OP_190919_Bibi Netanyahu01-1568893424450
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He was desperate, and he has come up short. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu bared his inner being in the run-up to the Israeli election — promising to annex much of the West Bank, inciting hatred against Palestinians in 1948 areas, railing about plots against him — only to find that Israelis may have had enough.

It’s now clear that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is in a near tie with Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White movement and may well trail it. Netanyahu does not have the 61 Knesset seats needed to form the religious-nationalist-rightist coalition that would have allowed him to push through his annexation plans and bury any last hope of a two-state peace.

Since he first took office as prime minister in 1996, 23 years ago, this has always been Netanyahu’s core underlying purpose: to prevent, forever and always, the emergence of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Any gestures or statements to the contrary were never more than diversionary tactics.

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Why was Netanyahu desperate? Because he sees himself as the saviour of Israel.

There was another, more pressing element. Netanyahu faces possible indictment, as soon as next month, stemming from accusations of fraud and bribery. Power was, and still tenuously is, the best insurance for the prime minister against prison.

Netanyahu faces an uphill struggle, as his crumpled appearance and frantic pre-election, me-or-disaster flailing suggests. Even US president Donald Trump, unusually silent, has not rushed to his friend’s aid. It now falls to Israeli president Reuven Rivlin to offer either Gantz or Netanyahu the opportunity to form a government.

Advantage Gantz

Gantz may be favoured, certainly if Blue and White has a one-seat advantage. The election has been a disavowal of Netanyahu, whose failure to form a government after the April vote led to this do-over.

The kingmaker is now Avigdor Lieberman. His nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party appears to have almost doubled its Knesset seats to nine after Lieberman rebuffed Netanyahu earlier this year, precipitating this election. Lieberman has captured the exasperation of many Israelis with the overwhelming influence of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, whose mass exemptions from compulsory military service are widely resented. Netanyahu has depended on ultra-Orthodox parties to govern. Lieberman, whose animus toward the prime minister is intense, will not go that route.

He favours a national unity government bringing together Likud, Blue and White, and his own party. Gantz, a former general and Israeli military chief of staff, has also expressed interest in this outcome but has said he won’t join a government with Netanyahu in it, citing the impending corruption charges. “Netanyahu failed; we succeeded,” Gantz said as results came in. A unity government without Netanyahu does seem the most plausible means to avoid a third election at this point.

Gantz’s post-election theme was repair of the divisions in Israeli society that Netanyahu has cynically fanned, not least against Arab citizens, who constitute a little over 20 per cent of the Israeli population.

Israeli-Palestinian relations

That well-worn Netanyahu tactic did not work this time. Arabs voted in large numbers, and the Joint List, an alliance of four parties, emerged as the third-largest political force with 12 or 13 seats. Ayman Odeh, its leader, said its aim had been to “stop a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu” and demonstrate that “there is clearly a price for incitement.” Netanyahu will now cite this strong showing in his relentless doomsday scenario: Without him, all hell will be loosed upon Israel in the form of an Arab takeover. Bibi cannot abide opposition, which is what democracy delivers. He will not go easily, that is certain. Yitzhak Rabin, at the time of the Oslo Accords, did govern with external support from Arab parties, but the consensus against bringing them into government is strong. This barrier cannot, however, endure forever if Israel is to be a democracy of equal citizens. Change in this area will be slow and depend on the wider context of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

If Israelis have indeed, at last, brought down the curtain on the Netanyahu show, they will have saved not only the last faint chance of a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians but also their precious democracy itself. That would be quite something.

Roger Cohen is a noted American journalist, political commentator and author.