The Left has been trying to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu for years, unsuccessfully. However, the prime minister now faces a big threat from the Right. With a month to go, Netanyahu must come up with solutions for three problems, or risk losing significant right-wing support.
The Annexation Problem
Netanyahu’s failure to immediately annex most of the West Bank is hurting him. The PM built up huge expectations after President Trump unveiled his peace plan last week. Many rightists were ecstatic after hearing that the government will be voting Sunday on full annexation.
But then, Netanyahu backtracked. US officials made clear that annexation should wait, and the vote was postponed indefinitely. The pro-settler camp suffered a huge letdown and now feels cheated.
This is not the first time that Netanyahu fails to follow through on key pledges. But the latest reversal is unusual given the enormous gap between the promises and reality. Moreover, the debacle is particularly upsetting for some of the PM’s core supporters.
Netanyahu has always faced a credibility problem, which has now been magnified at the worst possible timing for him. Social media conversations are resentful and bitter, with rightists pointing to the PM’s long track record of broken promises.
Netanyahu now faces an excruciating dilemma. If he waits with annexation he will alienate the ideological Right. But pressing ahead with it could anger the US, upset the Arab world, and spark wide-scale Palestinian violence. This is hardly a recipe for winning the election.
The PM could try to shrewdly maneuver between these two poles. For example, by only extending Israeli rule to a small area of the West Bank. Some reports suggest that he may start with one settlement instead of wholesale annexation.
In the best case scenario, limited annexation will pacify the Right without provoking US or Arab fury. At worst, it would leave everyone unhappy and angry. One way or another, this would be a risky move, and Netanyahu may seek a different solution. But time is running out.
The Gaza Problem
The past week saw an uptick in terror balloon and rocket attacks on southern Israel. This further highlights Netanyahu’s soft approach on Gaza terror as part of his effort to secure a lengthy truce with Hamas.
On this front, too, Netanyahu is taking much heat from the Right. Critics are describing his policies as defeatist and leftist. On social media, Israelis of all stripes regularly mock the meek military responses to ongoing rocket attacks.
Netanyahu faced this issue in the previous elections as well, and did not seem to lose points. However, the timing is more problematic now, as the Gaza escalation coincides with the annexation fiasco. The cumulative effect is painting the PM as weak and hesitant.
As rockets continue to explode, Netanyahu faces yet another dilemma. Sticking to his restrained policy will increase rightist anger and frustration at a sensitive time. But a forceful response against Hamas could derail truce efforts and lead to an all-out fight. A Gaza war that goes badly would devastate the PM’s campaign.
Netanyahu may seek a middle ground by ordering a gradual escalation of IDF punitive strikes. Ideally for him, this would reassure rightist voters and restrain Hamas without extended fighting. However, none of this is certain, and a limited clash could quickly turn into a major battle.
Notably, the cautious Netanyahu has traditionally tried to avoid wars, especially during election season. He may soon have to decide how he wants to handle this challenge in the current campaign.
The Political Problem
Beyond any diplomatic and security issues, Netanyahu faces a fundamental political problem. Namely, he has failed to form a new government twice, and Israel is now headed into a third election within a year. According to polls, most Israelis blame the PM for the impasse.
In recent months, some rightist pundits urged Netanyahu to quit over this issue. They argued that he can no longer win elections and is jeopardizing the continued right-wing rule. Gideon Sa’ar, who challenged Netanyahu in the recent Likud primaries, highlighted this argument.
As the election nears, especially if polls continue to suggest a deadlock, some rightists may rethink the wisdom of voting for Netanyahu again. This tendency could be strengthened by the above-mentioned issues and the mounting frustration.
A shifting voting pattern that sees right-wing parties gaining at Netanyahu’s expense would be disastrous for him. If Blue and White opens up a big lead on Likud, some rightist and religious parties aligned with Netanyahu will likely desert him to join a new coalition. This would mark the end of his political journey, at least for now.