Israel’s political turmoil ignores the Palestinian issue
In the wake of Israel’s general election on September 17 a Hebrew news website published a graphic with the detailed final results. It showed a map of historic Palestine, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, but made no distinction between those occupied territories and Israel in its pre-1967 borders.
Unintentionally, that may have been a pithy summary of the broad significance of the poll – the second in five months. Barring surprises – and those are certainly possible - Binyamin Netanyahu looks as though he may have finally been ousted as the longest-serving prime minister in his country’s history. Still, there is good reason to doubt that the change will have much impact on the Middle East’s bitterest conflict.
Netanyahu’s Likud crucially won only 31 seats – not enough to form a majority in the 120-member Knesset. The new Blue and White Alliance, led by the former army commander Benny Gantz, won only 33. But Gantz may be marginally more capable of forming a government – though many pitfalls remain.
The most likely outcome is some sort of “national unity” coalition between Blue and White and the Likud – with Netanyahu manoeuvring desperately to cling to power. If he fails then the man his supporters like to call “King Bibi” – and even his bitterest opponents acknowledge grudgingly that he is a political wizard - may even be heading to prison on the corruption charges he is facing.
Another distinct possibility is continuing deadlock - leading to a third election in the coming months.
The Likud leader ran a vicious campaign characterised by incitement against Arab voters, Donald Trump-style attacks on hostile media, repeated violations of electoral law and hair-raising pledges aimed at pleasing his right-wing supporters.
So, for example, just before election day, Netanyahu announced that he would annex the Jordan Valley – a strategically important part of the West Bank. That was condemned by the Palestinian Authority, Arab governments and many others.
The reaction of Blue and White, however, was to complain: “you are stealing our idea!” The meaning was clear: Gantz, a security “hawk,” is no more prepared than Netanyahu to countenance the notion of a sovereign, independent and contiguous Palestinian state alongside Israel. Removing settlements is off the table too.
Another similarity between Blue and White and the Likud is that Gantz originally insisted that he would not form a coalition with Arab parties. That may be changing. The Joint List – headed by Ayman Odeh – is the third largest party overall, with 13 seats. Alongside Odeh is Ahmed Tibi, a veteran MP and a witty observer of Israel’s turbulent political landscape. “We came out in droves,” Tibi observed when the results emerged– a reference to the anti-Arab rhetoric employed by Netanyahu in 2015. Odeh recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that Gantz be the next prime minister – anything to avoid a Netanyahu victory.
True to form Netanyahu’s first response was to warn that the choice now facing Israel was between a government led by him or a "dangerous government" relying on "anti-Zionist” Arab parties.
The key to understanding the current state of Israeli politics is that the centre of gravity has shifted markedly to the right in recent years. The process began with the second intifada in 2000 - when Palestinian suicide bombers killed hundreds of Israeli civilians.
Peace efforts, under Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, went nowhere slowly even when Yasser Arafat was replaced by the more pragmatic Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu’s second term began in 2009. The “peace camp” has shrunk significantly. These days 50 % of Israeli Jews self-identify as right-wingers, 23% as centrist and just 18% as left-wing.
Potentially a key role in coalition-building could be played by Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Baytenu (Israel our Home) party won eight seats. Lieberman is a Russian-born former defence minister who withdrew support for Netanyahu after last April’s poll. He is backed by secular Jews who resent the influence of Orthodox religious parties – wooed by Netanyahu. On the Palestinian question, however, Lieberman is a right-winger who espouses openly racist views.
External factors are expected to influence the tortuous process of forming Israel’s next government. Netanyahu is likely to warn of the dangers posed by Iran, Hizbullah or Hamas – and seek to exploit their hostility. Another possibility is that if Trump’s long-promised “deal of the century” is finally unveiled Netanyahu will insist that he alone has the experience and judgement to protect Israel’s vital interests.
The election was widely seen as a referendum about Netanyahu. If he leaves office the result may be good for restoring Israelis’ faith in their democratic system. But whatever else happens it remains doubtful whether the new shape of the country’s coalition government will make much difference to the crucial question of relations with the Palestinians. It is simply not a priority any more.