Tel Aviv - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at it again. Israelis began voting Tuesday in an unprecedented repeat election that will decide whether longtime leader Netanyahu stays in power despite a looming indictment on corruption charges.
This election follows Netanyahu’s failure to cobble together a stable coalition after an April vote in which he sneaked a narrow victory. Now, Israel’s longest-ruling prime minister is resorting to his tried-and-tested tactics: stirring race-baiting fear over alleged voter fraud by Palestinians of the 1948 areas, hailing his unique ability to defend the nation (with President Trump’s brotherly support) and dangling red meat to his right-wing base in the form of vows to annex portions of the occupied West Bank.
In the final throes of the campaign, Netanyahu issued a rather surreal video instructing Israelis to make correct use of election day - a national holiday - by casting a ballot rather than canoodling in bed with their lovers. As Steve Hendrix, The Washington Post’s new bureau chief in occupied Jerusalem, wrote, it was as if “Netanyahu’s final message has been: I’m losing.”
Netanyahu’s desperation is real. He knows that he needs to stay in office to marshal the country’s parliament into passing legislation that could insulate him from a series of ongoing corruption investigations. Netanyahu’s Likud party is running neck-and-neck in the polls with the centrist Blue and White party; the prime minister can count on a number of parties even further to the right to back him in an alliance that would keep him in power.
Though it’s always a mistake to bet against his capacity for survival, there’s one clear reason Netanyahu may be foiled this time: The party of Avigdor Liberman, a former Cabinet minister in Netanyahu’s government and a staunchly secular right-wing nationalist, may win enough seats to play the role of kingmaker. Liberman, whose refusal earlier this year to sit alongside ultra-Orthodox and other religiously minded parties in Netanyahu’s coalition prompted this election, could throw in his lot with a possible alliance of secular mainstream parties and thereby doom Netanyahu to the sidelines.
In the hurly-burly of the election campaign, the tensions within Israel’s Jewish population have come to the surface. “When religion and state get more space in elections, it’s always vitriolic,” Einat Wilf, a secular centrist former Israeli lawmaker, said to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “People understand the implication that their way of life is in danger. So the rhetoric in many ways plays into real fears.”
While Netanyahu scaremongers over Palestinians of the 1948 areas and leftists taking over the state, Liberman released a dark video urging supporters to counter the votes of the country’s mobilised religious parties. These have propagated their own divisive messaging, featuring secular men disrupting children’s ability to observe Shabbat.
Then there’s the matter of those who don’t have the same rights as Israeli citizens. “At stake in the election is not only the balance between religious and secular visions for Israel’s future,” wrote Ruth Eglash and James McCauley in the Washington Post. “Netanyahu has promised, if reelected, to upend the longtime status quo in the occupied territories by annexing large portions of the West Bank, an initiative that would be popular with right-wing voters but could incur Arab outrage. When he announced these grand designs, he cited the approval of the Trump administration, slated to release its new Middle East peace plan after the Israeli election.”
Trump’s ambassador in Israel, David Friedman, is an envoy with close ties to Jewish colonist organisations. He has publicly cheered plans for annexation and in the past has dismissed the two-state solution - the vision of an independent Palestinian state emerging alongside Israel that has been the official policy goal of successive US administrations - as a “scam”. For years, the Israelis have mastered their system of control over the Palestinians without too much international blowback over human rights; annexation, though, could change that.
“This limbo where Palestinians are not citizens of Israel and not ruling themselves - it was supposed to be temporary, in theory,” Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that gathers testimony from past and serving Israeli soldiers to shed light on the occupation of the Palestinian territories, told my colleagues. “And Netanyahu basically came out in his speech saying it’s not temporary.”
Many of Israel’s supporters in the Washington foreign-policy establishment fear that a Netanyahu emboldened by Trump would confirm a dark reality. “If Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in prolonging his tenure as Israel’s prime minister following Tuesday’s election, the proposition that Israelis and Palestinians will be condemned to live in one state forever is likely to become inescapable,” wrote Jackson Diehl, The Post’s deputy editorial director. “That would mean a choice between a country that is secular and democratic but binational, or a Jewish apartheid regime.”