Seduce, then outmanoeuvre: Netanyahu prepares to repeat his trick

Two years ago, Benny Gantz was a storied wartime general entering politics with pledges to rescue Israel from the decade-long reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For three gruelling back-to-back elections, Gantz fought Netanyahu, a master politician, to a draw. Finally, to spare an exhausted country a fourth election in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak, he joined Netanyahu’s government last year as defence minister, with the promise of him becoming prime minister in 18 months.

Despite the compromise, Israelis will go to the polls for a fourth election in two years on Tuesday after the pact between Gantz and Netanyahu rapidly unravelled after the prime minister refused to pass the budget, triggering the collapse of the coalition.

The schedule of the parliamentary elections has been largely determined by Netanyahu, with the vote taking place two weeks and two days after he reopened the country on the back of the world’s fastest coronavirus vaccination campaign.

Gantz, meanwhile, may not even make it into the Knesset. His Blue and White alliance crumbled days after he signed the coalition agreement with Netanyahu a year ago. His political raison d’être, a vow to remove the prime minister from office, was erased the moment Netanyahu returned to office.

As Gantz risks political oblivion, historians will note echoes of a strategy that Netanyahu has successfully deployed for much of his three decade parliamentary career: seduce and co-opt rivals, then outmanoeuvre and consign to the wilderness.

“It was like Netanyahu injected a cancer into our midst,” said a close adviser to Gantz, who has already prepared a letter of resignation to deliver to his boss on Wednesday morning. “The minute we signed the coalition agreement, we were dead.”

Netanyahu’s history-making run at the helm of Israeli politics has been characterised by variations of the same theme: worthy contenders are lured into alliances, then cast aside after public acrimony.

While Netanyahu and his Likud party have towered over Israel’s political landscape, the opposition has gone through tortured evolutions that ended in failure. Names such as Tzipi Livni, Moshe Kahlon, Benny Begin — each in turn whispered as successors, have been left in obscurity.

Even Ehud Barak, the Labour party leader who defeated Netanyahu at the 1999 polls, was not immune. He joined Netanyahu’s 2009 government as defence minister and his decision to keep his longtime rival’s coalition alive ended up splitting Labour.

“Ehud Barak had this chance at a potential rehabilitation, but he was never able to make it,” said Aviv Bushinsky, who served as Netanyahu’s media adviser in the 1990s, and as his chief of staff when he was the finance minister. “Where is Barak now? Netanyahu is still here.”

Netanyahu is expected to try the same tactic with Naftali Bennett, a longtime rightwing ally — former chief of staff, defence minister and one-time friend — who is forecast to emerge as a kingmaker after Tuesday’s vote.

As with the last three votes, this week’s election remains too close to call, with Likud and its allies forecast to win a similar amount of seats as the anti-Netanyahu camp in the 120-member Knesset, according to the latest polls.

If Bennett’s hard-right alliance, Yamina, secures enough votes to take Netanyahu over the 61-seat threshold needed to form a government, his advisers expect their party to be offered choice cabinet seats, such as defence and foreign affairs, to bring him into the fold.

“We are not naive,” said a person close to Bennett. “But if we are the key to a coalition, it’s not a key Netanyahu can throw away so easily.”

Analysts said Netanyahu’s tactics are necessary because Israel’s fractious political landscape has meant he has never won a single of his five prior premierships in a landslide, despite his popularity.

Instead, each of his victories have been cobbled together in tortured coalition negotiations that often take months.

That is when Netanyahu’s powers of seduction are at their strongest, said Anshel Pfeffer, author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, by offering rivals a chance at governing, rather than languishing in opposition.

“They’re vain and stupid,” Pfeffer said of the politicians who had fallen for this trick repeatedly. “There isn’t a feeling that there is a purpose to opposition, and instead they feel that by being in the government, they can achieve something.”

Gantz has been telling his dwindling followers since he went into government with Netanyahu that his presence has been a check on the prime minister’s attacks on the judiciary and that it helped prevent the destabilising annexation of vast swaths of the occupied West Bank.

But his task to woo voters is made harder this time because, unlike in the last three elections, where the opposition feasted on tales of Netanyahu’s alleged corruption, the prime minister’s trial on charges of fraud and accepting bribes has barely moved the needle on his popularity.

Instead, the election appears to hinge on a single achievement — the successful coronavirus vaccination programme and the full reopening of Israel’s economy.

It was a sign of Netanyahu’s chutzpah, said Bushinsky, using a Yiddish word beshert to describe the prime minister’s good luck ahead of the polls, after he gambled his future by committing to an election date before it was clear that the vaccination campaign would succeed.

He said it was a bet other politicians would have been too meek to make.

“It’s either God, or it’s luck, but it worked out for him,” said Bushinsky. “Two weeks here and there, and it could have been completely different.”

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