In Israel’s far northern town of Kiryat Shmona nine years ago, after Benjamin Netanyahu had become the leader of the Likud party for the second time, I bumped into a 60-year-old Sephardic Jew called Yacov Camari. Pushing his shopping trolley through the market, he proclaimed his intention of voting Labour for the first time: “Bibi screwed us,” he announced succinctly. “And now we’re going to screw him.”
Netanyahu was indeed heavily defeated in 2006, not by Labour but by the Likud breakaway party led by Ehud Olmert – and temporarily. In 2009 he brought his right-wing Likud party back to power again, and has been there ever since. It was widely assumed that having sacked two of his coalition partners late last year and called today’s election, he would win a third successive victory. He still may, of course, but the polls suggest that he could – and perhaps finally – be “screwed”. And Labour could have its first Prime Minister since Ehud Barak won in 1999.
Every election is different. But there is a similarity with Mr Camari’s complaints back in 2006, which had nothing to do with Netanyahu’s obsession with Iran, let alone with the issue of peace with the Palestinians, but everything to do with the harm he felt Netanyahu had caused the less well-off as a neo-Thatcherite Finance Minister. This year, domestic economic issues, in particular a housing crisis, have also helped the anti-Netanyahu swing. Indeed, it’s the Palestinian dimension which has been largely missing from the election.
Until, at least, Netanyahu raised it himself in his strangely paranoid Facebook posting late last week. This was the one which, in tones some unkind Israeli commentators have compared to those of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak before his fall, he accused “international organisations” of conspiring with the left to topple him – a bit rich given that the relentlessly pro-Bibi free paper Israel Hayom, which now outcirculates the rest of the Israeli press, is financed by Sheldon Adelson, the hard right-wing American casino magnate (and major bankroller first of Newt Gingrich’s and then Mitt Romney’s 2012 runs at the US Presidency.)
Netanyahu warned that if the opposition, led by Labour leader Isaac Herzog and former minister Tzipi Livni, won, they would “give up everything. They’ll withdraw to the 1967 boundaries and they will divide Jerusalem.” He didn’t of course mention that this – to him – deplorable goal is the official policy not only of what he likes to call “the international left” but of almost every Western government.
Israel’s next PM: Herzog's rival candidates
Israel’s next PM: Herzog's rival candidates
1/4 Benjamin Netanyahu
Seeking a fourth term, the 65-year-old has made security a main issue. His policy of settlement-building on occupied land has put him at loggerheads with many of Israel’s traditional allies. But he is still seen as the person most likely to cobble together a coalition on the right.
2/4 Tzipi Livni
Sacked by Mr Netanyahu in December after cabinet infighting, Ms Livni, a centrist who served as Justice Minister and chief peace negotiator, seemed destined for the political wilderness until she struck the partnership deal with Isaac Herzog. A leading advocate of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, the 56-year-old has pledged to seek ways to resume peace talks.
3/4 Yair Lapid
Mr Lapid, 51, was the rising star of Israeli politics in the 2013 election. His centrist Yesh Atid party came second behind Mr Netanyahu’s Likud. As a result, Mr Netanyahu appointed him Finance Minister. Fired amid the government squabbling in December, Mr Lapid is a potential kingmaker, predicted to win 12 seats.
4/4 Ayman Odeh
The Arab Israeli lawyer heads the Joint Arab List and is gaining momentum. It is the first time Israel’s four Arab parties have united and they are predicted to win around 13 seats. Mr Odeh, 40, from Haifa, advocates an Arab-Jewish “alliance of the disadvantaged”. He has said his party would not join any government.
In any case this looks – sadly – like a desperate exaggeration. While Herzog would no doubt invite the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reopen negotiations, there is nothing in the campaign to suggest that he has the coherent plan needed to force an end to the 47-year-old occupation in the foreseeable future. Especially when his best hope is probably a wafer-thin majority against an opposition that could include not only Likud – possibly led by some even more overtly pro-settler leader than Netanyahu – but the Jewish Home party led by the ultra-hard-line nationalist Naftali Bennett.
Some Israeli anti-occupation activists have even suggested that the best post-election outcome would be if Netanyahu managed to assemble a right-wing coalition with an equally narrow majority. Weakened by an erratic election campaign, he would then face a strengthened opposition which could take power more convincingly at a later election. This opposition would be fortified by a grass-roots “peace camp” long in seemingly terminal decline but now showing signs of revival. Whether or not this is a Machiavellian scenario too far, the worst option would surely be a national “unity” grand coalition embracing Likud and Labour – a recipe for paralysis on the Palestinian front, and one with no effective opposition. There are many unknowns. Will the unified Arab list strengthen the left camp by winning 13 Knesset seats? Conversely will Meretz, to the left of Labour, lose its foothold because of a raised threshold for Knesset entry? Which way will Netanyahu’s “soft right” former colleague Moshe Kahlon jump in the coalition negotiations? But this does not alter a changing reality.
For too long the Europeans, and the US Presidency, reasoned that Netanyahu would somehow deliver a Palestinian state from the right. That delusion is over, which is one reason the Europeans have begun – pitifully slowly – to consider serious measures against settlement exports. Indeed one danger is that if Herzog is elected, they will relax all this in the event of a “peace process”, however tenuous. Yesterday, desperate to solidify the right-wing vote, Netanyahu withdrew even the lip service he once paid to a Palestinian state. Nothing could better illustrate why, if and when he finally goes after dominating Israeli politics for so long, his passing will not be mourned in the West outside the ranks of the US Republican Right – or seemingly by much of mainstream Israel.Reuse content