Israel after Netanyahu?

Six trends underlined by the Knesset elections will determine the future of Israel.

Israel PM election Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu arrives to deliver a statement during a news conference in Jerusalem September 18, 2019 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s spell may have finally worn out. He tried every trick in the book to win Tuesday’s Knesset elections but failed to secure enough seats to form a government.

For months, the incumbent premier lied to his constituency, ridiculed his competitors, flouted electoral rules, demonised the Palestinian minority in Israel, bombed several neighbouring countries, announced new illegal settlements, vowed to annex a third of the occupied West Bank, and trotted around like a superhero with US and Russian leaders.

All to no avail. 

He could not shake off the accusations of corruption, fraud and deceit. His insistence that only he can secure Israel’s future fell on deaf ears. If we take these elections as a referendum on Netanyahu, then he is passe, done, expired.

Or is he?

Netanyahu and the alternative

Some reckon the Teflon premier may be down, but by no means out. They say he is a survivor, a slippery seasoned statesman. He has already formed a block of 55 parliamentarians along with his natural fanatic and fascist allies, which he hopes will get him the mandate to set up the next cabinet.

If not, he could manufacture a national crisis or go to war in order to create the type of emergency that forces his former defence minister-turned-opponent, Avigdor Lieberman, to abandon his red line and join his coalition.

But short of such fantastical scenarios, the math doesn’t add up; he doesn’t have the 61 seats necessary to form a government.

And since Likud fared poorer in September than in April, it may only be a question of time before voices from within the party called for him to step aside until his legal woes are over. 

Worse for Netanyahu, he is likely to end up in prison like his predecessor Ehud Olmert, because Israel is far more likely to punish its leaders for corruption than for war crimes.

But contrary to the conventional wisdom among liberals, the alternative to a Netanyahu-led government is not necessarily any better for peace. 

Unable to establish narrow coalition governments, the two major parties – White and Blue and Likud – are likely to enter negotiations over a future national (Jewish) unity government, possibly with other right-wing parties like Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. There is no appetite for holding a third election in a year, even if this remains a possibility, especially for Netanyahu.

But a broad general-led nationalist unity government of extreme and centre-right parties does not bode well for the future of Israel or Palestine, regardless of who heads it. In fact, the result may still prove worse for those most affected by an Israeli election – the Palestinian people, the vast majority of whom get no vote at all.

Moreover, the Israeli vote confirms some larger trends that will shape the future of Israel/Palestine more than any one particular leader.

Six trends

First, there is the continuing marginalisation of the so-called leftist Zionists who dominated governments during Israel’s first three decades. Their leftovers, notably Labor and Meretz, have been incorporated into small centre-right coalitions which in the next parliament will command fewer seats than even the Arab List. If they had not joined other smaller parties, they might not have reached the minimum required 3.25 percent to enter parliament. The Israeli left might have failed to reconcile Zionism with the protection of basic human rights – an impossible task – but at least they showed signs of a breathing conscience. Now the left is on life support. 

Second, there is the expansion of the Israeli right, including extreme, secular/centre and religious right-wing parties, which together occupy more than three-quarters of the Knesset seats. While the populist Netanyahu may lose his leadership, the ideological right continues to grow and dominate the Israeli polity.

Anyone expecting an FW de Klerk to emerge from these elections should have their head examined. Israel’s own version of apartheid continues to deepen in the occupied Palestinian territories where some 650,000 illegal settlers live with the privileges of a “superior people”, not so different from pre-1994 whites in South Africa. Not a day goes by without an increase in the illegal settlements, which has created a one-state reality governed by two separate and unequal systems; one for the Jews and one for the Palestinians.

Third, this week’s elections have demonstrated once again that Israelis accept and embrace only top generals as the alternative to extremist right-wing leaders like Netanyahu – generals with reputations for colonial violence and war. 

Like Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, and Kadima’s Ariel Sharon, former military chief of staff Benny Gantz campaigned on a record of toughness and a notably bloody war in Gaza, in which hundreds of Palestinian children perished. He has shown no interest whatsoever in a fair and just settlement with the Palestinians. 

If Netanyahu is shameless, Gantz is ruthless.

Fourth, religious parties are becoming even more radicalised. In the first three decades of the state, religious parties were either allies or appeasers of secular Labor Zionism, but over the past four decades, they have increasingly tilted towards Likud and the radical right, so much so that they will not even consider joining a coalition with centrist Zionist parties today.

Fifth, the secular-religious divide is deepening. The hostility between secular and religious camps is the main reason Netanyahu failed to form a government last April. The divide is mostly cultural or social and hovers over issues like civic marriage and exemptions from military service for Orthodox Jews.

However, there is little or no disagreement on maintaining the occupation, or demonising Palestinians and denying them equal rights in their own homeland. Indeed, those like the secular or even atheist Zionists who insist on driving on Sabbath and eating nonkosher food, are the same who also hold that God promised Palestine to the Jewish people.

All of this leads us to the sixth trend confirmed by this election, which stands in opposition to the depressing nature of the others. This is the continuing rise and coalescing of the Palestinian minority in Israel. What once was a meagre, divided, and humiliated indigenous group has risen as a defiant and confident national minority insisting on full democratic and cultural rights in an Israel that represents all its citizens – Jews and Palestinians – alike. They have done this despite the growing hostility and racism emanating from the Israeli right. Or perhaps because of it.

The formation of a national unity government will de facto render the Arab List – the third-largest bloc in the Knesset – the official opposition party, with privileges, including top-level security briefings for its leader. But the next prime minister may well ignore or get around the law which grants such prerogatives to the opposition, as racism against the Palestinians deepens further.

What is next?

All these trends will continue to shape and constrain the behaviour of the next prime minister. No leader of a national (Jewish) unity government will be willing, let alone capable of, taking any serious step towards peace, not when the likes of Likud is omnipresent.

The 1980s Labor-Likud national unity government following the disastrous Likud years in government failed miserably to undo the damage or reverse the rise of the right, championed by its founder, the late Menachem Begin.

Any new leader will also strive to maintain and strengthen Israel’s relations with the Trump administration which have proven a very staunch supporter of Israel.

Indeed, the next prime minister might find the White House’s disastrous “deal of the century” the most practical course of action and the safest way to keep his coalition intact. It may prove the best way to keep the Americans in, the Arabs out, and the Palestinians down.

This may all be quite depressing for those who care about peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. But at least, for now, we will not have to suffer through another of Netanyahu’s pompous and pugnacious Chavez-Qaddafi-style performances at the United Nations this year.