Moment of truth is approaching fast for under-pressure Netanyahu
Israeli election campaigns might not be to everyone’s taste — and they are likely to be disappointing for anyone who likes to see decisive results — but they are never boring and never fail to generate excitement.
While the murky picture of the Israeli political scene will not become any clearer until late in the evening of April 9, the recent submission of the final list of parties and candidates, followed a week later by the attorney general’s decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for very serious corruption allegations (pending a hearing) provides some clarity and a unique set of circumstances for the 2019 elections to the Knesset.
In line with the chaotic and fragmented nature of Israeli politics, 47 parties and lists are running in these elections, 10 of which have a decent chance of crossing the entry threshold into the next Knesset. This in turn promises the prospect of tough, and probably prolonged, negotiations to form a new coalition government, and there are a number of possibilities for the formation of such an alliance.
In the meantime, two developments dominate the elections. Firstly, the trend toward the right in the political landscape continues, but with more zest than was previously the case. Secondly, there is a real chance of an end to the decade-long leadership (in the loosest sense of the word) of the wretched Netanyahu premiership, which is shrouded in corruption allegations.
These two developments are not unrelated and bring with them some hope, but also great concerns. While the hope lies in the benefit of removing Netanyahu from office, the worry is that whoever replaces him might not depart enough from his tainted legacy, at least in terms of policies.
For the first time in a while in Israeli politics there is a new political coalition, the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), that is capable, according to opinion polls, of running neck and neck with the Likud party. Its main election ticket is to bring an end to Netanyahu’s tenure, which has led the country to an impasse in the peace process with the Palestinians while entrenching the occupation, legitimizing a culture of racism against the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel, loathsomely inciting and insulting its political opponents, increasing inequality in Israeli society and ingraining institutional corruption.
The Kahol Lavan alliance has brought together Yesh Atid, a centrist party led by Yair Lapid, a former finance minister in the Netanyahu government, with two key figures: the new big hope, former chief of staff Benny Gantz, and Moshe Ya’alon, another former chief of staff and one-time defense minister with hawkish credentials.
There is a real chance of an end to the decade-long leadership (in the loosest sense of the word) of the wretched Netanyahu premiership, which is shrouded in corruption allegations.
The pact between Gantz and Lapid agreed that in the event of victory the premiership will alternate between them. One is entitled to question whether this type of leadership rotation will ever come to fruition, but for now it has allowed the alliance to mount a credible challenge to the current government.
Worryingly, the first four places on its list for the Knesset are occupied by very senior former army generals. As suitable as these generals might be for a life in politics, such an over-representation of ex-military figures seems unhealthy in a democracy, and is a reflection of the militarization of the political-social discourse in the country — let alone the fact that these are center-right figures who are competing with Netanyahu on his own turf on many of the crucial issues facing the country, rather than offering any genuine alternative.
There is no escaping the fact that it is the attorney general, with his decision to indict Netanyahu, who might well sway the election against a party whose leader faces three allegations that range from sheer hedonism to compromising the integrity and independence of the country’s media. The indictment will only make this election campaign even more vicious, and reduce the tone of debate to unprecedented lows.
The current PM’s two battles — to remain in power, and to avoid conviction in court of law — are blurring into one. Given the genuine divisions along the fault lines of relations with the Palestinians, socioeconomic inequalities and deep discord between religious and secular forces, combined with politicians’ egos and ambitions in competing for the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, taking the gloves off and hitting below the belt has become the norm. It is a norm represented better by no one but the Prime Minister himself.
Netanyahu has already fired the opening shots by appealing to the far right and attempting to legitimize the disciples of one of the most reviled racists in Israel’s history, Rabbi Khana, who was banned from running for the Knesset in the 1980s. Thirty years later, those who follow his distorted and vile version of Judaism — which believes not only in the occupation of the West Bank, but also in evicting its Palestinian population as well as Palestinian-Israeli citizens of Israel proper — are promised the education and housing ministries should Netanyahu form the next government. The prime minister is prepared to put the education of the next generation in the hands of racists bent on committing a massive crime against humanity. Moreover, he has already branded any coalition that gains the support of the Arab parties, even from outside government, as collaborating in the destruction of Israel, attempting with such a claim to delegitimize the Arab minority in Israel and their representatives.
These are still early days, of course, and crunching the numbers still suggests that Netanyahu is most likely to form the next government, but the tide is starting to turn against him. His campaign style demonstrates that he is under pressure, and losing his nerve together with his legitimacy. Can the opposition takes advantage of this? Only the voters can answer that.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.