A murder in Tehran may signal elections in Jerusalem

A helicopter trip by the lame-duck US secretary of state to a Jewish winery built on occupied Palestinian land. A not-so-secret flight from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia, days before the murder of a nuclear scientist on a deserted highway near Tehran. For many observers of Israel’s political life, the last two weeks seem to have kickstarted Benjamin Netanyahu’s unofficial election campaign.

With the election of Joe Biden as US president raising questions over Israel’s place as the White House’s favourite foreign power — and heralding a possible revival of talks with Iran on its nuclear programme — the Israeli prime minister hosted Mike Pompeo. The outgoing US secretary of state came bearing electoral gifts: the branding of boycott movements as anti-Semitic and the labelling of products from settlements as Israeli.

Then Mr Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia, the first confirmed such trip by an Israeli politician. And over the weekend, gunmen in Iran killed a scientist the Israeli premier had identified as the mastermind of Iran’s alleged military nuclear programme. Tehran has accused Israel of being the perpetrator.

Israel has not commented but the country’s analysts have nevertheless jumped to the same conclusion.

“This was a message killing, and there’s only two intended audiences for the message,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster who has worked on eight Israeli election campaigns. “One is Joe Biden, and the other one is the Israeli public, and this is a reminder to them that: ‘I am the only one who can keep you safe, I am the only one with the nerve to do what it takes.’”

Indeed Israel’s unity government — formed by President Reuven Rivlin after three elections threw up a stalemate — is on the verge of collapse. “It’s not Likud’s choice, but to save the country from dysfunction, maybe elections are what is needed,” said one ally of Mr Netanyahu on the party’s central committee.

On Wednesday, Israeli politicians will vote on an opposition-sponsored motion to dissolve the gridlocked Knesset. It is unlikely to pass. But while Mr Netanyahu protests that he prefers unity, his actions show just the opposite.

First he has refused to pass a budget even as the economy has been ravaged by the coronavirus. If he refuses to pass a budget before Christmas, elections will automatically be triggered.

Second, he has kept his allies in the coalition — including defence minister and alternate PM Benny Gantz — in the dark, most recently when he flew to Saudi Arabia.

And finally, as the date looms for the meatier portions of his trial on corruption charges — when the prime minister will himself be required to show up regularly to a Jerusalem courtroom from February — he has intensified his assault on the judiciary and the state’s attorneys.

“It’s time to stop being Netanyahu’s accomplices,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said on Monday, appealing to Mr Gantz to finally break from Mr Netanyahu’s fold and vote for new elections. “You had good intentions, it didn’t work. Now it’s time to make amends.”

With the fate of the economy in the hands of vaccine manufacturers and the future of his trial in the hands of independent prosecutors and, so far, unsympathetic judges, Mr Netanyahu has dialled up the volume on the one arena in which he has unquestioned sway — foreign policy.

Already, the polls are leaning in the premier’s favour — Mr Gantz is a spent force and erstwhile Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett is enjoying a brief, if uncertain boost as rightwingers chafe under the dysfunction of coronavirus, said Ms Scheindlin.

That leaves Mr Netanyahu at the head of both the centre-right and hard-right blocs that are most likely to form a new government. And Mr Netanyahu, she said, thrives in chaos and dysfunction.

“[That’s] his promise to the voters — I am the only one who can get you through this,” Ms Scheindlin said. “Especially when it comes to foreign policy. It’s not that they think: ‘Gee, what a coherent foreign policy.’ It’s that they think: ‘Gee, he’s such a statesman. He knows how to manage Israel’s global relationships best.’”

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