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Thursday, 18 July 2024
Bibi is back (again)!
Ian Black

Less than a month after Israel’s third inconclusive general election in a year Binyamin Netanyahu, after more than a decade in office, has pulled off another victory – with the support of his principal rival. He may well be here to stay. Bibi is back

The veteran politician supporters call “Bibi” now looks set to rule his country for even longer, delaying the justice he is facing on corruption charges and making it less realistic than before to hope that peace talks will be held any time soon with the Palestinians.

Bibi has been helped by the coronavirus pandemic, including 3,865 confirmed cases and 13 deaths inside the pre-1967 “green line” border. This unprecedented crisis added urgency to efforts to break the three-week stalemate between him and the Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in the wake of the March 2 poll.

Gantz, a former army chief of staff, abandoned his own centrist party to accept Bibi’s offer that he be appointed speaker of the Knesset.

It is assumed he will play that role for a short time before entering a Likud-led unity government as defence minister. Gabi Ashkenazi, another Blue and White ex-army commander, is expected to serve as foreign minister.

And then, after 18 months Gantz is supposed to become prime minister in a “rotation” deal with Netanyahu, who will serve in the role until September 2021 before handing over to the man who until recently was his main competitor.

In his maiden speech as Knesset speaker on March 26, Gantz justified his shocking move by invoking the need to battle coronavirus and repair the deep divisions within Israeli society. Bibi is back

“These are not normal days, and they require abnormal decisions,” he said to fury from voters – over a million - who had believed his pledge not to join a coalition led by Bibi. “He has crossed the lines,” quipped the veteran columnist Nahum Barnea, “and that is where he is fated to stay.”

Gantz had run his campaign by promising that if elected he would push through legislation to end Netanyahu’s record political career by imposing term limits and bans on prime ministers serving while facing indictments. Now it seems that he will end up protecting him from prosecution. Bibi’s many critics, by contrast, have taken to referring to him simply as “the accused.”

Blue and White – the patriotic reference is to the colours of the Israeli national flag - was created to unite centrist political movements to challenge the Likud, which has now been in power continuously since 2009. But Gantz failed to win an outright majority in the two previous deadlocked elections – in April and October 2019; he also dithered over whether or not to rely on the support of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties which won a record 15 seats in the latest poll, fuelling accusations of discrimination and racism.

In a wider sense the disintegration of Blue and White reflects a rightward shift in Israeli political attitudes over the last two decades and the slow death of a two-state solution to the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. The peace camp was fatally weakened by the second intifada to the extent that it has been hard in recent years to understand the difference between right and centre.

So, for example, when Netanyahu vowed to annex the Jordan Valley, in breach of international law, Gantz quickly followed suit.

Bibi and his allies have also been accused of weaponizing Covid 19 by suspending Knesset sessions to serve his own interests, and tap into growing public alarm. In that context the exhausted national mood is comparable to the “Get Brexit Done” slogan that brought the Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson his victory in last December’s UK election.

Controversy has also erupted in Israel because of the use of digital surveillance technology to monitor anyone infected by the illness. That is seen as a dramatic and potentially sinister extension of state power. Bibi is back

Palestinians in the occupied territories have also been starting to feel the effects of the pandemic. In the West Bank 64 cases have been diagnosed, the majority in Bethlehem. The human rights organisation B’Tselem protested that the Israeli army had confiscated tents intended to be used for an emergency clinic in the Jenin area.

Alarm is also growing about conditions in the Gaza Strip where two million Palestinians have lived for over a decade in conditions that are now becoming normal in much of the rest of the world. Gazans joke bitterly that they are already experts in self-isolation; nine cases have been diagnosed so far.

While the blockade may have cut off Gaza from the pandemic, or at best delayed its entry, it is also blamed for what could be a catastrophic outbreak. Some believe however, that the health crisis might achieve a long-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, and even push them into bilateral cooperation.

Let’s hope so: otherwise the unchanging status quo combined with the relentlessly spreading virus may prove to be a uniquely dangerous combination. Bibi is back

Ian is a former Middle East editor, diplomatic editor and European editor for the Guardian newspaper. In recent years he has reported and commented extensively on the Arab uprisings and their aftermath in Syria, Libya and Egypt, along with frequent visits to Iran, the Gulf and across the MENA region. His latest book, a new history of the Palestine–Israel conflict, was published in 2017 to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war. He has an MA in history and social and political science from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in government from LSE. Ian has written for the Economist, the Washington Post and many other publications, and is a regular commentator on TV and radio on Middle Eastern and international affairs. He wrote the introduction to The Arab Spring: Revolution, Rebellion and a New World Order (Guardian Books, 2012); Israel's Secret Wars (Grove Press, 1991), Zionism and the Arabs, 1936–1939 (Taylor & Francis, 1986, 2015); and contributed to the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa (Macmillan Library Reference, 2004). His most recent book is Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 (Allen Lane, 2017). levant