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Political breakdown grips Israel ahead of elections

Though the coming vote has spurred political manoeuvring that could end Netanyahu’s rule, it will likely not lead to any major changes in Israeli policy towards Palestinians

A few weeks ago, then Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned and took his Yisrael Beiteinu MKs out of the coalition government, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a shaky one-vote majority in the Knesset.  

Since his other coalition members saw no benefit to themselves in toppling the government, it appeared this somewhat unstable menage could stay together until the next scheduled election in autumn 2019. But shortly thereafter, Netanyahu took advantage of a manufactured legislative crisis to dissolve the government and call for new elections on 9 April.

Netanyahu - known as a shrewd political tactician with superb survival instincts, but few other strategic skills - had several calculations in mind when he decided to go to the people. Primary among them were the various corruption charges hanging over his head, including bribery and other financial chicanery. Police finished their investigation and recommended indictment; the final decision rests with Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit.

Walking a fine line

Given his former close ties to Netanyahu, the attorney-general has a complex set of legal and political considerations. If he dismisses the charges as a favour to his ex-boss, the country could explode in a groundswell of indignation, sweeping Mandelblit and Likud from office. If he approves all the charges, he will earn the wrath of Netanyahu and the entire government. So, he walks a fine line.  

It appears that Mandelblit may ultimately approve indictments for some of the charges and lessen some of the other charges, offering less severe punishments on conviction.

Mandelblit must also consider whether to file his indictments before the election or afterwards. If he chooses the latter, it’s likely the charges will have little or no impact on Netanyahu’s hold on power. The prime minister appears to be cruising to an easy victory in April, with no opposition from the left and no serious opposition from the centre. If he faces any challenge, it is from the far right - but he appears set to weather that as well.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem on 20 December 2015 (AFP)

After his expected election victory, Bibi would argue that the voters knew the charges he faced, and that they made their choice and gave him a mandate to rule. He would argue that any pressure to resign would mean usurping the democratic will of the people.

None of his coalition partners in the next government would want to rock the boat and call for Bibi’s resignation, especially so shortly after an election victory.

Mandelblit appears likely to file the charges before the election, despite Netanyahu’s vociferous lobbying against such an outcome. This would move his legal difficulties front and centre in the campaign, permitting his enemies to call for his resignation. Though it isn’t mandatory for a prime minister to resign upon indictment, there is a precedent in the case of Ehud Olmert, whose then-coalition partners forced him to resign.

A ‘dramatic statement’

Yet Netanyahu is a much more stubborn, tough street fighter than Olmert. He may resist to the bitter end and provoke a political crisis in order to retain power.

Earlier this week, in a sign of his increasing desperation, Netanyahu took to the airwaves with a national address misleadingly billed as a “dramatic statement”. Israel waited with baited breath, only to discover that the speech was yet another lambasting of all the legal figures allied against him, from the police, to the state prosecutor, to the attorney-general.

Netanyahu made an astounding demand to face his accusers on live TV, as if attempting to stage a bizarre version of the Communist show trials of the 1950s or the McCarthy-era hearings. 

Instead of Netanyahu’s usual bluff and bluster before the TV cameras, he was anything but; the announcement 'was the drama of a hunted animal sensing that the hunters were closing off his escape routes', analysts quickly concluded

The entire performance was bizarre. Instead of Netanyahu’s usual bluff and bluster before the TV cameras, it was anything but; the announcement “was the drama of a hunted animal sensing that the hunters were closing off his escape routes,” analysts quickly concluded.

A number of rivals, both within Likud and on its periphery, are circling the wounded prime minister and sniffing for a hint of weakness. First among them is Naftali Bennett, former head of the far-right Jewish Home party. Last week, in a shock move, he abruptly resigned from the party and founded a new one, the New Right. 

Bennett was reputed to be dissatisfied by the shackles placed on him by his far-right Orthodox settler partners. The new party, or so he claimed, would seek to enrol supporters from across the right-wing spectrum, from religious to secular.

Bennett’s motivations

There are two possible interpretations of Bennett’s move. The most likely is that he’s expecting Netanyahu’s eventual demise and manoeuvring to become his eventual successor as Likud leader. One way to do this would be to form a new political party that he would run independently, and then join the governing coalition after the elections. 

If Bennett was offered a senior position in the coming government, such as foreign or defence minister, it could prove a natural transition for him to merge his party with Likud and then assume the leadership.

However, there are plenty of Likud ministers prepared to vie for leadership in the event that Netanyahu is indicted and forced to resign. Among them is Gilad Erdan, the strategic affairs minister charged with orchestrating the dirty ops campaign against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Gideon Saar, another young Likud star who tangled with Netanyahu and left the Knesset, is eager to vie for leadership.  

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announce the formation of the New Right political party in Tel Aviv on 29 December (AFP)

All three of these leadership wannabes offer a basic continuation of Likud policies under Netanyahu. They reject a Palestinian state. They advocate a continuation of occupation.

If any of the three were to mark a radical break from current policy, Bennett favours a “humane” version of ethnic cleansing, in which Palestinians would be offered a statelet in the West Bank, and Israel would annex the remainder of it, absorbing all the settlers living there but only a small fraction of Palestinians.

As for the political left in Israel, it has disappeared, destroyed by its own irrelevance and betrayal of its former values. The Labor Party once prided itself on its socialist-left platform, but that was long ago. The current iteration, the Zionist Union, offers what might be called “right-lite” politics: it is an amalgam of the old Labor and a centre-right party called Kadima, led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

The Zionist Union currently holds 24 Knesset seats, but polls have predicted it could drop to eight in the next parliament.

Labor’s sinking fortunes

So, what Zionist Union did leader Avi Gabbay - himself a refugee from Likud who underwent a miraculous “conversion” to Labor - do this month? He held a live press conference with co-leader Livni at his side. On network television, he proceeded to fire her and wish her well. 

The results in the eyes of the public were disastrous. Not only was he criticised for misogyny by mansplaining to Livni in front of the entire national TV audience, but his firing of her was also perceived as petulant and immature. The entire episode was viewed as self-destructive and caused Labor’s fortunes to sink even lower.

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Though the coming election could mark the end of Netanyahu’s rule, it will likely not lead to any major changes, and certainly no constructive approaches, in Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

Given US President Donald Trump’s continued steadfast support, it appears that whoever leads Israel will face little or no opposition to whatever expansionist approach they take towards settlement-building.  

The two-state solution is off the table. The only question is whether Israel will annex the West Bank and, if so, how it will “dispose of” its 2.5 million inhabitants.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a handover ceremony for the new Israeli chief of staff on 15 January in Tel Aviv (AFP)