Netanyahu’s brilliant victory and the challenges ahead

April 18, 2019 by Isi Leibler
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Israeli voters have chosen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in what was essentially a referendum over whether he should be re-elected to a fifth term of office.

Isi Leibler at home in Jerusalem

This was the result, despite a viciously hostile media, three pending corruption charges and having held office for 13 years. In three months, he will surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving leader.

Netanyahu employed his electoral skills, ruthlessly dumping his allies at the very end of the campaign to increase his primary vote – a maneuver that led to his success.

His campaign was unprecedentedly boosted by foreign leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, all of whom effectively endorsed him the week prior to the election.

But the main reason for Netanyahu’s triumph was that, while many Israelis recoiled against aspects of his personal life, in particular, his hedonism, they instinctively felt that his expertise and experience were critical today and that none of his opponents could even remotely display similar levels of strategy and leadership to enable them to step into his shoes.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party failed to qualify for inclusion to the Knesset by a hair, but had it qualified, Netanyahu would have the support of 67 Knesset members instead of 65.

This was a product of Bennett’s hubris. He persuaded Shaked – undoubtedly one of the most talented MKs – to join him in political oblivion. There is a likelihood that despite Netanyahu’s intense dislike of her, Likud will bring her into their ranks. As of now, Likud is also negotiating with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party to join, which would raise its numbers to 40.

Setting aside the nightmare of finding an accommodation to satisfy conflicting ministerial demands, the prime minister is also going to face enormous external challenges.

For a start, the Trump peace plan is soon likely to be unfolded. It has been made abundantly clear that even in the absence of a two-state policy, Israel will be asked to make territorial concessions that do not compromise security. It could well be that most Israelis accept the proposals but Netanyahu is dependent on the Union of Right-Wing Parties, which has threatened to bolt any government that accepts territorial compromise.

The public exhortations by the Reform, Conservative and other liberal American Jewish groups demonstrate the extent to which the bulk of non-Orthodox American Jews have not only abandoned Israel but have the chutzpah to tell the democratically elected government that they are entitled to influence our security even if this runs counter to the will of the Israeli people.

If most Israelis have reached the conclusion that a Palestinian state would be a terrorist state which would undermine their security, it is grossly irresponsible for armchair diaspora Jews to assume they knew better than Israelis what is good for them. Israel’s problem is that these Jews are also incentivizing the Democrats, including hitherto supporters of Israel, to exert pressure on Israeli government policies.

Is it unreasonable for Netanyahu to seek to apply Israeli sovereignty to the major settlement blocs? We have waited for decades – to no avail – to negotiate with the Palestinians on the future of the territories.

It is abundantly clear that these settlement blocs are no longer subject to negotiation and have become part of Israel. Now is surely a propitious time – unless the Palestinians miraculously reverse themselves and become flexible when the Trump peace plan is released – to finally legalize the status of over 500,000 settlers by applying Israeli sovereignty to them. This move would have the support of most Israelis and would not alter the quality of life for Palestinians by an iota. However, such a step even restricted to the major settlement blocs would undoubtedly create an upheaval and the bulk of the world would condemn us. But if the U.S. stands by, we should not miss such an opportunity to stabilize the area and ultimately reach a settlement.

Should we fail to do so and maintain the status quo, then in the absence of a supportive U.S. government in the future, we will find ourselves continually negotiating over our rights in the major settlement blocs.

While Netanyahu has a powerful case to act with the major blocs, it is unlikely that the U.S. will allow him to fulfil his undertaking to annex the isolated settlements and he would not necessarily have the support of the majority of Israelis to move in this direction.

All this will require not only a juggling act but also sensitive negotiations within his coalition. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party has already threatened to oppose the government if the haredi bloc prevents the passage of the draft conscription bill. If this happens Netanyahu will lose his majority and we could face new elections.

The haredim polled exceedingly well and they have proved to be masters of extortion in the past. Aside from additional diversion of funds toward their yeshivot and the aggrandizement of the chief rabbinate, we can expect efforts to impose even greater stringencies in relation to issues of conscription, conversion, marriage, gender separation and kashrut. This will also intensify the rifts between Israel and the Diaspora.

Netanyahu may brazen out the confrontations and reach an accommodation. That would be his first choice – leading a right-wing government and satisfying haredi demands.

But taking account of the external as well as internal pressures, despite his spectacular victory, he may be obliged to consider other alternatives. Benny Gantz’s partner Yair Lapid has promised to make life miserable for the government. But Gantz himself is far more reasonable and the partnership with Yesh Atid could break up.

Setting aside the current confrontationist approaches by both the incoming government and opposition, the reality is that the dominant policies in both Likud and Gantz’s party are almost indistinguishable.

If Netanyahu finds that the demands from his satellite parties are too extreme or they block what he considers a reasonable American peace plan, he may well reach an accommodation with Gantz over his legal problems and form a unity government – which would be applauded by the vast majority of Israelis.

For the time being, however, it looks as if a right-wing government will prevail. A broader unity government is today only a remote possibility but should not be dismissed from happening in the months to come if the smaller extremist parties persist with demands that make it impossible for Netanyahu to govern.

Isi Leibler lives in Jerusalem. He is a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

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