Full of sound and fury, signifying … what exactly?
Israel’s general election, to be held next Tuesday, April 9, is full of even more sound and fury than usual, but it isn’t at all clear what it will signify. It is portrayed as a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, who is completing his tenth consecutive year as prime minister (plus another stint in the 1990s). The main opposition is an ad hoc party called Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), led by no fewer than three former military chiefs of staff, a position often considered second only to the prime minister in importance and visibility. Its leader (and thus prime ministerial candidate) is Benny Gantz, a political newcomer, who managed to craft a party composed of known and unknown personalities with widely different points of view on almost all political issues. In general, though, they are more dovish than the Likud, but are almost solely held together by a dislike, in some cases bordering on obsessive hatred, of Netanyahu. Blue and White and Likud are see-sawing back and forth in the polls, which mostly show about 30 seats for each (out of 120 total). Currently, Likud is slightly ahead.
However, the real story is the 10-12 smaller parties, whose Knesset seats will be essential in order to assemble a majority of 61. (Every Israeli government to date has been a coalition.) In this arena, the so-called Right/Religious bloc is ahead of the so-called Center/Left /Arab bloc in most polls, generally by 2-4 seats. Thus, Netanyahu is likely to emerge as prime minister after weeks of coalition negotiations. Which parties actually pass the 3.25% electoral threshold to gain representation in the Knesset may have a determinative influence on the new government or, as in the past, Netanyahu may be able to exert tight control and prevent the government from drifting too far to the right.
Netanyahu puts the emphasis on foreign policy
In the days leading up to one of the toughest — and dirtiest — elections in Israeli history, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is showcasing his foreign policy credentials, an area in which he can eclipse his main competitor, Kahol Lavan, or the Blue and White Party. Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump offered Netanyahu a pre-election boost by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a region taken from Syria during the 1967 war and annexed by Menachem Begin’s government in 1981.
The Israeli prime minister can rely on more than just Trump’s support though. Over the last decade, Netanyahu has expanded Israeli ties with international actors in places as varied as Africa, the Gulf, and South America; now, with only days to go to the elections, Netanyahu is reaping the rewards of his outreach.
Following the resumption of political ties with Chad in January, Netanyahu’s diplomatic drive on the African continent was reinforced by Rwanda’s opening of the first Israeli embassy on Monday. The four-day visit by Brazil’s nationalist leader, Jair Bolsonaro, is set to offer additional reinforcement to Netanyahu’s international diplomacy. On Tuesday, Bolsonaro became the first sitting foreign leader to visit the Western Wall together with a sitting Israeli prime minister, giving a tacit nod to Israeli sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem. Despite reneging on previous promises to move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem, Bolsonaro — to the dismay of the Palestinian Authority — did announce the opening of a diplomatic trade office in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu can also count on Russian backing in his campaign to become Israel’s longest-sitting prime minister. Just five days before the April 9 elections, Netanyahu will travel to Moscow. The meeting not only signals an end to tensions over the countries’ diverging intentions in Syria, but equally is intended to demonstrate that Netanyahu — with the help of Moscow — is the right leader to safeguard Israel’s strategic geopolitical interests and curtail Iranian entrenchment.
A referendum on “Mr. Status Quo"
The election of April 9, 2019 is above all a referendum on the leadership of Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and, less directly, on his foreign and domestic policies. If Netanyahu is reelected, he will soon become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. If the election results in his replacement, it might open the door to dramatic changes in the region.
At the very center of Bibi’s legacy has been his reluctance — some would say decisive opposition — to a political settlement and territorial compromise with the Palestinians residing on the West Bank and in Gaza. Netanyahu became, for all intents and purposes, “Mr. Status Quo.” If he is defeated on April 9th, there is a possibility (although not certainty) that a more accommodating government will be installed in Jerusalem.
A second issue on the agenda is the tense relationship between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority in the State of Israel. These relations have deteriorated with the passage of the Nation-State Law on July 19, 2019, a law that has generated opposition on the part of many. A new government may prioritize the improvement of Arab-Jewish relations and work diligently toward the political, economic, and social integration of Arabs in Israeli society, especially if its very survival depends on Arab-Jewish cooperation.
In some ways, these elections are about the identity crisis that Israeli society has gone through over the last several decades, a deep debate about the future of the country both in terms of its overall regime type — a Western-style liberal democracy or an ethnocentric republic — and its ability to solve the Palestinian dilemma through a negotiated settlement.
In this sense, this election is yet another act in a much longer saga.
The upcoming Israeli elections have seen an increase in the level of hysteria across the entire political spectrum. This is expressed in two main ways: The personal way in which elections are conducted, and the way in which all parties describe the possible consequences of the results.
The hatred that parts of the Israeli left feel for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads them to attack him on a personal level, prompting some on the right to respond in kind. After supporters of the Blue and White Party claim Netanyahu is corrupt, Likud Party supporters quickly retort that Benny Gantz was also involved in corrupt transactions. Focusing on the politician’s personality (good or bad) and ignoring his or her failures and achievements in the public sphere allows all politicians to maintain ambiguity about their actual plans.
As a result, the discourse between politicians and the public is along the lines of what one finds on social media, and doesn’t deal with ideas and future plans, and the constraints and difficulties involved in putting them into action. Even worse, the personal (and often offensive) way in which the election campaign is conducted makes it harder for voters on both sides to maintain open communication and deepens polarization.
Also noteworthy is the statements used in the campaign and the hysteria they provoke: phrases like “truly fateful elections,” “historic elections,” or “decisive elections for the future of the county” are repeated all over. Instead of offering voters an in-depth and fact-based discourse, these statements provide nothing new and reflect what’s said on social media. This gives elected officials an excuse to avoid presenting their views and laying out their future plans.
The Israeli public should demand that its leaders engage in a more intelligent, calm, and profound discourse, avoid leveling personal attacks (that are not relevant to public conduct), and push back on the efforts of many politicians to create a state of anxiety — while claiming they are the only ones capable of resolving it.
Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images