Israelis are going to the polls for the fourth time in two years. It’s a weird election, to be sure, in part because for some it’s so very important, while for others so very little is at stake.
The only suspense for much of the Israeli public and Israel’s supporters in the US is whether this election will give Benjamin Netanyahu yet another term as Prime Minister. Since he’s been Prime Minister for 15 of the past 25 years — including the last 12 years — this election is really all about Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has always been a polarising figure. Yitzhak Rabin’s widow blamed him for inciting the hatred and violence. While he has always been a far-right ideologue, Bibi has never hesitated to feign moderation or cast off faithful allies if it would secure his hold on power. Sometimes his behaviour has alienated members of his own party and other partners. It has also resulted his facing trial for charges of gross misuse of his office.
Total embrace of Trump
Netanyahu’s policies during the past 25 years have also frustrated the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, while endearing him to Republicans, especially from the neoconservative and Christian fundamentalist wing of that party. This was compounded during the past four years by his complete embrace of Donald Trump.
There are, of course, other issues in this election, maybe the most significant of which is the alliance Netanyahu has made with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Though he is not known to be an especially religious person, for electoral reasons, he has been tied to the hip with these parties. They give him votes and he continues allowing them to be exempted from military service, providing them with generous subsidies, and granting them a veto over matters of religious practice.
As has been the case in the past three elections, polls show that the pro- and anti-Netanyahu coalitions are near evenly split, making it difficult to predict which will emerge victorious. His Likud grouping remains the strongest of the parties, but together with their allies in the religious parties, they do not appear able to secure the 61 Knesset seats needed for him to remain as prime minister.
Netanyahu’s opponents, most of whom were former Likudniks or former partners with Likud, despite collectively winning more seats than Netanyahu’s coalition, also appear to be short of the 61-seat majority. To even come close to that number, they will need overcome their personal animosity for one another and include the support of the major bloc representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
A key moment in Israel
So not unlike the last election, for a new government to be formed, it will be necessary for some party leaders to make deals with rivals whom they either dislike or don’t trust. This is pretty much what happened after the last election when one of Netanyahu’s rivals joined with him to form a government, breaking faith with his own party.
This election will be between Netanyahu and a collection of “I’m not Netanyahus.” It is an election about whether his rule should be rewarded and if kowtowing to the religious right should continue.
Many of Israel’s liberal supporters in the US believe that a Netanyahu defeat will be key to restore support for Israel among Democrats. This is, at best, a delusion. While Netanyahu created tension with the Democratic establishment, it is past policies and a growing awareness of what Palestinians have been forced to endure that has caused the split — not only between the two parties, but between the Democratic base and the party’s leadership in Congress.
So, while Bibi’s exit might clean up Israel’s image for some, it will not fundamentally change attitudes, unless there is a change in policy. And this is not on the agenda of any of Netanyahu’s opponents.
A world about the Joint Arab List. The political grouping, for a time, brought the more than two million Arab citizens of Israel under one roof. Suffering from inequities in employment and government services, and police neglect and violence, one of the Arab parties was courted by Netanyahu with the promise of greater support.
They split from the Joint List, failing to learn the lessons of the past. Polls now show that this party may barely win enough votes to enter into the Knesset, while the major bloc of the Joint List will win only eight or nine seats, as opposed to the 15 they won when unified.
For more than five million Palestinians, this election is “much ado about nothing”. In fact, their concern is that a new face at the helm may cause Israel’s supporters in the US to breathe easier but it will not change their lives or impact their future.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute