Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting,...

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, in Jerusalem on Feb. 16, 2020. Credit: AP/Gali Tibbon

When news arrived of the death of former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, the Israeli prime minister's response took many by surprise. "He was my personal friend," Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Indeed, it very likely would have come as a surprise to Mubarak himself. I can recall a time when they were enemies, though they eventually learned to work together for mutual benefit. Something similar may need to happen after next week's Israeli election - only this time with Netanyahu's domestic rival.

In the last week of the election campaign, Netanyahu has been a dervish of activity. At 70, the normally aloof prime minister has taken to barnstorming the country, electrifying followers of his Likud party in political clubhouses he hasn't visited since his first run, back in 1996.

His message is simple: There are only two choices—"Bibi or Tibi." Ahmed Tibi is a leader of the anti-Zionist Arab Joint List. Netanyahu insists that Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, his main opponent, is intent on forming a government coalition that rests on Tibi. This is nonsense but "Bibi or Tibi" is catchy, and it resonates with Likudniks.

When Netanyahu isn't on the campaign trail, he is busy flogging his leadership credentials. Just this week, he commanded a two-day kabuki war against Islamic Jihad in Gaza, calmed coronavirus hysteria by ordering draconian border closings and mandatory quarantines and traveled to the West Bank with the U.S. team now mapping the areas Israel will annex as part of the (Bibi inspired) Trump Plan. In his spare time, he confers with the legal team that will defend him in a criminal trial that begins on March 17. Netanyahu fully expects to be prime minister on that day and after.

The activity may be paying off. This week, Israel's three main independent polls show the Likud opening a small but significant lead over Blue and White, which had been ahead for months. Gantz has no one to blame but himself. He has run an inert campaign, based almost completely on the mantra that Netanyahu is morally unfit to remain in office. Trial or no trial, a wide margin of the public seems to have concluded that Netanyahu is better suited than Gantz to be prime minister.

This may be influenced by the news that a now defunct hi-tech firm Gantz once headed is being investigated for criminal behavior. There are no charges against Gantz himself so far. He has dismissed the allegations as purely political. Even so, it is never good when a candidate of virtue is reduced to defending himself from such accusations just before a vote.

The law says that Netanyahu can remain in office until a new prime minister has enough support to form a government. The polls show that neither Likud nor Blue and White have sufficient support. Barring a miracle, this election will end, as the two previous ones have ended, in a tie - which, in Israel, means the incumbent gets to stay.

During the long months of coalition haggling that will follow Monday's election, Netanyahu would then remain prime minister. If the haggling leads to stalemate and fourth election, he can stay on for that, too, and so on until the two parties form a coalition.

Gantz has pledged that this will not happen on his watch. He invites the Likud Party to drop its long-time leader and choose someone who meets Gantz's standards. There is purity in this position, but it is a political death wish. Netanyahu's party won't dump him. That was supposed to be Gantz's job; he has swung twice and missed.

Assuming that Gantz wants to stay in the game and not return to the private sector, he will have to start acting like a player. If the polls are right (and even if they are way off) his only move will be to team up with his rival. There is a strong possibility that Netanyahu will even agree to a prime ministerial rotation, as he did last time.

As the election draws closer, the two sides have gotten more personal - with Netanyahu accusing Gantz and his allies of corruption and Blue and White likening Netanyahu to Turkey's ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And yet, Gantz and Netanyahu have worked together harmoniously in the past. It is not impossible that they could wind up doing it again. Like Netanyahu and Mubarak, the two may have to develop a "personal friendship" even if they can't stand each other.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine. This piece was written for Bloomberg.


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