Op-Ed

Israelis go to the polls next week. Can Netanyahu hold on? | Opinion

If there was a need for more proof that elections have become candidate-centered rather than issues-centered, then the Israeli elections next Tuesday are a case in point.

Not unlike Trump’s America, Israel is split: Many here will go to the ballot box determined to put an end to what they perceive as the oligarchy of Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi), who has ruled Israel for too long, incited Israelis against each other and is facing grave charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The same number of people, on the other hand, will cast their votes for him, fiercely believing that he is a giant whom the hostile media and the privileged elites scheme to unjustly depose.

In this kind of political game, Netanyahu is unrivaled. Often called “the magician,” he knows better than anyone else how to win an election: He has the killer instinct, and like Richard Nixon, alias Tricky Dick, no shtick is too low for him.

On election day in 2015, for example, he appeared on television desperately urging his base to come out and vote, because “the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” He didn’t mind apologizing to the Israeli Arabs — one fifth of the Israeli citizens — but only after winning the elections.

No wonder, then, that everybody here expected Netanyahu to produce another game-changing trick just prior to the elections, and sure enough, he did. On Tuesday morning his office announced that by 5 p.m. he would deliver “a dramatic announcement.”

We all held our breath, until Netanyahu appeared in what looked like a press conference, but actually turned out to be a campaign event, augmented by the presence of all the Likkud ministers, who had no clue of what Netanyahu was about to say but who nevertheless acted like cheerleaders.

Then Netanyahu dropped the bombshell. If he is reelected, he promised emphatically, he will extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.

Most Americans don’t know much about the Jordan Valley, unless they watched the third season of “House of Cards,” where fictional U.S. President Frank Underwood tries in vain to convince Russian President Viktor Petrov to establish a joint peacekeeping force in the region.

In reality, however, unlike a fictional TV plot, the Jordan Valley has crucial strategic importance for Israel, and no wonder that all Israeli defense establishments recommend that in any peace scenario, Israel should still deploy its forces there, as a shield against threats from the east.

No Israeli government, however, moved to put the area under Israeli law — to annex it, in simple language — because it would have been the end of the two-state solution, to which even Netanyahu himself subscribed 10 years ago. And anyway, if annexing the Jordan Valley was so important, why didn’t Netanyahu do it during his long years as prime minister?

Probably sensing this weakness himself, Netanyahu explained the strange timing of his “dramatic” announcement by tying it to Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which, he said, would probably be announced following the elections in Israel.

He gave the feeling that his drastic move had been coordinated with Washington, but sources in the White House were quite lukewarm, saying on Tuesday that “There is no change in the United States policy at this time.” What this policy exactly is we don’t really know, except that one of its architects, Jason Greenblatt, announced his resignation recently. It is not unthinkable that Trump himself, the self-acclaimed ultimate deal-maker, will wash his hands from that deal as well, sensing it smells of losing.

If this wasn’t bad enough for Netanyahu, then came the sacking, or resignation, of National Security Adviser John Bolton, the hardliner who saw eye to eye with Netanyahu on Iran’s nuclear intentions.

Is Netanyahu going to lose not only his staunchest ally in the White House, but also the president himself? And if so, what other “dramatic” move might Netanyahu pull out of his sleeve before election day?

The only real dramatic happening on Tuesday didn’t happen during Netanyahu’s press conference, but later in the day, when the prime minister addressed a campaign rally in the southern city of Ashdod. A siren went off suddenly, signaling the launch of rockets from Gaza.

Contrary to Netanyahu’s plans, to master and frame the media agenda, the picture of the day was of him ushered hurriedly into a shelter.

Forget about the symbolism of seeing Netanyahu removed from the scene. What this picture reminded Israelis was that beyond Netanyahu the person, his qualities and faults, there are real issues waiting to be addressed. Hopefully, after the elections, a national unity government — with or without Netanyahu — will deal with them seriously, not in “dramatic” press conferences.

Uri Dromi was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments, 1992-1996.

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