President Reuven Rivlin says the public recoils at the very thought of a third election round. Benny Gantz says he has no problem with Likud, only with Benjamin Netanyahu. Both statements beg for a firm reply.
Yes, three elections in a single year is absurd, and two are pretty odd as well. It’s costly and damages the functioning of government. But it’s far less expensive and damaging than continued Likud rule. This is because Gantz is wrong: There is a big problem with Likud which will survive its legally challenged leader.
Netanyahu’s balance sheet is complex. He faces serious corruption charges and indictments appear to be on the way. He will lie, spread venom, damage democracy and barter intelligence to serve his cause. His incitement against Arab citizens is a true stain on Israel.
But there is also a positive side. On the world stage he certainly annoys many listeners, but he also draws a kind of admiration for his devious intelligence and almost inhuman eloquence.
His economic policy is reasonable. Israel would have been more prosperous if there had been a peace process, but given that there isn’t (due to both the Palestinians and to him) he makes the most of the situation: inflation is low, there is some growth, unemployment declines, some reforms were done and there is a sense of stability. He did not interfere with the critical high tech sector and occasionally nurtured it.
His diplomacy in the region – again, given that there is no peace process – preserves a kind of stability, despite his adventures in Syria (no one has a solution to the catastrophe there). Regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran, he was right in pushing the global powers for a better arrangement, but gambled recklessly in taking on the Obama administration when most Israeli security experts actually accepted the deal that was reached; but Napoleon needs lucky generals and Bibi lucked out when Donald Trump was elected in the United States.
So yes, he should go; most of the world will breathe a sigh of relief. But would everything then be OK? Absolutely not. The problem is Likud, more than Netanyahu.
Why? The main issue is not the corruption that finds fertile ground all over the right and in other places too, not just with Bibi. The main problem is not even the shameful circus called the Likud Central Committee with its gutter culture. The problem is policy: the party has done damage and will continue to do so as long as it’s in power.
After Likud first came to power under Menachem Begin in 1977, it reached peace with Egypt and returned the Sinai, which was wise. But Labour would have done the same thing once Anwar Sadat was ready – and would have encountered hysterical resistance from Likud.
Here’s what followed:
- To cleanse itself of the stain of reason Likud then turned to war instead. Begin and Ariel Sharon conquered half of Lebanon in a war they launched in 1982. The PLO fled to Tunis and the Likud government refused to withdraw from the neighboring state, giving a raison d’etre to the nascent Hezbollah. In the 1984 election campaign, Likud’s defense minister Moshe Arens ridiculed Labour’s Yitzhak Rabin, who proposed a pullout: “Does he believe in such a thing?” Arens asked in campaign ads. “Do any of us believe it?” A year later, the unity government led by Labour’s Shimon Peres pulled out of most of Lebanon, which no reasonable person bemoans today. Who opposed? The majority of Likud ministers.
- After the prime ministers’ rotation, Peres as foreign minister reached an agreement with King Hussein, which would have probably transferred most of the West Bank to Jordan, saved Israel from controlling millions of Palestinians, prevented the first intifada (and with it the second), neutralized the PLO, and brought peace with Jordan and perhaps other countries. Shamir thwarted the move with full Likud support.
- In the three decades since, Likud mainly has thwarted peace efforts and insisted on Jewish settlements. This project was indirectly aided by Palestinian terrorists who over the years carried out horrific suicide bombings aimed in part at moving Israeli voters to the right and thus preventing a partition – in order to bring about a bi-national state that would eventually be an Arab country. Likud is inadvertently leading exactly to this, while betting that Jews will forever dominate by force and deny Palestinians the vote. The autonomy arrangements in the West Bank help enable the status quo, confusing voters and allowing Likud to obfuscate. They are literally a gift to the right. Who opposed them anyway? Of course, Likud.
- Leaving Gaza was a logical move. Tiny and unstrategic area; hostile and large population. The 2015 pullout allowed the demographic balance to appear more plausible despite the continued occupation of the West Bank – again, a gift to the right. Although Sharon rammed through the withdrawal, the right wing gave him hell and finally he abandoned the Likud to establishe the centrist Kadima, rest in peace. Gaza is indeed a security problem today, and its people suffer terribly under Hamas – but for Israel at least, the situation is still better than the occupation was. Humanitarian and security improvements are needed. Who prevents it? The Likud government, of course.
- Finally, Likud also enables religious coercion in Israel because without the religious parties there can be no Likud rule in any scenario, and this is the price of their support. Without Likud’s long-standing rule, trade and public transportation on Shabbat, civil marriages, compulsory military or national service and a core curriculum would long ago have been established. The majority is interested in all these things, and Likud rule prevents them.
Dear Rivlin: the above record is what should actually make people recoil.
Instead there is a stalemate that results from a kind of cultural war that is not unique to Israel, and in Israel it relates to one’s attitude toward religion. It’s hard to convince anyone of anything and the most either side can hope for is suppressing the vote on the other.
So what now?
Netanyahu’s legal troubles distort everything. They make his supporters dig in and create hysteria on the left. Campaigns have focused on Netanyahu only and not on the dismal Likud record.
Netanyahu’s hearing is scheduled in another week and indictments will probably follow. Political and prosecution schedules strangely converge. Nothing should be decided before the legal side plays out.
If there are indictments, the Likud may actually oust Netanyahu. Then, despite my claims that something is wrong with the party, that would be a new and interesting situation.
If all of this leads to a snap election, Rivlin need not worry; Israel will survive. A third election, while ridiculous, is not unreasonable in such unusual circumstances. And then the voters will have clarity at last.
If Netanyahu runs under indictment, it will be clear that the proposition is to have a prime minister who serves while standing trial. That will matter even to some Likud voters.
And if it turns out to be the first of the three rounds without Netanyahu, it will be the first in which it is possible to discuss the issues, like mature people.
Round Two was a partial azimuth correction. Round Three may actually succeed.