Win Gives Him Leeway on Annexation and Gaza
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s April 9 electoral victory paved the way for him
to pass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving leader. His Likud Party
and its right-wing allies won 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset versus 55 for
the center bloc, even if the Likud only squeaked past its main rival, the Blue
and White Party, by a 36-35 margin. A preliminary look at his presumptive
coalition’s vote tallies suggests that he will face less internal pressure on
the highly controversial issue of sweeping annexations in the West Bank,
enabling him to prioritize relations with the United States. Other takeaways may
not be to his liking, however.
COMPETENCE OVER PROBITY
likely hoped that the vote would provide public validation of his leadership and
give him the imprimatur needed to face down his preliminary indictment for
corruption. Often known to write his own campaign ads, he personalized the
elections by using slogans such as “Netanyahu, a different league,”
emphasizing his competence and decisiveness. He seemed to believed that the
public would overlook the corruption allegations if he reminded them about his
ability to talk tough while keeping the country out of war.
also counted on winning support due to Israel’s economic success. According to
the World Bank, the country’s per capita GDP surpassed $40,000 in 2017, higher
than Japan’s. In short, if the elections boiled down to a choice between a
veteran chief executive with policy experience and a novel candidate with only
military experience, Netanyahu bet that the voters would choose his track record
despite the charges against him.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
before election day, President Trump publicly recognized Israel’s annexation
of the Golan Heights, while Russian president Vladimir Putin intervened with
Syria to help Israel recover the remains of a soldier lost in the Lebanon war of
1982. Although no exit polls exist to verify whether these specific moves tipped
any voters in Netanyahu’s favor, at minimum they served as glaring reminders
of his close relationship with two of the most powerful people in the world.
made similar use of his friendships with leaders from Brazil, Cyprus, and
Greece, as well as with Eastern European and Gulf leaders during February’s
Warsaw Conference. Mobilizing international support was no doubt sweet for the
prime minister given that many leaders mobilized against him in his first run
against Shimon Peres in 1996.
NO POLITICAL PRICE FOR GAZA
faced criticism for his policy of containing Hamas and allowing Qatar to
facilitate $15 million in monthly aid to the group in Gaza. Yet his opponents
did not offer any serious alternatives to this policy. No party called for
Israel to launch a ground incursion into Gaza to oust Hamas, understandably
fearing the certainty of numerous fatalities and the uncertainty of alternative
leadership (especially given the Palestinian Authority’s reticence to reenter
the territory on the heels of Israeli tanks). Although Israelis were generally
dissatisfied with the government’s response to rocket fire from Gaza in late
2018, Netanyahu bet that talk of a ground assault would be unpalatable
bet paid off: Netanyahu scored high with Israeli voters in southern districts
adjacent to Gaza. Many of the same citizens who complained about rocket fire
voted for him instead of candidates who criticized his approach to the issue.
The two parties most scornful of containment did not fare well; one did not even
cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold required to enter parliament.
POOR RESULTS FOR THE HARD RIGHT
meetings with U.S. and other foreign officials, Netanyahu often bemoans the
political constraints he faces to his right. Yet some of these constraints are
self-imposed, such as his repeated failure to bring centrists into his previous
any case, the number of seats won by factions to his right dropped in this
year’s elections. One party that called for building a “Third Jewish
Temple” fell short of the electoral threshold, as did prominent hawkish critic
Naftali Bennett, the education minister whose faction held eight seats in the
previous government (he is calling for a recount).
drop may be attributable to Netanyahu’s highly controversial statement in the
last days of the campaign that he would be willing to consider sweeping Israeli
annexations in the West Bank—a remark that may have pulled the rug out from
under hard-right parties. Most Likud members share the hard right’s desire to
annex all settlements in the West Bank, but they have always deferred to
Netanyahu on this point. Now that he has emerged from the elections even
stronger, they are even less likely to push him on this issue in the near term,
while hard right factions lack the seats to issue any ultimatums of their own.
Moreover, Netanyahu has been careful to avoid angering President Trump on most
every issue, so his next government is unlikely to come out of the gate annexing
settlements and wrecking Washington’s nascent peace plan.
short, Netanyahu is not politically helpless to resist wholesale annexation
proposals that would essentially turn Israel into Bosnia. If the U.S. peace plan
is revealed but falters, he may push for selective annexations near the 1967
ceasefire lines. Yet here too, he would not actually implement such measures
without Washington’s approval—the same reason why he has avoided formally
annexing even a single inch of the West Bank during his previous terms. And if
annexations do occur, they would stem from a conscious decision on his part, not
from domestic forces beyond his control.
BACKLASH FROM AMERICAN JEWS?
the first time since the 1980s, none of Israel’s smaller right-wing parties
garnered double-digit seat tallies. Yet two ultraorthodox parties, Shas and
United Torah Judaism, combined for 15 seats. Netanyahu sees them as convenient
coalition partners because they are more focused on funding their schools and
social welfare projects than influencing foreign policy or the security realm.
Given their electoral strength, however, will they exact a price for pushing the
coalition to victory?
tensions between religion and state are seemingly the only area where discord
could prevail in an otherwise cohesive Netanyahu government. Avigdor Liberman,
head of the coalition faction Yisrael Beitenu, will soon press for a law to
invoke civil fines or more on the many ultraorthodox Jews who do not enlist in
the military draft as required of other Israeli citizens. The ultraorthodox
parties will vociferously oppose this legislation. They might also conceivably
push the boundary further by seeking restrictions on the status of largely
U.S.-based nonorthodox religious streams in Israel (e.g., Reform or Conservative
Judaism). If so, this is bound to create friction with American Jews, who are
predominantly not orthodox. Many Jews would also be rankled if he names top aide
Yariv Levin as the new justice minister, since Levin has not hid his utter
distaste for the independence of Israeli’s judiciary.
THE PERILS OF HUBRIS
cannot escape Netanyahu that over a million Israelis voted for the Blue and
White Party, a list that did not even exist until weeks before the elections.
Pundits predicted the party would garner around 25 to 30 seats, but it wound up
winning 35, just one less than Likud and a clear sign of serious public
antagonism toward Netanyahu. This sentiment is hardly attributable to economic
or regional policy issues, since he has performed well on those fronts by most
any measure. More likely, it stems from his combative response to the corruption
investigation and his lack of any plan for moving even incrementally on the
Palestinian issue. Therefore, if Netanyahu tries to use parliamentary maneuvers
to extricate himself from indictment in the coming months, he is bound to deepen
the anger of Israelis who see their country as rooted in the rule of law.