Published in The Jerusalem Post, April 12, 2019.
The core cause behind Netanyahu’s fifth electoral win is contempt for the failed Oslo Accords and the disastrous Gaza disengagement.
The fact that two parties captured more than 50 percent of the vote in this week’s election is an important win for “centrism” in Israeli life; and over the long term, this portends political stability.
Perhaps Israel would be better served by a two-party system. In any case, the “centrist” result had both Netanyahu and Gantz claiming victory, and in some ways, they are each correct to do so, as explained below.
* Prime Minister Netanyahu: Despite missiles on Gush Dan, tons delegitimizing rhetoric and all-star team of generals launched against him, as well as impending criminal indictments – Netanyahu led Likud to bold parliamentary gains. He whacked the parties of Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Liberman; thwarted Moshe Feiglin; and co-opted Itamar Ben-Gvir to secure votes while finagling URP’s election without Ben-Gvir.
Netanyahu successfully made the campaign about his challenger’s unsuitability for office rather than his own. He then smartly arranged right-on-cue interventions from the presidents of Russia, Brazil and the US. Is there another Israeli (or global) leader who could do that?
And thus, Netanyahu’s claim that he is the best man to lead Israel in dealing with the superpowers and in confronting hegemonic Iran while keeping Israel safe – clearly resonates with many Israelis. It is insulting when some people say that this man, who has been prime minister for the past decade, “doesn’t represent the true will of the Israeli people.”
It is also outrageous to assert that Netanyahu is “a grave danger to Israeli democracy.” When left-wing figures make this spurious argument what they really mean is that they are frustrated that the refusal of the Palestinians to make peace has shifted Israeli politics to the nationalist right and has repeatedly led to re-election of a leader they scorn.
It should be said plainly: The core cause behind Netanyahu’s fifth electoral win is contempt for the failed Oslo Accords and the disastrous Gaza disengagement. What truly scares Israelis into Netanyahu’s arms are the hints dropped occasionally by center-left politicians (including Benny Gantz and his gang) that they would contemplate further withdrawals. This is the gut reality that underpins Israeli politics for the past 25 years.
One illustrative example: 45% of voters in Sderot voted Likud, even though Netanyahu has allowed the city to be pummeled by rockets while seeking accommodation with Hamas. This makes no sense, unless you consider the previous paragraph.
* Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz: Despite internal party contradictions and a campaign marked by many neophyte mistakes, Gantz led Blue-White to electoral parity with Likud, something that previous opposition leaders (Yair Lapid, Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni) failed to do. But he did so by cannibalizing Labor and Meretz, and even so the opposition bloc grew by only one seat and failed to knock-out Netanyahu. This is not a “great achievement.”
On the other hand, Gantz emerged from the campaign as a decent person. And if Blue-White holds together – its three constituent parts are uneasy and unnatural partners – it could take its place as a central political actor, in government or opposition. Given that Netanyahu’s legal troubles are far from over, and the fact the next government could be short-lived, this is significant.
But in the long term, Blue-White has a structural problem. Like Kadima, Yesh Atid and other hoary “centrist” parties of the past, it failed to draw voters from the right into its self-declared “not right–not left” centrist configuration. Even with Bogie Yaalon aboard, Gantz did not attract voters across the long-standing right-left divide. He probably maxed-out the “centrist” capacity in Israeli politics, and still lost the race.
Indeed, the conservative demographics of Israel militate against growth in the “centrist” space. It is hard to see how the left/center-left can form a government without partnering with Israeli Arab parties – who unfortunately are resolutely hostile to the essential Zionist ethos of the country; or with religious parties – who oppose the deconstruction of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate bureaucracy which “centrists” desire.
What’s left for the left in knocking-out Netanyahu? The Supreme Court, of course. You can be sure that Blue-White will appeal to the court if/when Netanyahu is indicted, asking to overturn the law which allows a prime minister to serve until a criminal conviction is finalized. This is one more reason that the right will act to restrain the powers of the High Court.
* Challenges ahead: The new government will have to confront some sticky issues almost immediately. Whether it is a Likud-led religious-nationalist government or (less likely) a broader Netanyahu-Gantz “unity” government, it will be challenged by hard-to-bridge disagreements on many matters.
The issues include: Military draft of haredim, conversion and immigration policy, crisis in the health system, required budget cuts alongside mushrooming military expenditures, Supreme Court override, and Netanyahu’s desire for immunity from legal prosecution while serving as prime minister.
In addition, Israel could be headed towards another military confrontation with the Iranian-backed Hamas army in Gaza, since IDF deterrence of Hamas from launching missile and border attacks on Israeli cities has deteriorated over the past year. A confrontation looms as well with Iranian troops and Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Syria on Israel’s northern border.
There is also the significant matter of application of Israeli law to some/all settlements in Judea and Samaria – a matter that was raised repeatedly in the outgoing Knesset and surely will be debated again.
While Netanyahu is opposed to sweeping Israeli annexation of the West Bank for demographic and diplomatic reasons, it is not obvious that in the face of never-ending Palestinian rejectionism he and other Israeli leaders will indefinitely hold-off on securing Israel’s long-term settlement and security assets in parts of Judea and Samaria.