Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. In July 2019 his time in office – more than 13 years in total - exceeded that of the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. On March 2nd voters went to the polls to decide his future – for the third time in the last year. The outcome is hard to predict.
The stakes are certainly high – not so much in terms of the future of the diminishing prospects for peace with the Palestinians – but as regards the Likud leader’s own fate.
On March 17 Netanyahu is due to appear in court to answer charges of accepting gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensing favours to try to get more positive press coverage. He insists he is the victim of a politically motivated "witch hunt". If he is re-elected, that will be to his advantage. If he is not, he could well end up in prison.
It has been yet another toxic and turbulent election campaign – even by the venomous standards of what Israelis like to bill as the “only democracy in the Middle East.” The two elections that were held in April and September 2019 were both deadlocked and inconclusive. But Bibi got a huge boost this January when he stood beaming in the White House as Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited “deal of the century.”
The US president’s plan was the equivalent of a fantasy wish-list for the Israeli leader: it effectively authorized the application of Israeli law to all the illegal settlements built in the West Bank since 1967, the unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley and the reduction of what was described as a Palestinian “state” to a series of disconnected enclaves without control of its borders, airspace or territorial waters.
Last week, fighting desperately to win this time round, Netanyahu went further: he announced plans to go ahead with building a new suburb in the area known as EI, which links the northern and southern halves of the West Bank. That would make the creation of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state impossible – as the Palestinians themselves, Israeli doves and the majority of the international community have long warned.
The blueprint for the site was first drafted in 1995 but has been repeatedly frozen by successive Israeli governments after strong condemnation. It would expand the settlement of Maale Adumim to in effect connect it with Jerusalem.
Bibi’s intention was clearly to appeal to his loyal base of right-wing voters – and to show that he is prepared to go further than his rivals. Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White party, has been targeted with special zeal. Gantz is a former chief of staff of the Israeli army and has a reputation for dealing efficiently with problems. But he is an uninspiring leader who falls far short of his rival’s messaging ability and charisma.
The incumbent has benefited from the impressive state of the Israeli economy – despite a growing income gap. Another achievement is focusing on the Iranian threat and the increasingly visible links between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Sudan, which he has worked hard to advertise.
Netanyahu has repeatedly raised questions about Gantz’s fitness for office and his mental health. His son Yair took to social media to highlight a dubious report that Iran a leaked video of Gantz pleasuring himself. Gantz hit back angrily, accusing Netanyahu of “poisoning Israel” and of “lying, attacking, dividing, mudslinging, spreading malicious rumours and inciting.” Blue and White have drawn direct parallels between Netanyahu and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
High-ranking former security and intelligence chiefs have also blasted him for exposing sensitive national secrets in order to serve his own political interests. “Bibi is endangering Israel’s security,” complained Shabtai Shavit, ex-head of the Mossad secret service. The general verdict was handed down by the Haaretz commentator Yossi Verter: “For one or two more Knesset seats, he’s ready to burn down the entire country.”
The main concern for all parties is the impact that general apathy (and the current coronavirus scare) will have on voter turnout and, by extension, the allocation of Knesset seats. Very little has changed since the last two rounds. Neither Netanyahu and his right-wing/religious bloc of potential coalition allies nor Gantz and his centre-left bloc look likely to win enough seats to command a majority in the 120-member Knesset. Israeli pundits are predicting that the most likely outcome is continued deadlock after election day and an inevitable fourth round of voting later this year.
Gantz’s best line was probably that his rival is “unworthy of being prime minister for even a single day longer.”
Whatever Netanyahu’s fate, one intriguing outcome of this election is likely to be an impressive performance by the Joint List of Arab parties – largely in response to the prime minister’s demonization of the country’s 20% Palestinian minority. Left-wing Israeli Jews look set to vote for them in unprecedented numbers. Nothing else, however, is certain.