Benjamin Netanyahu has done it again, discreditably but indubitably. If Tuesday's Israeli election was a referendum on his character as well as his competence, Netanyahu’s campaign tactics explained why. When his erstwhile allies to his right challenged him as the New Right, he manufactured an even newer set of allies from even further right, and invited Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) into his next coalition. When the Blue and White centrists challenged him on his left flank, he derided Blue and White’s leader, ex-general Benny Gantz, as a mentally unfit leftist, and promised to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
In the small hours of Wednesday morning, with 96 per cent of the vote counted, Netanyahu and the Likud looked set to grow their share of the vote from 30 to 35 seats. Though Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party also stood to win 35 seats, the coalition arithmetic favours Netanyahu. A Likud-led coalition with the religious and hard-right parties, softened a little by the center-right Kulanu, will give Netanyahu a solid 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. A Blue and White-led coalition with left-wing parties including the rump of once-mighty Labour, reduced to a mere 6 seats, and Arab parties would only gather 55 seats. In a possible further boost to Netanyahu’s control of the next Knesset, with the last votes to be counted, the New Right were still 0.1 per cent short of the threshold for Knesset representation.
Netanyahu’s victory derives not just from skullduggery and scaremongering, or even last-minute assists from Donald Trump, who recognised Israel’s claim to the western watershed of the Golan Heights and endorsed Netanyahu’s analysis that Iran’s IRGC is a terrorist organisation. As Daniella Greenbaum Davis explained as voters went to the polls, Israel’s combination of proportional representation and coalition government means that anyone who voted for a right-wing party that isn’t the Likud knew that they were, in effect, voting for Netanyahu and a Likud-led coalition. Despite Netanyahu’s personal failings, a sizeable majority of Israeli voters trust him with the two issues that top polls of voter concerns, the economy and security.
In July, Netanyahu, on his fifth term, will eclipse David Ben Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Reports of the decay of Israeli democracy under Netanyahu might be exaggerated, if only because Israeli politics has always been a rough, patronage-ridden game; under Ben Gurion and his Labour successors, Israel functioned as a one-party democracy for the first thirty years of its existence. As for clearing the stables, Netanyahu’s indictment on corruption charges now looks much less likely. Netanyahu’s hard-right creation, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, is especially disposed to support his immunity from prosecution in return for annexing major settlements.
In 2009, Netanyahu adopted a defensive crouch against the Obama administration by assembling the largest government in Israeli history, with Labour in incongruous alliance with the annexationists of the hard right. This time, Netanyahu faces the friendliest American administration yet, and from a position of strength. If he follows through on his pre-election promise to annex territory, he satisfies his hard-right partners. If the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace plan, promised for after the elections and the Passover holiday, contains any unpleasant demands for concessions, the same partners will back him up as he plays for time. If his coalition becomes unmanageable, he may even invite Blue and White into a new, moderate coalition.
The real challenges to Netanyahu’s next administration will come not from Washington, DC, but from Tehran and from within. For the last decade, Netanyahu has avoided all-out war in Syria with Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. He has propped up the ailing Mahmoud Abbas and the weak Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and, with Egyptian help, kept Hamas bottled up in Gaza. It is not clear how much longer this balance can hold.
The end of the Syrian civil war will, sooner or later, bring Iranian forces to the foot of the Golan. The stand-off with Hamas in Gaza contains no prospect beyond another short and costly war. And a combination of factors — the annexationist mood of Netanyahu’s coalition, the enduring Israeli Jewish distrust of the PLO after the Second Intifada, the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, the popularity of Hamas — all threaten the relatively peaceful status quo in the West Bank.
Netanyahu is risk-averse, but committed to forestalling a Palestinian state in the West Bank. There is no guarantee that the next US president will be a Republican, and after the Obama years, Netanyahu knows he can expect little from an incoming Democratic president. The next two years are the window of opportunity for shaping his legacy.
If the peace plan finally appears, the PLO will spare Netanyahu the difficulty of a confrontation with the Trump administration. Abbas is refusing to speak with the Americans after the Jerusalem embassy move, and may prove as resilient to Israeli and Saudi pressure as Netanyahu was to American and European pressure in the Obama years. But coalition pressures and the breaking of the delicate balance in the West Bank may yet confront Netanyahu, and Israel, with the problem of what to do once the world recognises what he has steadily established on the ground. The idea of a Palestinian state may be gone, but the Palestinians are still there.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.