What’s at Stake in Israel’s Election as Both Sides Claim Victory
As we speak, both sides are claiming victory in the parliamentary elections that were held today in Israel. The outcome will indirectly determine the next Prime Minister of Israel. Incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu has served 13 years and if reelected for a 5th term is poised to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history. His opponent is the former Commander-in-Chief of the Israel Defense Forces, General Benny Gantz, who served under Netanyahu from 2011 to 2015.
In Israel, voters don’t vote directly for the Prime Minister, but rather, for party tickets. A political party must get 3.25 percent of the vote to gain a proportional share of legislators elected into the 120-seat Knesset (Israeli parliament). 14 major parties are running and are likely to gain a share of the win, and will go on to attempt the formation of a 61-seat coalition to decide the next Prime Minister. In 2015, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party won with 23.25% of the vote, which translated into acquiring one-fourth of the seats in the Knesset. He went on to assemble the required 61-seat coalition needed to be reelected.
General Gantz announced his run for head of Israel’s government in December and was silent for a full month afterward. An article in Israel Policy Exchange attributed this silence to a desire to avoid anti-Netanyahu rhetoric that would immediately be interpreted as leftist, “which has come to represent a one-way ticket to the political margins in Israel in the years since the end of the Second Intifada.” And in Gantz’s first speech in late January, Gantz remained cautious not to attack Netanyahu. In later weeks he made overt strides to emphasize his similarity to Netanyahu on foreign policy as when stating to reporters: “When Israel’s security is under threat, there is no daylight between us.” This speech was followed by a bounce in the polls, where Netanyahu was leading, but with the gap closing with different polls suggesting Netanyahu had a 1% to 6% lead.
Deputy editor of the Israeli +972 Magazine describes Benny Gantz as being among the political centrists that emerged out of the wake of 2011 social justice protests along with Moshe Kahlon and Yair Lapid. With regard to Gantz’s appeal, the Guardian quoted one voter, who had previously voted for the left-wing Meretz and the centre-left Labour Party, stating Gantz was “the best of the worst” and that “The bottom line is: does this guy have a chance to beat Bibi?” The fear was that if Gantz is perceived to not have a chance, then voters may opt to vote for a candidate that resembles their conscience rather than tactically voting of the ambiguous Gantz. In other words, his appeal to left-wing voters risked him being undermined as his chances became slimmer. Times of Israel described his campaign strategy of intentional vagueness, which was designed to avoid alienation, as having the potential to backfire, as in the absence of Gantz clearly defining himself, Netanyahu was given the opportunity to define what a Gantz premiership would look like: one with Labour, Meretz, and Arab parties forming a dreadfully “leftist” government. As Gantz defended himself against charges of leftism, he gave Labour the opportunity to decry him as a right-winger that will continue Netanyahu’s settlement expansion. Netanyahu warned that Israel “could have a Lapid-Gantz government resting on Arab support.” In his typical racially-charged manner of speaking, Netanyahu asserted that Arab parties “not only don’t recognize Israel, they want to destroy Israel.”
With security being of utmost importance in Israel, Netanyahu and Gantz were locked in a competition to demonstrate who is tougher. Though as the Times of Israel notes, there is great similarity between the two candidates on the issue of security despite this being the area they each spent the campaign season presenting one another as weaker on. Such as on the issue of Hamas in Gaza, of which Gantz was IDF chief under Netanyahu during the launch of both the 2012 and 2014 assaults on Hamas. In Gantz’s first campaign video he boasted of how many Hamas militants were killed (according to IDF figures). Netanyahu, who at the time of Operation Protective Edge was effusive with praise toward Gantz, reversed his praise and accused Gantz of having “took part in a memorial ceremony for 1,000 Hamas terrorists…” that were killed in the 2014 siege. Netanyahu endured a dent to his popularity for his handling of the Gaza incursion, and in a Dahaf Institute poll, his popularity was ranked in the bottom half of ministers of the Israeli government, at 32.1%, with other polls suggesting the public doesn’t like how he is handling Arab violence
The New Yorker enumerated examples of “old Labor party code” used by General Gantz. Examples of Gantz’s coded manner of speaking included statements such as: “not missing an opportunity to bring about regional change” obliquely referring to opening negotiations with Palestinians, and “building the Negev, Galilee, and the periphery” referring to no more expansion into the West Bank. Various other coded phrases suggesting: more opportunities for Arab citizens to participate in national service, circumnavigating the will of rabbis seeking to ban public transportation on the Sabbath, and conveying chagrin toward continued conflict with Palestinians.
In late February, Netanyahu went even further right, aligning with the notoriously racist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). Otzma Yehudit is an offshoot of the Kach party, which was designated a terrorist organization by the Israeli government and the United States. In response, there was an announced merging of three major centrist parties: the Israel Resilience Party led by Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, and Telem led by Moshe Ya’alon. They came together to form the Blue and White coalition.
On the heels of these shifting alliances, and almost exactly one year after Israeli police recommended the indictment of Netanyahu for bribery allegations, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, announced that Netanyahu was to be indicted. The alleged bribes are extensive, but include various quid-pro-quo exchanges of over a half-million dollars in luxury items such as champagne, cigars, jewelry, and clothing, in return for favorable lobbying on behalf of a number of billionaires. In the past, former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Olmert both stepped down amid besieging corruption allegations, but Netanyahu vowed to turn to popular support should authorities attempt to imprison him. A survey by Times of Israel showed that one-third of Israelites believed Netanyahu should resign now, with an additional third of Israelites believing he should step down only if indicted. And 35% stated they agreed more that the charges were “politically motivated” more so than “extremely serious,” while 47% agreed more with the latter statement. A Hadashots poll revealed that 52% don’t want Netanyahu to be the next prime minister, while 34% do. And when asked if an indictment would change who they support, Kant’s survey found: 71% said it would not change, 3% said it would, and 26% said they did not know or had not decided.
After the announcement of the impending indictment was announced, Gantz gained in the polls. The NY Times declared that “Mr. Netanyahu’s defeat is now a serious possibility,” and also noted that “Mr. Netanyahu may still prevail on April 9, but given Mr. Gantz’s promise to refuse to enter a coalition with him, Mr. Netanyahu would be forced to assemble a governing majority even further to the right than his current one.”
In late March, the United States offered some aid to the Netanyahu campaign as Trump called for recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. The action was opposed by the other members of the UN Security Council. The NY Times noted past attempts of US presidents trying to affect outcomes of Israeli elections, including Bill Clinton’s effort to defeat Netanyahu in 1996 and supposedly aiding in his 1999 defeat. Nowadays, Netanyahu enjoys considerably more respect among the US establishment and especially among Republicans who in a 2015 survey chose Netanyahu (in a tie with Ronald Reagan) as the world leader they most admire. Trump, likewise, enjoys an exceptionally high favorability of 83% in Israel as of 2018. This high favorability was due to a number of policies of the Trump administration favorable to Israel’s political worldview, such as pulling out of the Iran deal. Israel had been highly opposed to the deal from its inception, and Netanyahu gave a speech before US Congress in opposition of it just previous to its finalization under then-President Obama. At the time, 72% didn’t believe the deal would be effective in diminishing Iran’s nuclear capabilities. When Trump pulled from the deal, Netanyahu gained in popularity. Additionally, Trump controversially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced the US embassy would be moved there from Tel Aviv. A move that the UN rejected and that Netanyahu praised.
Last Friday was the last day polling was allowed in Israel, wherein Reuters reported on a poll in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that showed the Blue and White party was projected to win 30 seats and the Likud party to win 26 seats. And given the nature of the proportional voting system in Israel, it was projected that Netanyahu would narrowly achieve the 61-seat coalition required to become reelected.
So why would Netanyahu, who is to be indicted, be likely to be reelected? The answer is complex. Last year, amid the freshness of the indictments’ recommendation by police, Professor Yoram Yovell, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who teaches at the Hebrew University’s School of Medicine, explained why half of Israel still supported Netanyahu, stating that for Israelites “…it’s unclear to us where a quid-pro-quo relationship between acquaintances and friends ends and where naked corruption begins.” He also notes that there is a cultural attribute of Israelites wherein Netanyahu’s rebelliousness is appreciated. Professor Yovell states:
“There are undermining and rebellious elements both in Judaism and in the Jews. It’s a national trait, which has been following us like a shadow for 3,500 years now. Since Abraham got into an argument with God over the number of righteous people needed to save Sodom, we like to see what can be achieved through a combination of chutzpah, initiative, craftiness and a willingness to test the limits.”
Another reason Netanyahu is doing well may be attributable to racism. The NY Times notes Netanyahu’s predilection of using societal racial tensions to his favor in stating “…Mr. Netanyahu was thrilling Israeli audiences with a visceral blend of populism, ethnic resentments and media-bashing fully 20 years before Mr. Trump first took that brand of politics to the big time.” Renowned political scientist and critic of Israel, Norman Finkelstein, acerbically described racism in Israel on Democracy Now last year: “…whether one likes it or not, Benjamin Netanyahu is the true face of Israel. He’s an obnoxious, loudmouth, racist, Jewish supremacist. And that’s the whole population now.” In responding to interviewer Amy Goodman’s mention of Israel’s presence of anti-Netanyahu resistance including: human rights groups, the soldiers’ group “Breaking the Silence,” and of various Haaretz journalists, Finkelstein stated that:
“…they’ll tell you they represent nobody. They’ll tell you they don’t represent anymore. There was a period where they represented at least a factor in Israeli life. But it’s no longer true. And the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu endures, despite the succession of scandals, is a manifestation of how much that society has degenerated.”
Finkelstein reasserted the problematic role of racism in Israel in a recent interview on The Jimmy Dore Show, comparing anti-Arab racism to anti-black sentiments of white people in the pre-civil rights South, such as in Alabama and Mississippi, as well as drawing a comparison between Netanyahu and George Wallace.
Alternatively, the Jerusalem Post lists a number of other reasons why Netanyahu was doing well in the polls, such as: attributing economic growth to Netanyahu, appreciating his Mr. Security persona, lacking a more appealing alternative, and even going so far as to say Israel likes corrupt leaders as there is a cultural aversion towards being a freier (sucker). The Israel Democracy Institute’s annual Democracy Index released findings last year that indicate 72% believe Israel’s government is corrupt. The institute’s president, Yohanan Plesner, stated to Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the view of the Israeli government’s corruption is not specifically directed at Netanyahu, but the government at large. Further, he stated that corruption charges are seen as conspiratorial especially among the right-wing, and that charges are in themselves viewed as being borne out of Netanyahu’s fight against corruption. Additionally, as an unnamed pollster told JTA: “Up until now people haven’t felt that the corruption has touched them personally, and to persuade people about corruption you have to show them that they are personally hit by it.”
The New York Times, compared former US Presidents Clinton and Obama to an “external superego,” and that “The moment Trump was elected, it unleashed a far more aggressive, vulgar and manipulative Netanyahu than we had seen before.” Though Obama was hardly resistant or very oppositional against Netanyahu, more Netanyahu-favoring policy positions have been taken under Trump — that is, the aforementioned pull from the Iran deal, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and recognizing Israeli control over the Golan heights — which were all actions condemned by the United Nations and the latter two items violated international law.
Though President Obama hardly offered material resistance to Netanyahu’s expansion into the West Bank, the New York Times notes that with the US recognizing Israeli-sovereignty over the Golan Heights, it is now easier to speak of open annexation of the West Bank. A recent Haaretz poll noted that 42% of Israelites support anywhere from partial to full annexation of the West Bank. In 2005, Netanyahu resigned as Finance Minister in protest of the Disengagement Plan that relinquished the 38-year-long control over swathes of Gaza. Contrarily, Benny Gantz praised the disengagement plan. But despite the praise, one of the agreements Gantz made with party-leaders amid forming the Blue and White coalition was that Moshe Ya’alon would serve as defense minister for two years — Ya’alon, who opposed the 2005 disengagement as then IDF chief. In 2005, then-Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz participated in the planning of the Disengagement of Gaza. It is difficult to imagine a Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon participating in a Disengagement of the West Bank if he doesn’t support such concessions.
In any event, the prospects of relinquishing land in the West Bank is portrayed by Netanyahu as something Israelites should fear. He has warned that Gantz’s support of the Disengagement of Gaza evidences that Gantz advocates for a similar policy with regards to the West Bank. In response, Gantz defended himself in saying that the withdrawal from Gaza “was a legal process, a decision made by Israel’s government and carried out by the army and the settlers in a painful way, but a good one.” He added that “We need to take the lessons we learned there and enact them elsewhere.” The allusion to removing West Bank settlements was found to be “encouraging” according to the spokesperson of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Among life’s little ironies, and despite Gantz’s tough soldier talk of laying in “muddy foxholes with my soldiers on frozen winter nights” while Netanyahu practiced his English at “luxurious cocktail parties,” the IDF chief that oversaw the notoriously high civilian causality rate incurred in the 2014 siege on Gaza, might be the one to initiate Disengagement from the West Bank, and thereby breathe some life into the possibility of the long-ago promised two-state solution. Unfortunately, as a nation, Israel has lurched further and further rightward since the two-state solution’s promise was first codified in the Oslo Accords, wherein now only 34% still support it.
Even in the event that Gantz wins this election, no policy outcomes are guaranteed considering he speaks in such a coded and ambiguous manner that makes his convictions difficult to descry. He would be at best a centrist departure from the hard-right Netanyahu. For now, both Gantz and Netanyahu are declaring victory in the election. Whoever ultimately ekes out a victory on election night will not necessarily go on to win the premiership, as previously mentioned, the narrower a victory, the more uncertain it is who will be able to build a 61-seat coalition needed to get elected. And should Netanyahu triumph, his term may be cut short as the potential for his imprisonment looms.