Benjamin Netanyahu’s face at the online campaign event his Likud party hosted on Wednesday afternoon was pale and drawn. A new series of allegations was coming out from the legal authorities, pounced upon by an eager press, and it was at the worst possible timing.
Less than three weeks before the election on April 9, the mysterious sale of shares in his American cousin’s company that had netted him nearly $4 million in 2010, was coming to light. When had he bought the shares? With whose money? Why hadn’t reported his holdings in a conflict of interest memo? And was the fact that the company had been bought by a major supplier of a German shipyard which builds submarines for the Israeli Navy, connected to Netanyahu’s controversial decision to expand the underwater forces?
In an attempt to wrest the news-agenda away from his financial dealings, the prime minister launched in to a tirade against his main challenger Benny Gantz. He accused the former commander of the Israeli army of having been careless, in allowing Iranian hackers to access his smartphone and obtain ‘embarrassing materials.’ He didn’t present any evidence to back up his claim that the Iranians are holding something over Gantz’s head, but as prime minister, and defense minister, Mr Netanyahu is directly in charge of all intelligence services, including a new cybersecurity directorate, which he insisted on keeping under his control.
The attempt to eke out the phone-hacking scandal for a sixth day, (it had been mysteriously leaked to the media the previous Thursday), failed to generate much headlines. That evening’s news programs and the newspapers of the next day preferred to focus on the news that the state attorney’s office was looking in to the new corruption case against Netanyahu. They also carried the results of new polls, which indicate that Gantz is running neck-and-neck with Netanyahu.
But even as events at home are slipping beyond his grasp, help was on its way from overseas. At noon in Washington, just in time for evening primetime on Israeli television, an old friend of Netanyahu’s, who just happens to have 59 million followers on Twitter, entered the fray.
‘After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights,’ tweeted Donald Trump, referring to the strategic mountains, on Israel’s northern border, which it captured from Syria in the Six-Day War in 1967. Holding on to the Golan is an Israeli consensus Netanyahu couldn’t have asked for better timing for the presidential announcement. And knowing the closeness between him and the Trump team, it wouldn’t be remiss to speculate that he had asked for that timing.
After 10 consecutive years in office, and 13 in total as prime minister, it’s beginning to look as if his time may be up. In Gantz, the opposition finally has a serious-looking general who can claim the mantle of Israel’s responsible grown-up from Netanyahu. Last month the attorney-general announced preliminary indictments against him for bribery and fraud. Even if he can scrape together a fifth election victory, he is likely to be formally charged within months. But he is far from finished. After all, no other embattled prime minister can rely on the most powerful man on earth to come to his aid.
Next week Netanyahu will be in Washington, where he will have two meetings with the president in the White House. Trump doesn’t see any incongruity in hosting him less than two weeks before the election. Israel is one of the few countries where Trump is popular. He has already broken with diplomatic orthodoxy to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and withdraw the US from the nuclear agreement with Iran, against which Netanyahu fought tooth and nail. Next week’s joint appearance at the White House will be an endorsement in all but name. It may be enough to keep Netanyahu’s coalition above water in the polls. And once he is reelected, he believes he can pass legislation which will grant a serving prime minister immunity from prosecution.
This election is not about policies or ideology. Just a referendum on Netanyahu’s remaining in power. And the Israeli public is split down the middle. Netanyahu’s Likud and its satellite parties still have a slender majority in most polls but it all it would take is for a small number of soft-right voters, to decide that Netanyahu has had his day and Gantz, despite his intentionally vague positions on most key issues, can do a better job of ensuring the nation’s security. Gantz has no political experience and the opposition is still badly divided. But he is untainted by corruption and can serve as a blank canvas for the aspirations of many Israelis who want to see the back of the prime minister. But Netanyahu will stop at nothing to try and stick a scandal to Gantz. And he has Trump.