‘Bibi Melech Yisrael’ they chanted at the Likud victory rally. ‘Bibi, king of Israel’. The Israeli media, the organised left and the international community have been reacquainted with the lesson they keep forgetting: never write off Benjamin Netanyahu. With counting so far putting Likud on 36 seats, he has achieved his best ever result as leader and the party’s best performance since Ariel Sharon’s stonking 2003 victory. He is still two seats short of an overall majority but his people are already working to tempt a number of opposition MPs over to his side.
Israel’s third election in a year has seemingly ended a political stalemate in which neither Netanyahu nor his centre-left opponents could form a government. Israelis appear to have voted to be done with the uncertainty and restore stability, or as much stability as there can be in Israeli politics. They were not as affronted as they were asked to be by corruption charges against Bibi. They were undeterred by a sordid electoral plot: a rabbi linked to Netanyahu secretly taped an opposition adviser speaking critically of his own candidate.
For the centre-left and the left, the disappointment is hollowing. This is the fifth election in a row in which they have tried and failed to take down Netanyahu. His impending corruption trial might do their job for them but he beat them at the ballot box all the same. The anti-Bibi Blue and White coalition has barely advanced on last time. Labor, which along with its predecessor parties governed Israel uninterrupted for the first three decades of its existence, has managed just three seats. The Arab and anti-Zionist Joint List had its best ever night, underscoring the growing political power of Israeli-Arabs.
The soldier vote, still to be counted, may give Likud another seat but Netanyahu still needs to cobble together a majority. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is standing firm, making a grand coalition unlikely, while Avigdor Lieberman, head of the only anti-Bibi rightist party, would have to set aside hard-learned animus for his old frenemy to join a Netanyahu government. However, the opposition knows this: the voters’ contempt, and a likely electoral drubbing, awaits any party blamed for forcing a fourth election.
Another term of Bibi will be shaped, dominated, maybe even destroyed by his trial, the first criminal trial of a sitting prime minister. But over the past four years he has shown how these proceedings can be drawn out to his advantage. It gives him time to fashion a legacy and the most obvious one is a redrawn map of Israel. The Palestinians’ immediate and predictable rejection of the Trump peace plan gives Netanyahu some leeway, even though the White House would prefer to maintain the illusion that its proposals are still viable.
Bibi has already pledged that a new government would apply sovereignty to the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria and to the Jordan Valley. Even some of his opponents are sympathetic to at least parts of this endeavour. The Israeli centre-left isn’t as naive as it used to be about the peace process: it recognises that there isn’t one. However much Israel concedes, the Palestinian authorities believe they can wait until the international community cajoles Jerusalem to concede even more.
Because it does not understand a conflict about which it is obsessed, the international community has encouraged this strategy and in doing so achieved the exact opposite of its goals. The spirit of the Israeli peace camp was not broken at Camp David or Taba or in the bloody outrages of the Second Intifada; Oslo came despite decades of Palestinian intransigence and terror. The Israeli left and the two-state solution was broken at Turtle Bay and Geneva and in a thousand hypocrisies heaped upon a country that is a damn sight daintier about conflict than most of its condemners.
The world uses Israel to work out its own colonial guilt and the Palestinians as proxies for its own righteous victimhood. Few countries — only the United States comes readily to mind — have served as honest brokers of a workable peace. (For doing so, the US has been almost as thoroughly vilified as Israel.) That’s all over now. The Palestinians may yet achieve a state for themselves but it will be nothing like the one the world promised them.
If Netanyahu has his way, the world will have to get used to a new name for swathes of what it currently calls ‘the Occupied Palestinian Territories’: Israel. Bibi may be the king of Israel but if Israelis crowned him, his gaudy diadem was fashioned in foreign ministries and General Assembly votes and vexatious conferences the world over. Bibi Melech UM. Bibi, the UN king.