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From Yoni’s Desk: Is this Benjamin Netanyahu’s last stand?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Likud headquarters on elections night in Tel Aviv, on September 18, 2019. (Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu became the prime minister of Israel, exactly 10 years after leaving office. He succeeded despite his Likud party not winning the highest number of seats in the election – that distinction went to Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, who refused to sit in the Knesset with Bibi even though a unity government was popular among the electorate. Still, he managed to pull together a coalition of right-wing and religious parties, and convinced a skeptical Ehud Barak to bring the Labor party on board. The result was a 74-member bloc.

Ten years later, and after a year of election stasis, it seems increasingly unlikely that Netanyahu will be able to pull another rabbit out of his hat. It is possible, of course, but the pressures facing him continue to mount. With a third election on the way, they may be set to converge.

Prior to next year’s March 2 vote, though, Netanyahu will face a leadership challenge from Likud veteran Gideon Sa’ar, who made headlines over the weekend for saying “the two-state solution is not a solution. It is a two-state illusion.” Sa’ar has already received public support from several Likud MKs and Haim Katz, head of the party’s central committee. (It will also be interesting to see which Likud MKs opt to abstain from voting in the Dec. 26 primary.) Early polling suggests Likud might lose more seats without Netanyahu at the helm, but that the right-wing bloc could stand to gain overall with Sa’ar leading Likud.

However, that right-wing bloc that has been Netanyahu’s bedrock of governing support throughout his decade in power might be looking to shift heading into the ’20s. According to Israeli media, the coalition appears at least willing to consider a post-Netanyahu future, with an unnamed source high up in the faction telling Israel’s Channel 12 that “there will not be another blind following of Netanyahu” and “a fourth election is not an option.” Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, meanwhile, had no problem going on the record. “The story of the blocs is over,” he said.

More than likely, Netanyahu will defeat Sa’ar to remain atop Likud, but the party already looks to be falling behind its closest rival, the Blue and White party. Polls show Blue and White rising to as many as 37 seats, while Likud continues to hover around 32 to 33 seats. Blue and White is hoping last week’s announcement that it will nix a leadership rotation agreement between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid makes the party look like an even more stable alternative to Likud and Netanyahu.

READ: FROM YONI’S DESK: RECEIVING THE WARMTH OF SHABBAT

By many accounts, the two parties actually came quite close to brokering a power-sharing agreement last time around. Both parties share blame for not getting it done, but fairly or not, Israeli voters overwhelmingly blame Netanyahu for the past year of electoral deadlock, far more than they blame Gantz and/or Liberman.

Voters also continue to say that the corruption charges against Netanyahu don’t really affect their choice (and voter apathy is, understandably, high). Amid the political stalemate, MKs have been left to debate the specifics of how to deal with an immunity request from the prime minister, should he seek one. Unsurprisingly, the proceedings have been acrimonious, and without a new Knesset in place, the discussions are quite likely to go nowhere. But the indictments aren’t going away. One possible solution to the puzzle was apparently floated by Gantz last week, and approved by Liberman: Netanyahu gets a pardon in exchange for leaving politics. By the time Israelis go back to the polls, it might be the best deal left on the table.

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