POLLS, history and logic tell us that Benjamin Netanyahu will likely be the winner in next week’s Israeli election. Love him or hate him, Netanyahu is a brilliant politician. His charisma, media skills and occasional underhanded tactic are traits equally admired and feared by his friends and rivals.
Next week’s election, if it is about anything, is about Bibi. Just like the last one. And the one before that. And the one before that. This election is happening merely and only because the last government – an artificial cobbling together of Blue-White and Likud (or, put differently, a political novice and a master) – was singularly unable to put aside its differences long enough to govern properly.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bibi’s opponents haven’t made a focus of their campaigns the criminal proceedings against Netanyahu. It’s not a good look to have a sitting prime minister in court on corruption charges. However, the Israeli justice system will, ultimately, decide Netanyahu’s guilt or innocence. As to whether Bibi should be PM while being prosecuted, it appears that decision is in the hands of the Israeli electorate.
Israelis are certainly resentful at having to go back to the polls yet again, but this doesn’t mean that Netanyahu will be turfed out. Certainly, among the non-Charedi voters, there is a clear majority of people that don’t want Netanyahu to be prime minister. But these voters are divided between the left, centre and right (and far-right). The lack of a unifying candidate with the ability to pull votes across ideological lines means that Likud will more than likely end up as the party with the plurality.
Of course, post-election, it will likely be numerically possible for the non-Likud parties to organise themselves into a government with a working majority. But what’s not clear is whether they will be able to collectively swallow enough pride to sit in government with people or parties they can’t stand.
Some parties have stated that there’s no way they’ll form government with Bibi. But all it will likely take is for Netanyahu to whisper in their ear something along the lines of, “If you don’t form government with me, I’ll just go to them. You’ll miss out on the ministerial perks and they’ll help shape the next government’s policies.”
Cue a number of formerly anti-Bibi MKs mumbling that, “for the good of the country”, they’re now willing to form government with Netanyahu.
If all this sounds cynical, it’s meant to. Israeli politics at the moment is very cynical, and many Israelis are deeply disappointed in their elected representatives.
Netanyahu is a very skilled politician. That said, the reason he has been in power for so long can’t merely be put down to political cunning. In the chaotic sea of the Middle East, Netanyahu has steered the Israeli ship of state with a steady hand.
Since the 1990s, Netanyahu has been promising to keep Israel secure by refusing to compromise with people who he thinks would do Israel harm. This saw him oppose the Oslo process in opposition and dramatically slow down its implementation in government. In the eyes of most Israelis, the Palestinian refusal at Camp David in 2000, and the subsequent Second Intifada, proved Bibi’s naysaying right.
Every Israeli election since 2000 has resulted in a government whose position is to separate, as much as possible, from Palestinians, but hold the line until Palestinians are ready for peace.
The ongoing inability of left and centre-left Israeli parties to win elections doesn’t mean Israelis don’t want peace; opinion polls consistently reveal the opposite. It’s just that Israelis prioritise their own security over Palestinian statehood – and Palestinians have convinced Israelis that a Palestinian state will not bring Israel peace.
If Palestinian society ever looks serious about forging peace with Israel, we can expect left-of-centre Israeli parties – waiting in the wings these many years – to start winning elections again.
Wider than the Palestinians, turmoil in Iraq since 2003, in Syria since 2011, in Yemen since forever, and the rise and rise of Iran, whose murderous ideology and proxies like Hezbollah have seen the deaths of thousands of Jews – with thousands more promised – make Israelis even less inclined to take any risks on their security.
This has been Netanyahu’s line for 30 years. So far, it has been a winning formula.
A combination of pragmatism, fear of Iran and concerns about America’s Middle East policy led to a number of Arab states tying the knot with Israel last year. It is of note that, unlike the Israeli-Palestinian agreements, the Abraham Accords didn’t require Israel to make any security compromises.
Likud will likely win a plurality, but what will be the outcome? There are three main possibilities: a Likud-led government in coalition with rightist and Charedi parties; a Yesh Atid-led government with left, right and centrist parties (and probably no Charedi parties); or yet another election before the end of the year, due to an electoral stalemate preventing the formation of a workable government.
Polls, history and logic might point in one direction, but this is Israeli politics we’re talking about – far be it from me to make a prediction!
Dr Bren Carlill is the director of public affairs at the Zionist Federation of Australia.