After close election, Netanyahu set to form next Israeli government

Update 04/19 #02

Israel’s election is over, and despite the fact that the two largest parties, Likud and Blue and White, finished with only a one-seat difference, it looks virtually certain the incumbent PM Binyamin Netanyahu will form Israel’s next government (and indeed Blue and White’s leader Benny Gantz has already conceded as much). Ahron Shapiro’s blog on Wednesday gave all the details about the election outcome. This Update follows up with some expert analysis of what the result means and its implications for the future.

We lead with American columnist Jonathan Tobin, who notes that while the win by Netanyahu was perhaps the most impressive of his long political career, there is a good chance it will be his last. This is primarily due to the corruption allegations dogging him and his expected indictment in coming months – which could give the opposition Blue and White party another chance to form government. Tobin also examines why many Israelis find Netanyahu’s record so impressive, and the state of play on the Israeli-Palestinian front in view of the expected “Deal of the Century” peace plan expected to be presented by the Trump Administration after a new Israeli government is formed. For Tobin’s complete discussion, CLICK HERE.

Next up is veteran Israeli journalist David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel. He discusses the secrets of Netanyahu’s political success in Israel. He notes that Netanyahu was like a force of nature that refused to be beaten and even used reprehensible means to help his campaign, such as the deal he brokered to combine the racist Otzma Yehudit party with another right-wing party to bolster the right-wing blocs electoral chances. Horovitz also notes the outside factors that bolstered Netanyahu this election, such as US President Donald Trump’s Golan recognition, and the return of the body of long-missing soldier Zachary Baumel, as well as demographic changes. For this look at what lies behind Bibi’s successful campaign, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we include an analysis of one of the most controversial aspects of the campaign, Netanyahu’s apparent promise to gradually  “apply Israeli sovereignty” to West Bank settlements (but not, as widely but incorrectly reported, to annex all of the West Bank – as Ahron Shapiro explained in a blog) last weekend. Shalom Lipner, a former senior official in the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, notes that while this pledge served Netanyahu’s political purpose with right-wing voters, it is unlikely he wants to follow it up with concrete action, given his past cautious stance on this issue and others like it. He also argues it is now up to the Trump Administration to make it clear that it does not approve of any such annexations, because with such opposition Netanyahu can point to the American stance as a reason to delay any action, but will otherwise be pushed to follow up on his pledge by coalition partners. For this insightful look at this controversial issue from a former insider,NetanNet CLICK HERE.

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Netanyahu remains Israel’s indispensable man

By 

National Review, April 10, 2019

Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on election night (AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS). 

Bibi’s latest victory is his most impressive — but it may also mean that the end of his long career is in sight. Can a national leader win re-election despite voter fatigue with his long tenure and with corruption indictments hanging over him? The answer for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Tuesday’s election was a resounding yes.

The reasons for this have as much to do with a sea change in Israeli politics that has transformed the country in the last 20 years as they do with Netanyahu’s accomplishments in office.

But his problem is that, although he is the beneficiary of a strong consensus on both the success of his policies and the bankruptcy of those of his opponents, Netanyahu’s legal woes may mean this will be his last triumph.

While the results were still not final by Wednesday morning, there was no doubt that Netanyahu’s coalition had scored a victory by securing 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The prime minister’s Likud party won 35 seats. That left it tied for the top spot with challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, which also finished the night at 35. Yet the group of right-wing and religious parties that were pledged to support Netanyahu for prime minister won a combined 30 seats, while the two left-wing parties that would have backed Gantz’s bid got only ten, with Arab parties winning another ten. Those totals ensured that Netanyahu would form the next government.

Blue and White’s showing was an impressive debut for Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Even after walking back his premature claims of victory on Tuesday evening, he made it clear he expected to win the next time Israelis vote. He might well have the chance to do so long before the new parliament’s term of office expires in five years, because of Netanyahu’s legal problems. With Israel’s attorney general likely to approve three separate corruption indictments against the prime minister sometime in the next year, how long the new government will last — it will eventually be sworn in after coalition negotiations are concluded — is uncertain.

But for now, there are some conclusions that can be drawn from the vote with some certainty.

The first is that the Israeli people are largely content with Netanyahu’s conduct in office. On his watch, Israel’s economy has prospered and the country has never been more secure or less diplomatically isolated. While his opponents warned that Israel could not thrive or escape being made an international pariah without a peace deal, Netanyahu has proved them wrong. With no credible rivals on the right and the country’s left-wing parties in shambles, Netanyahu has succeeded not just in winning elections but also in making himself appear to be the country’s one indispensable man.

But the most important conclusion about the election concerns Israeli attitudes toward the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. Though negotiations with the Palestinian Authority have been deadlocked for years, this issue may return to the country’s front burner with the expected unveiling of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan sometime in the near future.

The parameters of Trump’s offer are, as of yet, uncertain. But since in past the Palestinians have rejected peace plans that were more generous to them than Trump’s is expected to be, the likelihood is that they won’t even negotiate with the U.S., let alone accept any scheme that requires them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn.

The loss of faith in peace with the Palestinians is due to their intransigent rejection of peace offers, and terrorism destroyed the once-dominant Labor party. While Gantz’s Blue and White is now the leader of the center-left faction, the former general’s ability to present himself as a plausible alternative to Netanyahu rests on the fact that his approach to the Palestinians is virtually identical to that of Netanyahu and on the fact that his party includes figures such as Moshe Yaalon, another former top general and Likud defence minister, whose views on security issues are arguably to the right of the prime minister.

In the days preceding the vote, Netanyahu made clear just how little he thinks of the chances for peace by vowing to extend Israeli law to some of the West Bank settlements and by promising never to uproot any settlers. Left-wing critics and Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke denounced those statements for sabotaging the chances of peace. But most Israelis shrugged at the gesture, since few believe there is any hope for a two-state solution in the foreseeable future, owing to the lack of a Palestinian peace partner. Instead, they simply took it as a political tactic intended to help the Likud win votes that might otherwise have gone to his right-wing allies, which it probably did.

The Trump plan will present Netanyahu with a problem, since he has no intention of saying “no” to anything proposed by Trump. The overwhelming majority of Israelis agree with the prime minister when he declares that Trump is the greatest friend their country has ever had in the White House. More to the point, Trump’s efforts to help Netanyahu — in contrast to the furious efforts of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to defeat him in the past — places him under a personal obligation to the president.

Most of his coalition will oppose any peace plan that calls for a Palestinian state of any kind. But Netanyahu believes that he can simply wait for the Palestinians to reject Trump, relieving him of the need to choose between offending his superpower ally and antagonizing his followers.

But the willingness of so many Israelis to ignore or to dismiss the corruption charges against Netanyahu is more than a tribute to their faith in the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s detractors regard the indifference of much of the voting public to the charges against him as evidence of the decline of Israeli democracy. But, regardless of the truth of these allegations — which revolve around the question of inappropriate gifts from donors and Netanyahu’s efforts to influence the press — those Israelis who voted for the Likud and its partners were unimpressed by the charges.

They view them as not rising to the level of seriousness that would justify ousting a prime minister from power and believe, not without some justification, that the legal establishment and the media are hopelessly biased against Netanyahu and the Right. Moreover, they also think the talk of an assault on democracy to be a function of liberal anger over the outcome of democratic elections in which the voters have rejected the Left’s preferred candidates and policies.

Despite his election win, Netanyahu’s future is likely to be decided by Israel’s Attorney General Avishai Mandelblit, who it recommending indicting Netanyahu over alleged corruption in three separate cases. 

Should Israel’s attorney general ultimately approve indictments of Netanyahu, that would result in a political earthquake that could start to unravel the prime minister’s secure hold on power. The same is true if the new coalition passes controversial legislation that would exempt the prime minister from prosecution while he’s in office. Israel’s Supreme Court — whose liberal rulings and ability to resist efforts to change its political complexion by democratically elected governments has made it a particular target of the Right’s ire — would likely strike down such a law.

At that point, Netanyahu would be faced with the choice of continuing in office under indictment or resigning. That could mean new elections in which Gantz’s loosely cobbled-together coalition might have a better chance of ending the Likud’s long run in power even though it still won’t be presenting the public with an alternative to Netanyahu’s policies on peace or a replacement who is as trusted as the prime minister.

Winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive election and fifth term overall (he will overtake David Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest-serving prime minister in July) has made Netanyahu a uniquely successful and historic figure. But while this is the product of a political consensus that remains unchallenged, it’s also true that this latest and perhaps most satisfying victory for him could mean the end of his long career is finally in sight.

JONATHAN S. TOBIN is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review.


Netanyahu, the divisive force of nature who refused to be beaten

Even the combined might of three former IDF chiefs proves no match for a prime minister now heading for his fifth term

David Horovitz

Times of Israel, April 10, 2019

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces his wife Sara amid confetti during his victory speech before supporters at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv after April 9, 2019’s elections. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

In the end, the combined might of three former Israeli army chiefs proved no match for the political will of Benjamin Netanyahu.

A divisive force of nature who commandeered the airwaves, took over the vegetable markets, monopolized social media and even called potential voters out of the sea at Netanya beach on election day, Netanyahu simply refused to be beaten.

He didn’t always play fair. His “vote Likud, only Likud” gevalt mantra of the campaign’s final days siphoned votes away from his ostensible right-wing partners. His Likud party’s hiring of activists to deploy hidden cameras in Arab polling stations Tuesday will require further investigation, as will the impact that tactic had on turnout in the Arab sector. The effort to depict his key rival Benny Gantz as mentally unstable was truly a low.

He proved spectacularly adept in turning the potential major embarrassment of an ostensible exposé of illicit twitter campaigning into a victory over his accusers, even at the price of bringing the homophobic extremist “Captain George” into the Prime Minister’s Residence.

He also used reprehensible means toward the single end of winning by brokering the construction of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, with the inclusion of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, when seeking to prevent the loss of vital right-wing votes (even as he was happy to try to consign Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right to political oblivion).

And as he now prepares to try to build a majority coalition, there is widespread suspicion that he will tacitly condition his recent promise of West Bank settlement annexation and key roles for his potential right-wing partners on their readiness to support legislation that would protect him from his looming indictment for fraud, breach of trust and, in one case, bribery.

Netanyahu has denied this with greater and lesser conviction in recent days. Some potential partners, such as Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon, have said they would never support the immunity move; others, such as URWP’s would-be education minister Bezalel Smotrich, have said they will champion it.

But at the end of it all — at the end of a bitter campaign in which he denigrated those three ex-chiefs of staff as “weak leftists,” and battered the media and the cops and the state prosecutors for leading an ostensible witch-hunt against him over his alleged corruption — Netanyahu overnight Tuesday-Wednesday was emerging victorious again, heading for his fifth term in office.

It wasn’t all his doing. He benefited from Israelis’ gradual shift to the right: In 1999, he was defeated by another ex-IDF chief and political newcomer, Ehud Barak, in part because a goodly proportion of the electorate believed that he was missing opportunities for peace. That was not the case this time. Not in an Israel still traumatized by the Second Intifada. Not in an Israel reminded intermittently by Hezbollah’s tunnels, rockets and threats, and by Hamas rocket attacks, of the dangers of relinquishing adjacent territory.

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White political alliance, claims victory at the end of April 9, 2019’s elections, in a speech in Tel Aviv (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Netanyahu also benefited from Gantz’s understandable awkwardness in his fresh political career, and the Blue and White camp’s wider failure even to exploit rocket fire on Tel Aviv to undermine his Mr. Security credentials.

Ultimately, even that unprecedented cavalcade of military men could not persuade enough Israelis to trust anyone but Netanyahu at the helm.

Both Gantz and Netanyahu made victory speeches in the first few hours after the polling stations closed late Tuesday night. But Gantz’s was premature. Netanyahu bided his time, and had the final word.

In that address, with victory about to be formalized, he could afford to sound magnanimous for the first time in the election campaign — to promise that while he would work to build a right-wing government, he would be the prime minister of all Israelis, right and left, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Just hours earlier, and for weeks and months before that, his tone had been so very different. But now he was King Bibi, about to be recrowned.


Whether Israel annexes the West Bank could be up to Trump, not Netanyahu

U.S. presidents have often tried to restrain Israeli leaders. That may not be the case anymore.

By Shalom Lipner

Washington Post, April 9

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on Monday, the day before Israeli elections. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Israelis are going to the polls on Tuesday. Fateful decisions await members of the incoming Knesset, but for now most Israelis are overcome with relief that an ugly and gruelling election campaign is coming finally to a close.

The incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his primary challenger, former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, have pummeled each other incessantly in a race that has seemed devoid of substantive debate. More attention has been devoted to matters of personal integrity and competence than to Israel’s security or economic condition.

But the frame shifted again on Saturday night, when Netanyahu declared that, if re-elected, he would pursue annexation in the West Bank.

What happens next if Netanyahu retains power will depend to no small degree on President Trump.

For Netanyahu — Israel’s premier over the entire past decade — the strategy to victory this year couldn’t have been clearer: contrasting his record of achievement to the relative inexperience of his competitors and promising his supporters to deliver more rewards in the future. U.S. recognition of Israeli dominion on the Golan Heights, the announcement that Brazil will be opening a trade office in Jerusalem, and Russia’s retrieval of the body of an Israeli serviceman missing for 37 years — all within the past two weeks — underscored Netanyahu’s status as Israel’s pre-eminent statesman.

His pledge to make Israel’s rule over the West Bank official and permanent comes now as a complement to lay the foundations for his encore in power.

Annexation is the holy grail for large segments of the Israeli right — Netanyahu’s preferred coalition partners — with over 40 percent of all Israelis actually favoring a full or partial incorporation of the West Bank into Israel. Dangling the prospect of such a move, which the prime minister began doing after his visit to the White House in March, is a quintessential act of pandering to his base.

But it’s not clear that Netanyahu actually wants to go through with it.

Netanyahu is perceived widely as a creature of the far right, bent on furthering the agenda of Israel’s settlement movement. His rhetoric sustains that impression unquestionably, but the reality is more complex. In fact, Netanyahu has proved consistently — and counterintuitively — to be a risk-averse proponent of the status quo.

The more hawkish flank of Netanyahu’s ideological camp has criticized him bitterly for implementing what they see as the policies of his left-wing opponents. He’s come under fire for decisions like approving the transfer of funds to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, delaying the court-ordered demolition of a controversial Bedouin encampment and not charging ahead with Israeli construction in strategic areas of the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s right-wing frenemies are consumed with fear that he could even “capitulate” to Trump, embracing an as-yet-unreleased peace blueprint that would entail concessions that they find unacceptable.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has demonstrated marked restraint in responding to rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel’s heartland — much to the chagrin of the majority of Israelis who believe that the IDF should have responded more rigorously. He’s also exercised caution in managing the country’s expanding relationships within the Arab world, moving forward at a measured pace; resisting the impulse to upgrade ties, Netanyahu has avoided taking the assumed prerequisite step to bringing this largely clandestine cooperation into the daylight — i.e., opening the Pandora’s box of negotiations with the Palestinians — and given priority to keeping his government intact.

That’s why the U.S. role is pivotal to what happens next. As a robust democracy, Israel has no lack of independent agency. But when it comes to major changes in policy, Israeli leaders have always checked to see which way the winds were blowing in Washington.

In 2003, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began contemplating seriously the idea of disengaging Israel from the Gaza Strip, it was the United States to which he turned for feedback. Revealing his initial thoughts to Elliott Abrams, then special assistant to President George W. Bush, during a below-the-radar meeting in Rome, Sharon laid the groundwork for an eventual exchange of letters in which the president deemed it “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” America’s commitments provided Sharon the cover he required to proceed with his bold plans.

Today, the United States stands once again as the enabler — or not — of Israel’s territorial designs.

The roots of today’s annexation discourse extend far back beyond the advent of the Trump presidency: Security and religious arguments advocating for Israel’s retention of all or parts of biblical Judea and Samaria date to the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the territory in question.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump show off the US declaration of recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights on March 25 (Photo: EPA). 

But Trump’s proclamation that “the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel” makes Netanyahu’s commitment Saturday seem like something he might credibly follow through on if he wins on Tuesday. Having already bestowed his blessing on Israel’s jurisdiction over Jerusalem and the Golan, Trump now gives Israelis genuine cause to believe that the West Bank may be in play as never before.

Netanyahu’s latest statements notwithstanding, he has been unenthusiastic about the idea of annexing the West Bank until now, manoeuvring instead to keep ahead of the political curve. Last year, the White House disclosed that Netanyahu — contrary to what he told a meeting of his Likud Party caucus — had not even bothered to raise such an initiative with the Trump administration. Presumably, Netanyahu realizes the level of international censure and explosive ramifications for Israel that would almost certainly follow in the wake of annexation.

In the 11th hour of a tough fight to stay in office, Netanyahu offered up annexation — something he’s refrained from executing in four previous terms as prime minister — in the hope of energizing right-wing Israelis to back his candidacy. That doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Reluctant to pay the price of disappointing his domestic political allies, Netanyahu will be dependent on the broad shoulders of the United States as his last line of defence, looking to invoke American displeasure as the reason he can’t deliver on his promise.

The onus, by default, will thus fall on Trump.

If the president comes out forcefully against annexation, Netanyahu can report unhesitatingly to Israelis that his hands are tied. But if Trump appears to consent to Israel annexing the West Bank — a break with decades of U.S. policy — that would force Netanyahu to choose between feeding his coalition’s appetite or risking the survival of his government. (Facing potential indictment, he’ll probably be predisposed toward the former.)

Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition this past weekend, Trump said that he “would love to see peace in the Middle East.” That might be something he wants to consider deeply before weighing in on Israel’s brewing annexation debate.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.