These elections are perhaps the most interesting in recent times, even though there are really only two candidates running.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Bibi.
Which side of Netanyahu will figure more prominently in the eyes of the Israeli electorate – the statesman also known as ‘Mr Security’, or the person under a corruption cloud with all of the attendant fallout?
This election is centred on who is fit to lead?
The Prime Minister wants to emphasise that he and only he is Israel’s real security cover.
His next main opponent after himself is the Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz. Their leadership includes no less than three ex IDF Chiefs of Staff. In this manner, they wish to counter the ‘Mr Security’ argument.
However, they are all untried in the political/diplomatic arena and have so far not been able to demonstrate that they can come anywhere close to Netanyahu’s statesmanship.
And of course the two qualities are intertwined, and together enhance Israel’s security.
President Trump has in this case, ridden into the Israeli elections responding to a request from Netanyahu for the Golan Heights to remain part of Israel.
It is important to note that Gantz and his Blue and White party have made it a central plank of their own election bid to never cede the Golan.
Along comes ‘Mr Statesman’ Netanyahu who is able to make a request of the US President and receive the desired response.
President Trump tweeted that:
“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!”
And then President Trump together with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the White House itself, formally gave United States recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan.
This again emphasises that there is little daylight on security and neighbourhood issues between Netanyahu and Gantz, who too, enthusiastically welcomed the US announcement.
Hamas itself also entered the Israeli election arena with the launching of one rocket on central Israel. And they were very clever to launch just that one rocket – poking Israel, but leaving a quandary for Israel in terms of appropriate response.
That rocket, aside from the injury and damage it caused, managed to also disrupt Israel politically.
Netanyahu cut short his visit to the US to return to Israel, he had to cancel his second meeting with President Trump and as well as his live appearance at AIPAC.
Aside from Meretz and in part Labor, no Jewish/Zionist party in the forthcoming elections is running on a so-called ‘leftist platform’ when it comes to the Palestinians and foreign policy.
The general public will not be voting for either of these parties in big numbers, and they are non-reflective of Israeli public opinion at large.
A consistent feature of this election campaign is the fact that those to the right of Netanyahu like Naphtali Bennett and his New Right party, worry that after the election when the ‘deal of the century’ is announced, Trump will yet extract a price for recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, for tearing up the Iran deal and for the Golan decision.
The ‘right’ whilst believing in Netanyahu as the only viable candidate for Prime Minister, run on the platform that they are needed to ‘keep Netanyahu honest’ when it comes to policy.
In regards to the Israeli response to the initial rocket and then further barrages of rockets from Gaza, what is widely recognised across the political spectrum in Israel, is that Prime Minister Netanyahu shows the most restraint when it comes to the use of the IDF.
He is more likely to exhaust all other alternatives before utilising the full power of the IDF, than just about any previous Prime Minister.
So Bennett et al. to Netanyahu’s ‘right’ have been highly critical of his restrained response and are demanding greater military action.
Not to be outdone, Gantz and his Blue and White party, supposedly to the ‘left’ of Netanyahu on security issues, also attacked Netanyahu for being “too weak” and threatened the Hamas leadership with assassinations. He also criticised Netanyahu for allowing the millions of dollars from Qatar to enter Gaza against the backdrop of terror.
So both Bennett and Ganz are actually trying to paint Netanyahu as the ‘leftist’, if that is supposed to mean weak on security…………….
In a somewhat similar vein, the official figures for settlement building in 2018 have been released. Netanyahu is showing restraint here too.
In total 2,066 settler dwellings were commenced in 2018.
By comparison with say Tel Aviv, whose population is only slightly larger than the Jewish population of Area C in the West Bank/Judaea Samaria, where there were 10,101 building starts – almost five times as many.
Counter intuitively, Netanyahu’s largest settlement starts occurred in 2016 during Obama’s US presidency, when there were 3,143 building starts – but even so, less than under Prime Minister Barak for example.
At the end of the day and in a practical sense, the elections will not come down so much as to who will win the most seats (as neither party will even come close to passing the 61 seats required for a majority in the Knesset), but to who will be best able to form a coalition.
On current polling, Gantz cannot form a government without the overt or tacit support of the Israeli Arab parties – and he has repeatedly stressed that he would not formally bring them into his coalition.
Gantz’s party has also said that they will seek to bring Likud into the next government, but only if Netanyahu is no longer its leader.
On paper, only Netanyahu can form a government post-election.
But what makes this election so hard to predict is that many smaller parties are polling borderline as to whether they will or will not pass the 3.25% voter threshold – approximately 4 seats – and be in the Knesset at all. So calculations about coalition building are tentative.
Another factor is that after the actual election, it falls to Israel’s president Ruby Rivlin to ‘invite’ the person he feels can best form government, to do so. Although he comes from Likud, he is an arch rival of Netanyahu’s and quite a maverick.
Whilst the ultra-orthodox Haredim and the parties to the right of Likud have stated that they will support Netanyahu for Prime Minister, one party – Zehut, led by Moshe Feiglin – is unpredictable.
Feiglin was effectively thrown out of the Likud by Netanyahu in the past.
Whilst maintaining their far-right policies, Zehut has run a front line libertarian campaign and the promise to legalise cannabis. Although pundits automatically put Zehut in Netanyahu’s camp if it passes the threshold, this is not necessarily so, Feiglin being the only party leader counted in the ‘right-wing camp’ to not say who he will go with.
This potentially makes him a kingmaker – if his party passes the threshold.
We are indeed in for some interesting times and unless there is a very clear lead established by either Gantz or Netanyahu during the actual election, even once the results are known, it may take some time till we understand who will form a coalition – and how.
Dr Ron Weiser AM is a Hon. Life Member of the Zionist Federation of Australia Executive, and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.