Our newly re-elected Prime Minister likes to compare himself to Winston Churchill. That is, to say the least, fanciful, however, this election result does present him with a chance to, at last, make that transition from politician (the very definition of one in fact), to statesman.
He has two options now in forming a new governing coalition. One, seemingly much more likely, is to ally with his ‘natural partners’ on the Right and form a narrow, nationalist/religious government with Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and the two charedi parties, with Moshe Kahlon’s centrist Kulanu as the ‘moderate’ fig leaf. Alternatively he could form a unity government, bringing in the Zionist Union.
If Netanyahu so chooses, he could use the the latter option to effect massive change in Israel, to restore the Likud to its former position as a center-right party and to go down in history as a Prime Minister who actually achieved something significant beyond simply staying in office a very long time.
One, relatively unnoticed fact of this election is that the parties to the right of the Likud on either diplomatic/security issues or social issues (or both) have all lost parliamentary clout. Between them, Bayit Yehudi, United Torah Judaism and Shas have 21 seats in this new Knesset, down almost a third from the total of 30 they achieved in the 2013 elections.
Netanyahu could decide to see this as a move by right-wing voters away from the extremes. He could seize the opportunity of forming a grand coalition spanning center-right to center-left: Likud, Kulanu, Yesh Atid and Zionist Union (with maybe Yisrael Beiteinu included to shore up his right flank), leaving out the charedi and dati leumi theocrats.
He could arrest the Likud’s seemingly relentless drift away from its Jabotinsky-Begin liberal heritage and head a center-right party with a security-driven but pragmatic, pro-free market but compassionate agenda. Such a party could head a coalition that pushes through a change in our crazy election system, that cleans out the corrupt Rabbinate and introduces civil marriage and other liberal reforms in the religious establishment, and that enacts the sweeping anti-monopoly economic policies that both Yesh Atid and Kulanu have fought for.
As for foreign policy, it may well be that for a significant number of Israelis, Netanyahu is the prime minister we need to handle the formidable array of threats we face in today’s Middle East. (Certainly many feel that Herzog is not that leader.) But a narrow right-wing government that will alienate even our closest allies in the world with its endorsement of permanent control of the Palestinian population and its anti-democratic rhetoric, will not be able fend off the plethora of diplomatic attacks headed our way. In fact, it will be a disaster. A foreign minister Herzog or Lapid would lend us a very different international image than Bennett. We would still be an Israel committed to the liberal democratic west, rather than one led by a messianic religious ideology that judges human rights according to a particular and chauvinistic interpretation of God’s will.
I realize I am clutching at the frailest of straws here. I write this much more in hope than expectation, Netanyahu has given me no reason whatsoever to think he will take this opportunity to make a real difference and to create a more just and democratic Israel. But the alternative is to simply contemplate a coalition of Jewish fundamentalists and extreme nationalists, and what they would make of the values expressed in our Declaration of Independence:
[Israel] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…
Think about it Bibi would you?