At the end of December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for elections to be held on April 9, several months before they were due. This occurred just days after the State Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had completed investigations into possible criminal conduct by the prime minister, leaving it to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to decide whether and when to indict him.
Netanyahu plans to use the elections to project himself as the victim of left-wing and judicial machinations, while haranguing his voters with his nationalistic and “tough” persona that brooks no compromise where Israel’s security and welfare are concerned.
All his opponents are being portrayed as weak. These include former Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, who has entered the electoral fray at the head of a new center-left party and is currently running second to Netanyahu in national popularity polls. Attacks on him include questions about his war record, while his wife is rumored to belong to a radical left-wing outfit.
Analysts suggest that Netanyahu is expected to do well in the election and lead the next government, even if Mandelblit indicts him before voting takes place, as is expected. Under Israeli law, the prime minister is not expected to resign until the entire appeals process has been completed, which could take several months.
Netanyahu’s right-wing allies generally seem to go along with his leadership, seeing him as a victim of “political and personal persecution” and the investigation as “tainted.” One possible rival, Naftali Bennett, who heads the New Right party, believes that Netanyahu should remain prime minister until the judicial process is completed, as “he’s done a lot for the country.” The centrist and left-wing parties are divided and in disarray ahead of an election that Netanyahu has shaped as being centered on him personally.
He has always prioritized his political survival in the quagmire of Israeli politics and has anchored it in an unrelenting opposition to Palestinian aspirations.
Observers have noted that, amid the cacophony unleashed by the prime minister, the election campaign is unlikely to see debates on national policies: National security (uncertain), the state of the economy (parlous), the independence of the judiciary (under vicious attack), the status of ethnic and religious minorities (under assault), and the place of religious belief in public discourse (getting more influential by the day). Not surprisingly, Israeli commentator Avner Inbar has described the political system as “hopelessly stagnant” and devoid of fresh ideas.
Much of this is attributable to Netanyahu himself. A commentator on Israeli affairs, Dahlia Scheindlin, sees him as an “illiberal, semi-authoritarian and populist” leader. Accused of wrongdoing, he is projecting himself as a victim being martyred for his selfless commitment to Israel. He has now identified the judiciary as his principal enemy, one that is inherently hostile to the country’s patriots. He has always prioritized his political survival in the quagmire of Israeli politics and has anchored this in an unrelenting opposition to Palestinian aspirations, specifically the two-state solution, while falsely conveying to foreign leaders his backing for the peace process.
Netanyahu has fervently backed settlement activity on the occupied West Bank, so that today some 600,000 settlers occupy 72 percent of the land, living among 2.7 million Palestinians. Netanyahu has played a major role in this expansion, legalizing settlement construction on privately owned Palestinian land and encouraging the setting up and later formalizing of “outposts” that then grow into settlements.
For instance, amid the election frenzy, he has backed an illegal outpost at Amona, north of Ramallah, with just 40 families, and gave only lukewarm support to the Israeli domestic security agency, Shin Bet, when it arrested some Israeli youths there for terrorist activities. Official sources note that, in 2018, almost 500 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians took place, three times more than in the previous year. Israeli writer Shlomi Eldar says that “the prime minister and political leaders are simply afraid of the settlers.” Netanyahu is now under pressure from his far-right allies to formally annex “Area C” in the West Bank, which has about 400,000 settlers and a slightly smaller number of Palestinians.
Recently, using his influence in Washington, Netanyahu has successfully delayed until after the elections President Donald Trump’s unveiling of his “deal of the century” — his plan to resolve the Palestinian issue. Based on leaks to sections of the media, the plan is expected to back Israeli interests. However, Netanyahu fears it might still have some features that would be distasteful to him and his right-wing allies, such as 80 to 90 percent of the West Bank being provided for the Palestinian “state” and a larger area of East Jerusalem constituting its capital. This is clearly unacceptable to the embattled prime minister, but he would prefer to fight it after his electoral triumph. As his recent biographer, Anshel Pfeffer, has noted, peace for Netanyahu is not a negotiated settlement but one “where Israel bullies the Palestinians into submission.”
• Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.