Tom Gross

Benjamin Netanyahu has defied his critics again

Benjamin Netanyahu has defied his critics again
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With 97 per cent of votes counted, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks poised to secure a remarkable record fifth term.

Pundits had said Israel’s election was too close to call, and in many ways it was. Both Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and its main rival, the centrist Blue and White alliance look set to gain 35 seats in the 120 seat Israeli parliament, the Knesset. But Netanyahu has a much better chance of forming a coalition with the smaller right wing and religious parties.

Nothing is decided for sure yet. Most of the remaining three per cent of the votes are those of soldiers and diplomats who don’t live in their home voting districts. These will take until this afternoon to count and could still influence which of those smaller parties hovering around the threshold of 3.25 per cent under Israel’s proportional representation electoral system make it into the Knesset. Nevertheless it is likely that these votes will lean right and only further boost Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government.

It is now up to Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, to choose who has first crack at putting together a coalition. Even though Rivlin personally dislikes Netanyahu (the two are bitter political foes from within the Likud) and Rivlin has on many occasions during his presidency criticised the prime minister, with Likud on 26.3 per cent of the vote, and Blue and White on 26 per cent, it seems that Rivlin has little choice but to turn to Netanyahu.

The results are a remarkable achievement for Netanyahu. It is his party’s best result since the 2003 election (when it won 38 seats under Ariel Sharon), and its best under the now 69-year-old Netanyahu. In the outgoing Knesset the Likud has 30 seats so Netanyahu has increased his vote significantly – and this despite a generally very hostile Israeli media and pending corruption charges which many Israelis dismiss as a left-wing plot to try and oust him from office (in much the same way as many Americans think the Russian collusion allegations against Trump are a media-driven concoction to try and drive him from office).

Why did Bibi (as both his detractors and admirers often call the Israeli PM) do so well? Those hostile to Netanyahu dislike him intensely, they deplore his personality, his sometimes inflammatory style and his language.

But for most Israelis, the answer is simple: The Israeli economy is thriving; the security situation is generally good (despite ever present concerns) and very few Israelis have died from terrorism compared to past years; Netanyahu’s diplomatic achievements are considerable (he has formed close working relations with the leaders of the US, Russia, India, China, Japan and Brazil, among others – including, crucially, several Arab leaders); and outside the very often dissatisfied Israeli leftist elites, things are looking up.

Israel is the 13th Happiest country in the world, according to the newly released UN world happiness report. (By contrast the UK is 15th, the US 19th and France, Spain and Italy are further down the list.) Last month, Israel was ranked tenth in the “Healthiest Country Index” (America is No. 35). There is a buzz in the air. Tiny Israel has just become only the fourth country (after Russia, the US and China) to send a rocket to the moon. And Madonna announced on Monday that she would perform two songs at the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest next month in Tel Aviv – the first time a star of this magnitude has agreed to perform at Eurovision.

But the election results are also a remarkable achievement for Benny Gantz, the former army chief who entered politics in December. (Gantz retired from the army in 2015, and by Israeli law there is a three-year moratorium during which ex-generals cannot enter politics.) Gantz gave his first political speech in late January and his Blue and White coalition was only formed on February 21.

This was a devastating night for the Israeli left. Labour – the party of many past prime ministers, including Nobel peace prize winners Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres – gained only six seats (down from 19 in the outgoing Knesset). But many of its supporters voted tactically for the centrist Gantz only because he had a better chance of replacing Netanyahu and they may well return to Labour next time.

So do the results mean Netanyahu is going to form a “very right wing government” (as other media are predicting) with little prospects for peace? Not necessarily.

As I argued last week, Netanyahu knows this may be his last term, and geostrategic conditions lend themselves to peace initiatives – especially since much of the Arab world is already quietly establishing ties with Israel. (A few days ago even Hamas-supporting Qatar played the Israeli national anthem and raised its flag when an Israeli gymnast won gold – which would have been unthinkable a year ago.)

Despite his hardline pre-election rhetoric, I believe Netanyahu will accept the forthcoming Trump peace plan, which, even if it leans towards Israel, will still require significant Israeli concessions.

I have followed Netanyahu’s career closely ever since I first met him as a teenager before he entered politics – the publisher George Weidenfeld, myself, and my father had a lengthy breakfast in New York when Netanyahu was a diplomat at Israel’s UN mission there in the 1980s. And I know some of Netanyahu’s key advisors today. So contrary to the views of many, I think Netanyahu may try to form a broader coalition with Gantz as his defence minister or deputy PM. He will then be in a much stronger position domestically to swallow concessions that Israel will be asked to make under Trump’s plan, without relying only on hard right coalition partners.

And what of the Palestinians? The highly intransigent Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (now in his 15th year of a four year term) has been refusing even to speak about peace for over a decade and has turned down all previous peace plans.

But a new poll released yesterday evening by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (a Palestinian-run organisation with a good track record in polling) revealed that 87 per cent of Palestinians want Abbas to call elections, 89 per cent want him out of office, and only six per cent support the even more intransigent Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. So Abbas – if he wants to stay on as leader – may have little choice but to accept the Trump plan, and improve the lot of his people even if it doesn’t deliver everything he wants.

Tom Gross is a former Mideast correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph