s Communications Ministry allowing Bezeq to acquire another of Elovitch’s companies—a deal worth several hundred million dollars. By the afternoon, Netanyahu was on the attack. He called reporters to his residence and all but incited insurrection. The prosecutors, he charged, were engaged in a “witch-hunt.” “This is how they try to overthrow a powerful Prime Minister from the right—this is what an attempted coup looks like,” he said. “What is happening is an effort to trample democracy, over and over again. They are attempting to annul the will of the electorate.”

Netanyahu’s tone of desperation was understandable. Every week that passes without his forming a coalition emboldens his opponents and makes the lie seem more stale. And he’s not alone on the field. The anti-Netanyahu bloc, composed of an array of right, center, and left parties, has fifty-one seats—just one less than Netanyahu’s. This bloc is secular in outlook, ranging from bourgeois liberal to social democratic, and all the constituent parties, right and left, are led by people who abhor either Netanyahu’s politics or his character. But the real problem for Netanyahu is in the parties that have yet to commit. He needs nine more seats for a majority. The hard-right leader of the Yamina Party, Naftali Bennett, is refusing to pledge his seven seats to either bloc. The same is true of the leaders of the Arab-Israeli parties, who, between them, control ten seats. For very different reasons, Netanyahu needs both Bennett and one particular Arab faction—the rural-Islamist party, Ra’am—to think that he is as popular as ever in Likud precincts.

Bennett should be an easy get. He’s been an avid disciple of the Greater Israel gospel from the beginning of his political career. (“Israel is ours,” he said at an event in 2013. “For thirty-eight hundred years, it’s ours.”) And, as in the United States, the Big Lie is underpinned by a bigger, more dangerous prejudice, which Bennett shares. In the United States, the claim of voter fraud rather transparently traffics in resentment toward African-American voters. In Israel, the claim of phony indictments traffics in resentment toward cosmopolitans, who lead the judiciary, the universities, and other state institutions, but are allegedly too ambivalent, or too soft, to exert Jewish power without apology.

Indeed, standing with Netanyahu means standing for ideas that, until recently, were axiomatic only among settler-fanatics in the nineteen-seventies, which Bennett has nakedly advanced: that Zionism was a messianic “ingathering of the exiles”; that military power is a “return to history”; that the judiciary should gravitate to Jewish law; that the educational system should advance pietistic Jewish orthodoxy; that Middle Eastern enmity, like the rulings of international courts, are just different expressions of historic anti-Semitism. In this view, Israel’s boundaries were determined by the Torah, its capital is holy, and its democracy is the enforced “will” of a Jewish majority. Yet Bennett has been playing it coy with Netanyahu, in part because he’s tried, with mixed success, to reach beyond the Likud-led camp to secular hardliners in the center—but mainly because he longs to replace Netanyahu as leader of the orthodox and nationalist camp and sees the indictments as vaguely useful to him.

Which returns us to the Big Lie. To keep Bennett, especially, in tow, Netanyahu needs to prove that failing to stand with him would mean courting discredit with future supporters. Here, the comparison with Trump is inarguable. With the Knesset so evenly split, moreover, Netanyahu needs to deter new defections from among the leaders of his own party. The former Likud Education Minister, Gideon Saar, ran against Netanyahu, in March, and gained a disappointing six seats. Presumably, this is a caution to others, which the lie reinforces. (Netanyahu said that Saar would be taken back into the Likud; Saar responded that you open your arms “in order to strangle someone.”)

As after the last election, Netanyahu might well attract defectors from the opposition bloc, but only if he can foment an atmosphere in which an opportunist can assume the stature of a true patriot who is looking beyond the trial to urgent national business. (As Bennett put it, arguably preparing the ground for himself, the goal should be to address the challenges of “Iran and the Hague” and prevent “the disaster of a fifth round of elections.”) Netanyahu needs to push the anti-cosmopolitan-élite lie, finally, because he has been courting, oddly, Ra’am’s four seats, promising to shower the Party with funds and tolerate its self-imposed segregation, much the way he has treated the Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties. But would its leader, Mansour Abbas, make common cause with a Zionist strongman whose power is waning?

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been escalating half-covert attacks on liberal foils. This is what “a powerful Prime Minister” does when he is in political trouble. In the fall, Channel Thirteen, whose owners are famously cozy with Netanyahu, summarily cancelled Lior Schleien’s wildly popular satirical program, “Gav Ha’Uma” (“The Nation’s Back”), for routinely mocking the Netanyahus and the populist rhetoric they advanced. (Schleien, who, as it happens, is the longtime partner of Merav Michaeli, the Labor Party leader, calls his new standup act “Bibi Didn’t Want Me on Television.”)

More dangerously, Netanyahu is escalating half-covert attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities—his government implicitly took responsibility for an explosion at the Natanz facility, on April 11th—and retaliatory attacks on Iranian shipping in the Persian Gulf. Amos Yadlin, the chairman of the Institute for National Security Studies, and the former head of military intelligence, wrote that “even taking a cautious view, it is doubtful whether we are not witnessing a political timing that influences the initiation of a security crisis with the goal of making it easier for Netanyahu to form another government under his leadership.”

Again, Netanyahu’s next coalition is by no means guaranteed. On April 15th, the news site Ynet reported that ultra-Orthodox leaders fear that Netanyahu may fall short, and that they will be left out of government. The Kahanists say that they will not “sit” with Ra’am, and Ra’am says the same about the Kahanists. On Monday night, in what may be the most instructive omen, Ra’am joined with the anti-Netanyahu bloc to give it a majority on the powerful Knesset Arrangements Committee, which will establish committee assignments and agenda items until there is a new government. Bennett, who first backed Netanyahu’s play for the committee, finally abstained when he saw the majority would go against the Prime Minister. Bennett has vowed to support a stable “right-wing government,” but has said that it will require “creative ideas”; it’s clear that he is attributing a certain elasticity to “right-wing” in order to keep his options open.

Indeed, one possibility, which Bennett has discussed with opposition leaders, envisions his forming an alliance with members of the anti-Netanyahu bloc, such as the secular rightists Saar and Avigdor Lieberman, and Benny Gantz, the former Army chief of staff and head of the Blue and White Party. That bloc would then join the center-left parties in what Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, calls an “Israeli unity government.” Lapid has publicly offered Bennett a rotation agreement, in which Bennett would serve in the premiership first.

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