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Israeli elections: Don’t hold your breath

Despite talking tough, early indications suggest that Israel’s Netanyahu will not easily be able to form a government following Monday’s general elections — the third in less than a year

Haitham Ahmed , Wednesday 4 Mar 2020
Israeli elections: Don’t hold your breath
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Do not put your faith in either of the two main contenders in the Israeli elections (Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud coalition and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White), Palestinian analysts caution Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. Both are hostile to the Palestinian people and their national rights. The two are different sides of the same coin. The only dependable party is the Palestinian people who have made enormous sacrifices for their national cause and are ever ready to make more.

Voters in Israel headed to the polls Monday in the third Knesset election in less than a year. Opinion polls give the Likud a lead, but not enough to be able to form a government on its own (at least 61 out of the 120 Knesset seats). Once again, Netanyahu will have to try to win over smaller parties, such as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, in order to form a government.

Netanyahu will likely lead a new coalition government and continue to dodge corruption charges. His Likud party won 36 out of 58 seats gained by the right-wing bloc, which also includes Shas, UTJ and Yamina. The Joint List, an alliance of the Arab-majority political parties in Israel, won 15 seats, while Yisrael Beytenu now has seven seats. For the center-left bloc, including Blue and White and Labor-Gesher-Meretz, it won 40 seats. 

He will do everything in his power to ensure that the trial scheduled to begin 17 March will drag on and on. On the off-chance that the Likud manages to hammer together a coalition government by bringing other like-minded parties into his ultra-right racist coalition, he will remain prime minister until the end of his term, unless forced to resign by unseen circumstances, and his trial will be put on hold indefinitely, again.

Analysts see little chance of the Blue and White teaming up with the Likud in a coalition at this point. Gantz would have to relinquish his demand that the Likud nominate anyone else but Netanyahu as prime minister. Neither the Likud nor any of its ultra-conservative allies are prepared to relinquish their support for Netanyahu. Israeli public opinion polls have also had their say: a majority would rather have Netanyahu as prime minister, regardless of corruption allegations.

In the opinion of Palestinian analysts, it won’t make a difference to Palestinians either way. The race between Netanyahu and Gantz is a race between the racist ultra-right and the conservative right. Neither want peace and neither will recognise Palestinian national rights.

Netanyahu revealed his intentions decades ago. Throughout his career he has worked single-mindedly to undermine all prospects of a peace, bury the Palestinian cause and perpetuate the Israeli occupation forever. Gantz is not much different. He supports the “Deal of the Century” and has vowed to implement it if he wins the elections, which means, among other things, Israel’s annexation of settlement “pockets”, the Jordan Valley and other large chunks of the West Bank.

“None of the rightwing parties have a candidate that can rival Netanyahu,” said Ziad Abu Zayyad, a Palestinian lawyer, journalist and politician. “They haven’t even begun to think about finding such a candidate because they believe that Netanyahu is the one who is best able to carry out the right-wing agenda, which is to expand settlements, perpetuate the occupation, annex more Palestinian territory to Israel, prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and terminate the Palestinian Authority.”

Abu Zayyad, a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a former minister in the Palestinian Authority, pointed out that if Netanyahu fails to form a government, “we need to understand that the alternative is Gantz who warmly welcomed the initiative of Trump and vowed to annex the Jordan Valley. He is also aligned with the right because his party includes individuals from the far right who belong in the Likud but who haven’t joined it for personal reasons. Therefore, in both cases we have either a right-wing government or a more right-wing government. Neither will work towards a just solution or peace with the Palestinians.”

“What have we done to prepare for this scenario?” Abu Zayyad asked. “President Abbas said that no matter what they do to us, we won’t resort to violence. But will that work? What guarantee is there that the Palestinian people will continue to passively submit to the rampages of the extreme right?”

According to Ramallah-based political analyst Abdel-Majid Sweilam: “Governments are made not by votes but by the intrigues and betrayals that lead to schisms and shifts in allegiance.” For Netanyahu, a fourth round is yet another chance to buy time and reorganise his offensives against his adversaries. However, this is contingent on the cohesion of the right-wing bloc. “Any fracture in that cohesion means the end of Netanyahu and maybe the worst possible end,” Sweilam said.

In his opinion, there are solutions that no one in Israel has ventured to mention openly. They would entail changing the electoral system if a government fails to materialise the third time around. One possibility would be to abandon the simple majority (60 seats plus 1) principle for forming a government and introduce new regulations. Another possibility would be to shift from the national to the geographic constituency system whereby each constituency would be accorded a certain percentage of seats in the Knesset. A third would be to adopt the bicameral system. All such alternatives run up against formidable legal obstacles.

“Whatever the case,” Sweilam said, “it is palpably clear that Netanyahu succeeded in dragging the whole of Israel into his own predicament.

In Sweilam’s view the failure of the right to form a government would not only be disastrous for the Likud and the right. It would also turn the tables on the “Deal of the Century”, Trump and Washington’s entire Middle East policy which Trump has hinged on the perpetuation of a powerful and cohesive Israeli right which he believes is also crucial to his electoral prospects.

Sweilam notes that the Israeli centre and left have not been able to rival Netanyahu in championing Israeli “security” and its “higher interests”. “If it weren’t for his personal crisis, it would be impossible to speak of a balance of forces between the two sides.” In fact, this might be part of a greater problem for Israel. “The crisis in Israel on the surface is a crisis in its system of government. But it goes much deeper. It is about the identity of Israel. The right is the majority. But the unity of the right has become entwined with the survival of a single individual, Netanyahu.”

According to Ali Awar, an Israeli affairs researcher, nothing will alter the general ideological map in Israel. The only difference will reside in the power of Gantz and Lieberman to hamper Netanyahu’s ability to form a narrowly based right-wing government. The final results will tell us how great that power is.

In his opinion, the main reason why the Likud’s lead in this third round was stronger than in the last was Netanyahu’s ability to play to Israeli ultranationalist sentiments and to drive home a number of points having to do with annexing land and expanding settlements. He boasted of being the only one who could bring the Jordan Valley, the area north of the Dead Sea, and Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories under Israel sovereignty, and he vowed to start implementing the “Deal of the Century” as soon as the elections were over.

Two days before the election, Netanyahu announced plans to build 10,000 new settler units in Jebel Abu Ghneim and to add thousands of more units to the Givat Hamatos settlement, the effect of which will be to sever East Jerusalem from the West Bank, as part of the plan to turn the West Bank into disconnected Palestinian cantons and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

He also said that he would create a new settlement on the land of Qalandia Airport north of Jerusalem. He made it clear that he didn’t care how President Abbas, the PA or anyone else felt about annexations. In short, he cast himself not as a political pragmatist and not just as a nationalist and not even as an ideological fanatic, but as a prophet destined to fulfill the Zionist founding vision.

That was music to the ears of voters from the Israeli religious, conservative and ultra-right.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

 
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