Al-Araby – 18 March 2015
Binyamin Netanyahu’s last-minute efforts to paint himself as even more hawkish than most outside observers feared was already the case has paid off handsomely with a decisive victory over his centrist rivals in Israel’s general election.
Netanyahu’s poor showing in the final polls published late last week – giving him only 20 seats – had encouraged misleading forecasts.
In the final hours of the campaign, Netanyahu was able both to tap the large reservoir of undecideds who were pondering which of the right-wing parties to vote for, and drain support from his right-wing challengers with the scare-mongering he excels at.
He warned Israelis that, were he to be defeated, the outcome would be a “left-wing government supported by the Arabs”, a reference to the fifth of the population who are Palestinian citizens. It was a message that rallied voters on the right to his cause.
With almost all the votes counted, Netanyahu is expected to win 30 seats in the 120-member parliament, against 24 seats for his nearest rival, the centrist Zionist Union.
It was a victory “against all odds”, he told his supporters on Wednesday morning as the extent of the reversal became clear. It will be his third consecutive election win, and his fourth time as prime minister.
Hopes that the Zionist Union might finally oust Netanyahu were predicated on an unlikely set of assumptions: that Israelis were tired of Netanyahu and his security discourse and that they had shifted leftwards.
In fact, the Israeli public has remained consistently hawkish and nationalist through recent elections. Netanyahu’s difficulties during the campaign derived more from the increasing fragmentation of the right, as his natural supporters contemplated seeking a home away from the Likud party.
In the end they returned to the fold, as Netanyahu burnt his last bridges with the international community and tore apart the norms of democratic discourse.
He proved he was as intransigent towards Palestinians in the occupied territories as Naftali Bennett, leader of the settler’s Jewish Home party, which dropped from a predicted 13 seats to eight.
And he vented racist sentiments against Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens worthy of arch-Arab-hater Avigdor Lieberman, foreign minister in the last government but now heading a rump Yisrael Beiteinu party with only six seats.
End of equivocation
On Monday night, after years of equivocating about his true intentions on a two-state solution, Netanyahu formally ditched the promise he made to US President Barack Obama in 2009 that he would support the creation of a Palestinian state.
Having argued that a withdrawal from the West Bank would give “radical Islam an area from which to attack the State of Israel”, Netanyahu was asked directly in an interview whether he would refuse to create a Palestinian state as long as he was prime minister. “Indeed,” he replied.
Then on election day itself, he published a video on Facebook in which he warned that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves” and that they were being helped by left-wing groups “bringing them in buses”. All of this was apparently being engineered by “foreign governments”.
As Dov Khenin, the only Jewish MP representing the Arab-dominated Joint List party, noted, Netanyahu had “crossed a red line of incitement and racism” in campaigning against democratic participation by Palestinian citizens.
Netanyahu, who appears to want to form a narrow religious-right-wing government, immediately called for negotiations with these parties to build a “strong, stable” coalition. Such a government would give him 67 seats.
The kingmaker in this election will be a former Likud minister, Moshe Kahlon, who broke with Netanyahu and headed his own centre-right party, Kulanu. His 10 seats will be needed by Netanyahu for a right-wing government.
It is just conceivable that Kahlon could prop up a centrist government led by Zionist Union leader, Isaac Herzog. But it would have to rely on the 14 seats of the Joint List, representing Israel’s large Palestinian minority and now the third largest party. That is something that Kahlon – or at least his supporters – might baulk at.
The Joint List’s success reflected a dramatic increase in the turnout among Palestinian citizens: from 53 and 56 per cent in the two previous elections to 69 per cent on this occasion.
Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa advocacy centre for Arab citizens, said the results proved both that the Palestinian minority believed in political participation rather than boycott, and that the unity among Arab parties represented in the Joint List had created a new hope among Arab voters.
But, he added, Israel lacked a strong enough progressive bloc among the Jewish public to provide “an alternative to extremism”.
The most likely scenario is that Kahlon will swallow his pride and join a Netanyahu-led government but expect major concessions on his pet project: the break-up of the cartels that dominate the Israeli economy and are in part the source of Netanyahu’s political power.
Such a government is one that will leave the White House and Europeans dejected, and their much-beloved, and much-discredited, peace process in tatters.
No concessions to Palestinians
The reality is that no conceivable Israeli government is going to make significant concessions to the Palestinians. But the Palestinian Authority – still clinging to the idea of a substantial peace-supporting bloc among the Israeli public – had held out hopes both that the Zionist Union might win and that it would then engage in talks to create a Palestinian state.
In response to Netanyahu’s victory, the Palestinian leadership said on Wednesday morning that it would step up moves to bring Israelis to the International Criminal Court at the Hague on war crimes charges.
Denied the chance of a more diplomacy-friendly government led by Herzog, the Americans and Europeans will be hoping that Netanyahu can be persuaded instead to seek a national unity government that includes the Zionist Union.
That is the message being advanced by Reuven Rivlin, the Israeli president, who oversees the coalition negotiations. “We need a unity government to prevent a rapid disintegration of Israeli democracy and new elections within a short time,” he said.
An editorial in the liberal Haaretz daily called on Kahlon to join Rivlin in demanding that Netanyahu form a unity government.
Certainly, such a government would help repair the rupture Netanyahu has created with his western allies. He could then allow Herzog to jet around international capitals as foreign minister, making peace with world leaders, as Netanyahu carried on with entrenching the occupation.
But there are likely to be obstacles to creating such a coalition. Netanyahu vowed to his supporters that he was the only leader who could guarantee the nationalist camp triumphed. It may prove difficult for him to climb down from that pledge.
Such a government would also be likely to prove extreme unstable, with the rightwing and religious parties battling the Zionist Union on domestic and diplomatic fronts.
Herzog will be loath to spend the next years in the opposition – probably political death for him, just as it proved for his partner in the Zionist Union, Tzipi Livni, after she lost the premiership to Netanyahu in 2009.
But, even assuming Netanyahu agrees in principle to a unity government, Herzog will struggle to avoid breaking apart his party should he try to bring it into a coalition with Netanyahu and Bennett.
Herzog’s predecessor as leader, Shelly Yacimovich, said shortly after the results were announced that the Zionist Union leader had promised her the party would be heading into the opposition.
Finally, the most pressing question raised by this election is: what next for Israeli policy towards the Palestinians?
During the campaign, Netanyahu has made clear that there is no Israeli partner for a peace process, pulling from under the Obama administration the central plank of its Israel-Palestine policy.
That may prove the most clarifying – and beneficial – aspect yet of another Netanyahu term in power.