By Ramzy Baroud

Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, must be channelling the spirit of Houdini as he continues to plot his escape from one of the most convoluted political dilemmas in Israel’s history. It is no secret that Netanyahu’s political behaviour is almost entirely shaped by his desire to survive in office for as long as possible in order to avoid possible jail time.  But how long will the Israeli escape artist manage to survive, now that a date for his trial has been set?

After months of bargaining with the country’s political elite, on the one hand, and pleading to his own right-wing constituency on the other, Netanyahu has failed to create the necessary momentum that would render him immune from prosecution and secure his position at the helm of Israeli politics. 

Failing to form a government after the April 2019 elections, Netanyahu masterfully linked his fate as prime minister to all of Israel’s affairs, internal and external. Nevertheless, there is little evidence to suggest that Netanyahu’s diplomatic and financial conquests have yielded his hoped-for result of augmenting his support among ordinary Israelis, especially as Benny Gantz, who heads the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) party, has continued to venture further to the right, thus slowly undermining Netanyahu’s support in every facet of Israeli society. The September 209 election demonstrated Gantz’s ability to overcome the Likud leader’s various political advantages in the eyes of Israeli voters.

On 2 March, Israelis are scheduled to return to the polling booths to vote in their third general election in less than one year. In that short period of time, Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, managed to repeatedly alter his political positions to be even more right-wing than they had been, while still presenting himself as a centrist who is willing to engage with the ‘left’ in order to build a future government coalition.

Knowing that the noose has further tightened around his neck since the first elections in April 2019, Netanyahu resorted to Washington and US president Donald Trump, asking for the release of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’. Indeed, the ‘Middle East plan’ - as Trump calls it – was revealed ahead of schedule in order to provide the despairing Israeli leader a final lifeline that would help him win his multiple battles in a decisive blow. 

Alas, for Netanyahu, things did not work out as planned.

The Netanyahu strategy was meant to unfold in a manner that would increase his support among Israelis and help stave off prosecution. Trump’s administration was to reveal the ‘plan’ that would give Israel everything Palestinian and give Palestinians nothing. Netanyahu would, of course, take full credit for this, his greatest achievement in office, and he would follow that by annexing all illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as the entire Jordan Valley.

This, however, play out as he and his American benefactor had hoped, resulting in Netanyahu, on 4 February, reversinghis earlier decision to annex much of the West Bank before the scheduled elections. Instead, he told a campaign rally that such annexation was conditioned to his victory in the March elections. While many in the media parroted, without evidence, that the postponement of the annexation was a direct result of a request from Washington, the real reason was likely related to Netanyahu’s domestic political woes.

The Israeli prime minister must have been aware that Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ and the annexation of the West Bank cards were his last hope to secure a comfortable election victory, to be granted immunity, and to avoid serving jail time for corruption. But if he annexed parts of the West Bank and then failed to win the elections, the embattled Israeli leader would have no more wiggle room and zero political advantage for a future plea bargain. This explains the sudden halt in Netanyahu’s annexation plan, especially as the he had, at a recent campaign rally, presented annexation in the form of a political barter.

‘When we win,’ he said, ‘we will extend sovereignty over all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,’ referring to the annexation of the occupied Palestinian West Bank.  As a consolation prize and to avoid angry reactions by the country’s far right constituency, especially the politically well-organised Jewish settlers, Netanyahu announced on 20 February that he would revive a long-dormant plan to construct 3 000 new homes for illegal Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.

‘Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos of 3 000 homes for Jews,’ Reuters reported, with 2 000 more homes expected to be built in the Har Homa illegal settlement as well.

These moves are particularly significant, for such construction will completely isolate the Palestinian city of Bethlehem from occupied East Jerusalem, thus killing any hope for Palestinian territorial contiguity in any future state. Netanyahu’s adversaries in the opposition, in the government, and in the Supreme Court are, of course, aware and wary of Netanyahu’s shenanigans. While Gantz often responds to Netanyahu’s opportunistic moves largely by altering his own political position to match or even surpass his opponent’s position, the prime minister’s support in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is lukewarm at best. In fact, on 28 January, Netanyahu was forced to withdraw his request for immunity, knowing that the request would not receive the required support. 

Meanwhile, the legal proceedings regarding Netanyahu’s corruption cases continue unabated. According to the Israeli Justice Ministry, Netanyahu will be obligated to attend his trial in the Jerusalem District Court, even as prime minister, and regardless of what transpires in the 2 March elections. A three-judge panel will hear the case, forcing Netanyahu to divide his time between running Israeli affairs and fending off accusations of his  corruption.

This is an uncharted territory for Israel. Never before in Israel’s history has the ruling elite been faced with such legal and political dilemmas. Since Israel continues to operate without a constitution, and because this is the first time that a sitting prime minister will face a trial, the Supreme Court is the only authority that is able to interpret the country’s laws in order to advance the legal proceedings. But even that is problematic.

Ayelet Shaked, the controversial and often vulgar former justice minister, is already attempting to derail that possibility, openly warning the Supreme Court judges that any involvement in the political process would be ‘tantamount to a coup’. Israelis now find themselves at the cusp of a new era, one that is defined by the breakdown of the country’s legal system, prolonged political crisis and never-ending social instability. 

– Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books, his latest being These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons.

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