A snap election may well be an option for ‘Bibi the magician’

With pressure mounting at home and abroad, the Israeli prime minister and his trusted aides are considering whether an early election might be the best tactic to keep him in power.

A snap election may well be an option for ‘Bibi the magician’

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were trigger quick to reproach U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week, in response to his forthright call for Israel to hold parliamentary elections. In a lacerating speech, the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker on Capitol Hill warned that the country risks becoming an international “pariah,” unless it changes course on its military campaign in Gaza and embraces a two-state solution.

This outspoken intervention, identifying Netanyahu as one of the obstacles to peace, was widely seen in both Washington and Israel as not only a remarkable shift for Schumer personally, but also for U.S. politics. And, of course, it was yet another indication of American Democrats’ frustrations, as they fear the war in Gaza and its high death toll could lose U.S. President Joe Biden crucial young voters in November.

But in their statement, Netanyahu and Likud told Schumer to snap back in line, and that Israel is “not a banana republic.” Then, on Saturday, the prime minister told his cabinet that “no international pressure will stop Israel” from achieving its war aims. “If we stop the war now before achieving all of its goals, the meaning is that Israel had lost the war and we will not allow this.”

As affronted as Netanyahu and his party might be, however, Schumer’s call may just amount to preaching to the choir. The Israeli leader and his inner circle are already pondering whether to call an early election — though not for the reasons cited by the American senator.

While Netanyahu tries to cling to power, he’s being buffeted by contradictory demands over the war’s direction. The opposition politicians who joined his War Cabinet have long been pushing for a deal with Hamas to secure the return of remaining Israeli hostages held in Gaza. Meanwhile, Likud lawmakers, as well as the far-right and religious nationalists in his rambunctious coalition, are pushing for military operations to be maintained at full blast until Hamas has been obliterated. They’re also utterly dismissive of U.S. and European demands for a “day after” plan involving genuine negotiations for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

According to former Mossad intelligence officer David Meidan, “Netanyahu wants to stay in power, but if he ditches his long-held skepticism of a two-state solution, or if he signs up to anything more than a brief cease-fire, his coalition government will fall apart.”

At the same time, Schumer’s intervention underlines just how exasperated the Biden administration has grown with the Israeli leader. And this frustration has only mounted in recent days, with the prospect of Israel launching an offensive on Rafah, where around 1.4 million Palestinians are now sheltering. In a recent TV interview, Biden reaffirmed his opposition to military action in Rafah without a credible plan to safeguard civilians, warning that such an attack would constitute a “red line” for him. But Netanyahu simply poured oil on the blazing diplomatic fire, announcing on Friday that he’s authorized the military plans for an offensive.

So, with pressure mounting at home and abroad, Netanyahu and his trusted aides are now considering whether an early election might be the best tactic for him to try to keep his grip on power.

According to a current Netanyahu aide who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity, this option was first explored in regular strategy sessions back in December, even before War Cabinet Minister Gadi Eisenkot — a highly popular former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and Bibi critic — publicly said that elections should be held soon in order to restore public trust in the government following the devastating Oct. 7 attacks.

“Bibi is in a tight spot; he’s got major problems wherever he turns,” Nadav Shtrauchler, a former strategist for Netanyahu, told POLITICO. But “he always has a plan — in fact, more than one. He always says you have to come with two plans, and then decide at the last minute which one’s best.”

Shtrauchler was the Israeli leader’s campaign manager for the 2019 parliamentary elections — considered to be one of Netanyahu’s most surprising turnarounds in a long political career full of remarkable comebacks. When all had seemed lost, Netanyahu had implausibly bounced back to pull off stunning victories. “When his adversaries rest, Netanyahu forges forward,” wrote Ben Caspit, one of his biographers. “An obsessive, relentless fighter, failure is not a legitimate option for him.”

A protest in Tel Aviv for the release of all hostages and against Netanyahu | Amir Levy/Getty Images

Nor is it now, according to Shtrauchler, who said quitting is just not in Netanyahu’s DNA.

The Israeli leader was first nicknamed “Bibi the magician” in the 1990s, after beating Shimon Peres in elections held months after the assassination of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Then U.S. President Bill Clinton had attempted to covertly derail Netanyahu’s election campaign — but to no avail.

Later, few believed he could pull off a win in 2015 given talk of a possible criminal investigation into allegations of breach of trust, bribes and fraud. Still, Bibi pulled yet another rabbit out of his hat, and secured reelection by courting the Israeli far right and religious nationalists — a tactic he repeated in 2019 to claw his way back.

So, what are his plans now to pull off yet another Houdini-like escape?  

One of Netanyahu’s biggest fears is that protests against him will soon take off once more, and that this time, they may even dwarf last year’s demonstrations against his judicial reform plans. And the demobilization of Israeli reservists, who blame Bibi for failing to prevent the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, would likely turbocharge any anti-Netanyahu protests, noted Shtrauchler.

“If they will not see achievements in a few months, 300,000 or so reservists will start demobilizing and returning home. And without a doubt, some of them will start protesting and demanding an election,” Shtrauchler said. “The protests that might come will make last year’s look like a walk in the park.”

An Israeli soldiers take cover close to the border with Gaza on October 7 | Oren Ziv/AFP via Getty Images

So, one option would be to try and preempt this by going for an early election, and using mounting U.S. criticism of the war in Gaza — a war supported by an overwhelming majority of Israelis — to argue he’s the best person to champion Israel and see off the international critics until “total victory.” To that end, Bibi is already using the “standing up to Washington” line in his Hebrew-language broadcasts — a well-worn trope that has served him well in the past, especially when he defied former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Opinion polls are also showing signs that things might be swinging back in Bibi’s favor. Until recently, Likud and its right-wing coalition allies looked to be staring at an inevitable defeat. But since former party member Gideon Sa’ar and three other lawmakers broke with the National Unity alliance of longtime Netanyahu critic Benny Gantz, this has changed. According to a poll published by Israel’s Channel 14 in the wake of Sa’ar’s defection last week, Netanyahu would have a fighting chance of remaining in power, and his bloc could potentially secure a Knesset majority, albeit a narrow one.

However, Shtrauchler doesn’t think an early election is Netanyahu’s preferred option. “He will try to make it at least to November, until the U.S. presidential elections. That could be a huge thing for Netanyahu, if Trump is reelected. People think Trump still hates him because Bibi was quick to congratulate Biden … in the last election. But that relationship could be repaired, and a Trump reelection may offer him some good options and benefits,” the former strategist said.

In short, much like Wilkins Micawber of Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” Bibi would prefer to duck and weave, hoping something will turn up to shift the tide of his political fortunes and strengthen him enough to defy expectations yet again. “But if he senses the war is not going in the right direction, and goals like killing Yahya Sinwar [the Hamas leader in Gaza] are eluding him, it might well be the right thing to do to go for a snap election,” Shtrauchler added.

“In time, if anyone pushes us into an election, it might well be Bibi himself.”