Whatever the ultimate outcome of the third-round March 2 vote, it is clear that the year-long electoral excruciation was a disgrace for Israel and a wakeup call for the forces of modernity and moderation in the badly divided country.
Netanyahu, about to face trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, should not be prime minister in anything resembling the type of democracy that is central to Israel’s claims of being a “villa in the jungle.” It would be a dysfunctional outrage even if the law allowed it, which it does not even necessarily do. The law allows a sitting prime minister to continue until a final conviction, yes, but it is ambiguous on whether an indicted person can be appointed as prime minister by the president even if that person has a Knesset majority. The law certainly does not require it, which is the absurd narrative Netanyahu’s Likud stooges are selling the public.
Yet the emerging results leave him with a decent to somehow continue. That’s remarkable, given that the opposition sports three military chiefs and the support of most informed people in the country, with the living Shin Bet and Mossad ex-chiefs all calling him a menace in a video, and with his corruption scandals extending far beyond even the actual charges.
Why this failure to dislodge him? I have four quick conclusions.
First, you cannot win without a clear message.
The anti-Netanyahu argument is not enough. That message, in line with what centrist Israelis want, might have been: We want a partition from the Palestinians on reasonable terms, and we want to prevent theocracy, and we want an end to the war on the rule of law. In its tragically lame campaign, the Blue and White opposition was afraid to say most of this due to the timidity of the party strategists who hoped to draw soft-right votes. That plainly did not work, three times now. The public does not reward film-flam. Indeed, the center-left minus the Arabs did no better with all the advantages of 2020 than in 2015 under the hapless Buji Herzog (when it received 40 seats plus 13 for the Arabs).
Second, change cannot happen without the Arabs and the center-left must stop pretending.
There is no reasonable scenario in which the non-right camp can get to 61 without the Arabs. Despite this fact, Blue and White insisted on disqualifying the Arabs’ only party in its pandering to the right. That projects weakness by adopting the narrative of its racist rivals and leaves the public confused (with its intelligence practically insulted) about how Blue and White intends to set up a government. People simply did not buy the assurances that a magical solution will emerge, or the nonsense about a “Zionist majority” made up of imaginary extras. It might have been different had Benny Gantz marched into the studios and said in game-changing fashion: “I’m looking for 61 seats to send Bibi packing and they can be Jewish, Arab or Martian, because we have a job to do and a country to run.” He would have lost a few bigots, but might have caught fire in the way that he needed to do and manifestly failed. Dissembling and equivocation is no way to build leadership and it suppressed the turnout in key centrist constituencies.
That said there is a problem with the current Joint Arab List largely because its Palestinian nationalist Balad component is discredited in the eyes of too many Israelis due to too many borderline statements and tweets that can be seen as supporting terrorism. There is a solution: the Joint List must be separated from the relatively small Balad faction in exchange for a serious outreach to openly bring it into the fold.
Third, much of the public either does not care about corruption and/or does not believe in the legal system.
Netanyahu convinced masses of people that the charges against him a trumped-up hit job, however implausible this appears to anyone familiar with the facts and with the protagonists (who include the Netanyahu-appointed and national-religious police chief and the attorney general who led the investigations and prosecution). This is a dire warning and a reflection of the distortions and arrogance of a legal system which has too easy a trigger finger, too big a backlog of cases and too high a proportion of convictions.
Fourth, there is a big problem with rational moderate Israelis not voting.
Every one of them who did not vote is responsible for what happened. This is a global problem with the left, which tends to lack killer instinct and to allow the great to be the enemy of the good. Whereas the right wing tends to back its leader no matter what – witness the US Republicans’ comical acquiescence to Donald Trump – the left allows itself the luxury of endless second-guessing, self-flagellation and mini-quibbles.
As a result of these four failures, this is where we are: the final results may give the anti-Netanyahu camp 61 seats, but Likud will be almost certainly the bigger party, and there will be debate over what this means (quisling journalists are already abandoning the narrative that only the blocs matter and claiming Likud’s advantage over Blue and White is somehow a victory, which in Israel’s system it is actually not). In theory Avigdor Liberman could still then unite with the center, left and Arabs and toss him out; I hope he finds the courage to do this desperately necessary thing, which he absolutely should, but it seems somehow unlikely.
If Netanyahu gets to 60 in the final count, he will try to steal a member of the opposition with various gifts. Keep your eye on Orly Levy who has an obsession with becoming health minister and a ludicrous ego to match her father’s.
Either way there will probably be huge pressure for a unity government between Blue and White and Likud, where the drama will again involve which leader goes first in a rotation (or whether there may even be a rotation). Gantz has promised not to serve under Netanyahu while he is on trial; he will face huge pressure to surrender which I hope he resists.
If Netanyahu somehow finagles a government without Blue and White, we will see efforts to castrate the police, the prosecutor’s office, and the courts.
Netanyahu will also be at the mercy of each of his coalition partners, each offering its own disasters. Because of the right, Netanyahu will have to honor his promises to annex West Bank settlements, and he will have to do so quickly, while Trump is still in power to allow it; that could cause an intifada. Together with increased settling it will take Israel many steps towards the point of inseparability from the West Bank, which means the end of the Jewish state.
Netanyahu will also be in the pockets of the religious. You can forget about weekend commerce and transportation, civil marriage, and efforts to apply math and science and English studies to ultra-Orthodox schools so that Israel will not become a third-world country. You can also forget about the efforts to stop the creep towards theocracy: gender segregation and religious indoctrination in schools will increase, funding for the religious bureaucracy will skyrocket. The number of yeshiva students – and so, draft dodgers – will redouble.
The economy will suffer and relations between Jews and the Arab minority will deteriorate further.
A unity government instead of a rightist government will minimize the damage but probably bring little if any actual progress.
It must be said that Netanyahu proved again that he is a formidable politician with fanatical support. He is a gutter cynic and a divider and a schemer, and might one day be a convict, but there is no denying his sharpness of mind and tongue. The opposition needs an equally compelling personality to stand against him. Few will argue that Gantz has not proven his equal as a politician, and that is something Blue and White will have to consider.
Perhaps most interesting is the Trump factor. He created the (false) impression that he is helping Israel, for which Netanyahu understandably received credit. The damage Trump did to Israel by helping Netanyahu is another brick in the wall of global carnage he has wrought. That is a shame for Israel, but the other bricks are no less important and include undermining civil discourse in the United States, environmental damage to the planet, the unraveling of the Western alliance and blanketing the world with a rancid cloak of horrendous karma.
Which sets up another quite important election in 2020.