In less than a month, Israel will hold its fifth national election in four years. The Israeli media is filled with endless commentary, reports of polls showing who’s up and who’s down, early finger-pointing assessing blame, and through it all, a pervasive sense of gloom acknowledging that whatever the vote tally, the future will be no brighter or more certain than the present.
This election, like those that preceded it, is mainly about one big concern: will Benjamin Netanyahu return as the head of government? There are other issues, to be sure, like whether the hardline ultra-religious parties will hold sway over a range of policies that give their sect privileges in the implementation of laws that affect their followers and the rights of Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox, or whether Mr Netanyahu will be held accountable in the criminal proceedings against him that have been dragging on in court awaiting the outcome of the election. But for a majority of Israeli voters and, it appears, for US policymakers, the central issue being decided on November 1 is: “Will the future of Israel be one with or without Mr Netanyahu?”
As the weekly polls demonstrate, the outcome of this election will be as muddy as the last four. The coalition of parties supporting Mr Netanyahu could reach the magic number of 61 Knesset seats (a simple majority) or they may secure only 59 or 60 seats bringing paralysis and calls for a sixth election. There are no current polls that give a clear 61 seats to the not-Netanyahu crowd.
The only way that either the “with” or “without” bloc could rise comfortably above 61 would be with the inclusion of an Arab party. That, however, appears unlikely. Having denounced the current “Change government” for including a conservative Arab party in its coalition (despite having courted them himself), it’s unlikely that Mr Netanyahu would include them now. The same holds true for the anti-Netanyahu coalition, with one of the major parties in that camp having expressed deep reservations about serving in another coalition government that was dependent on Arab votes.
As a result, even if the Netanyahu coalition receives 59 seats and the opposition wins just 56 seats and is in a position to win control of government with even the passive support of an Arab party, it’s likely that such a government will be relentlessly hounded by Mr Netanyahu as a “minority” (meaning that it was made up of a minority of Jews) government – in the same way that he and Ariel Sharon hounded the government of Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s.
In the lead-up to the election there was considerable jockeying – splitting and combining – that took place amongst the parties on both the left and right. Once seen as a rising star on the right, Ayelet Shaked formed a new party and immediately plummeted into oblivion.
Further to the right, the ultra-nationalist, racist Kahanist party (that calls for the exclusion of both Palestinian citizens of Israel and the West Bank) has been catapulted into a dominant role in the Netanyahu camp and is now expected to win as many as 12 seats.
On the Arab side, splits in the once-unified Joint Arab List that won 15 seats a few years back, will probably reduce the number of seats Arabs will win to eight or thereabouts – largely because of Arab voters having lost confidence in the Israeli system. It has been especially irritating to read Israeli commentators point to this decline in Arab clout as a reason Mr Netanyahu might win the election. A clear example of “blaming the victims”.
In an article I wrote before the last Israeli election, just 19 months ago, I expressed the concern that ousting Mr Netanyahu would not only fail to improve Palestinian lives and rights, but also might make them worse for two reasons.
In the first place, I feared that because it was based on a fragile coalition, the “Change government” would feel the need to protect its right flank by demonstrating both toughness vis-a-vis Palestinians and support for the settlement enterprise. At the same time, precisely because it was an anti-Netanyahu coalition that included parties from the centre and right and even a conservative Arab party, the “Change government” would be heralded by liberals in the US who would give it licence to pursue whatever policies it needed to remain in power. This is exactly what happened.
The “Change government” followed the very same policies as the one that preceded it. In some cases, they were worse. Settlements grew and expanded; land confiscations continued, as did the release of “state lands” for the exclusive use of settlers; repression intensified, including the use of deadly force and mass arrests; provocations by settlers in Jerusalem and the West Bank were largely met with a blind eye; and policies designed to weaken the Palestinian Authority continued to be standard operating procedure.
If anything changed, it was the silence of the US in response to these “Change government” behaviours. It appears that the guiding principle of US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian arena has been pathetically reduced to doing nothing that will damage the chances of the anti-Netanyahu forces staying in power and now winning in November – with Palestinians paying a steep price in life and liberty.
What’s most troubling is that if Netanyahu had been the head of government, the US might have been inclined to publicly criticise his actions. But the “Change” crowd received nary a slap on the wrist, except for an occasional expression of US “concern”.
So here we are a year and a half later, with yet another Israeli election with the same concerns and, most likely, the same outcome. The only big issue, as before, will be whether Mr Netanyahu is returned as the head of government. Precisely because it might be the only way to rip off the veneer of “Change” and force the US liberal establishment to confront the horrifying reality of Israeli policies toward Palestinians and act against them, I’m forced to hope for a Netanyahu win.