Netanyahu’s endgame

TOBY ABSE surveys the fallout from Israel’s most recent election and the ousting of ‘King Bibi’

ISRAEL has held four elections since April 2019 that ended with no clear winner, and the outcome of the most recent poll, held in March this year, was just as inconclusive as the others. In other words, it did not produce a clear majority for or against Benjamin Netanyahu, who remained caretaker prime minister for a couple of months until an unlikely coalition of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties resulted in his first election defeat since 1999.

Netanyahu, or ‘King Bibi’ as he is called by his supporters, is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, but, as he is facing multiple charges of corruption, fraud and abuse of power that have led his opponents to brand him ‘Israel’s Crime Minister’, he is absolutely terrified of ending up in jail as well as out of office. Therefore, he was prepared to make a deal with more or less any political party other than the anti-Zionist United Arab List, or the Left Zionist Meretz, the latter of which is probably the only remaining Israeli party to genuinely believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu had hoped that the ‘Vaccination Nation’, as he labelled Israel during the election campaign, would give him a clear mandate. No doubt the success of Israel’s vaccination campaign did protect Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party from a catastrophic defeat of the kind it might otherwise have suffered, given Bibi’s very incompetent handling of the covid-19 crisis before the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine. Likud emerged from the election as the largest single party, with 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, as the Israeli Parliament is known. Although this is fewer than the 36 seats Likud gained in the previous election, it still placed the party far ahead of its nearest rival, the centrist Yesh Atid led by the former talk show host Yair Lapid, which got 17 on this occasion.

Idiotic decision 

Last year’s main challengers, the centrist Blue and White List, named after the colours of the Israeli flag, came in fourth, with a mere eight seats, as a result of the idiotic decision of its leader, Benny Gantz, to enter into a coalition with Netanyahu after the 2020 election, in return for a promise that Bibi would hand over the premiership halfway through the parliamentary term, a promise that the Likud leader never had any intention of keeping.

Before giving any further details about the results of the other parties, I had better explain that Israel has a fairly pure system of proportional representation, with a threshold of 3.25%, so that 13 parties or electoral cartels are represented in the new Knesset, with only Likud and Yesh Atid getting more than nine seats. Therefore, Israeli governments have always been coalition governments. However, Netanyahu has been more unscrupulous than most of his predecessors in his choice of allies. 

Although religious parties have been involved in government since the creation of the state – with the secular social democrat David Ben Gurion preferring to ally with one such group after Israel’s first election, rather than to join forces with the more left-wing Marxist-Zionist Mapam – Netanyahu has been more reliant on them than past prime ministers. Therefore, both Shas (ultra-Orthodox Sephardim) and United Torah Judaism (ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim) fought the election as potential coalition partners of the secular conservative Likud. However, as Bibi rightly predicted, these two allies were not sufficient to give Likud an overall majority, only adding 16 extra seats to its own 30, so another ally was needed.

Netanyahu actively encouraged all the most extreme right-wing forces in Israeli politics to form a coalition called ‘Religious Zionism’, to get over the 3.25% threshold. Religious Zionism’s nominal leader, Bezalel Smotrich, a former transport minister, has organised anti-gay demonstrations, and wants to segregate Jewish and Arab women in maternity wards. But this grouping includes an even more horrifying figure – Itamar ben Gvir, the leader of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), the successor party of the banned Kach, once led by the rabidly racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was eventually assassinated by an Arab in his native New York. Ben Gvir wants Israel to be governed by Jewish religious law and advocates the expulsion of all Arabs (and all non-Jews) from both Israel proper and the Occupied Territories. Bibi’s willingness to ally with misogynistic homophobic religious bigots, and even an outright fascist like ben Gvir was hard for some in Likud to stomach, and, along with unease about Netanyahu’s alleged criminality, led Gideon Sa’ar to form a breakaway from Likud called New Hope, but this new secular conservative formation only got six seats, exactly the same total as the extremist cartel Religious Zionism.

Some of Netanyahu’s former allies to the right of Likud, the incoming prime minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina and Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, have fallen out with him in recent times. Lieberman, although probably second to none, even ben Gvir, in his hatred of Palestinians, is defiantly secular and opposed to Netanyahu’s courting of the ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman’s electoral base is largely made up of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, few of whom have any religious faith, and whose precarious sense of Jewish identity was largely formed by anti-semitism among the majority population of Russia and its neighbours. In short, Lieberman was unlikely to return to Netanyahu’s side, unless the latter ditched Shas, United Torah Judaism and ‘Religious Zionism’.

Naftali Bennett was a better prospect from Netanyahu’s point of view, and Yamina’s seven seats would have brought Bibi closer to the magic threshold of 61 seats, if Bennett had not joined with Lapid to stick the knife into his former ally. Bennett is another obnoxious character by normal standards, the fanatically religious son of liberal Californian Jews, who has made his huge fortune from a cyber security company, and, although willing to act as an aggressive spokesman for the settlers in the Occupied Territories, has always lived safely in affluent residential suburbs on Israel’s coast. Italian journalist Gad Lerner, who observed the 2015 Israeli election campaign at first hand, believes that Bennett swung that election for Netanyahu by suddenly joining him on the platform in central Tel Aviv on the last day of campaigning, to play the guitar and give an out-of-tune rendition of ‘Jerusalem the Golden’, the notorious song celebrating the city’s conquest by the Israeli army in the 1967 war. 

On 30th May, Bennett threw his crucial support behind a ‘ government of change’ in Israel to unseat Netanyahu by enabling opposition chief Lapid to put together a coalition of right-wing, centrist and leftist parties.

The new coalition’s diverse members have little in common apart from the desire to end the 12-year premiership of Netanyahu. An anti-Bibi alliance will be fragile and require outside backing by Arab members of parliament who oppose much of Bennett’s agenda.

Apart from seeking a reconciliation with Bennett, Netanyahu was actively courting another group with four useful seats in the Knesset, the conservative Islamists of Ra’am. Netanyahu is widely believed to be responsible for Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas (no relation of the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas) breaking with the United Arab List (UAL), of which Ra’am had been a component until this year. 

Counterproductive effects 

The UAL was formed as a defensive move to ensure that Israeli Arabs/Palestinians, who make up 21% of the Israeli population, continued to be represented in the Knesset once the threshold of what had once been the purest system of proportional representation in the whole world was raised to 3.25% to keep the previously divided anti-Zionist Arab parties out of the Knesset. Although the UAL included both Islamists and secular nationalists, the driving force behind it has always been Haddash, the electoral vehicle of the Israeli Communist Party. The UAL made a real breakthrough in the 2020 general election, gaining 15 seats, both by mobilising the Israeli Arab/Palestinian vote on an unprecedented scale, and by winning tens of thousands of votes from young Israeli Jews disillusioned by the rightward drift of both the Israeli Labour Party and even Meretz, which in 2020 formed an electoral bloc with other groups that did not share its opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s racist call for Likud supporters to rush to the polling stations before closing time to stop the Arabs influencing the 2020 election probably had a counterproductive effect. Moreover, it is noticeable that he did not resort to such language this time, in part because it would not have played well with his new allies, officially the UAE, Bahrein, Sudan and Morocco (and, slightly more covertly, Saudi Arabia, which, despite the summit between Netanyahu, Mohammed bin Salman and Trump’s former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has not openly endorsed the Abraham Accords). Those astonished by Netanyahu’s sudden benevolence towards Ra’am, which he had previously labelled a ‘terrorist’ threat to Israel, should acknowledge that Israel has always stopped at nothing to weaken Palestinian secular nationalism, for without assistance from Mossad, Hamas would have remained a feeble Gaza branch office of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Even as we must deplore repeated and large-scale Israeli war crimes against the besieged civilian population of Gaza, we should not be blind to the fact that the long-standing division between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and Hamas’ dictatorship in Gaza suits Israel perfectly. So it is with Ra’am. The split in the UAL increased Palestinian abstentions compared with last year’s election, though UAL got six seats and Ra’am four. Whilst of course Netanyahu is not directly responsible for Meretz’s turn to the Left, or the even the slightly more distinctive policies of the Israeli Labour Party under the new leadership of the feminist journalist Merav Micheli (their first woman leader since Golda Meir), these factors would also have decreased the number of Israeli Jews prepared to vote for the UAL.

In case anybody has any illusions about the thoroughly reactionary nature of Ra’am, it should be pointed out that it has not only abandoned any concern for Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories (in sharp contrast to the UAL, which has effectively given up on a two-state solution), but also made it plain that it did not approve of the UAL’s progressive stance on gay rights and the role of women.

Toby Abse is a member of the Socialist Alliance and AGS national committees

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