The Israeli election doesn't have a clear winner. This is what that means for Netanyahu — and Donald Trump

This will certainly be a blow for Jared Kushner, but Trump's cozying up to Netanyahu might not have been for the reasons the Israeli prime minister hoped anyway

Mairav Zonszein
New York
Wednesday 18 September 2019 18:30 BST
Arab Israelis' feelings mixed over election result

With no clear winner in Israel’s election this week — as the Blue and White party and the incumbent Likud party are so far basically neck-and-neck, with 32 seats and 31 seats out of 120 respectively — the next governing coalition in Israel may not be formed for several weeks. While it seems unlikely Netanyahu will remain prime minister, it is still premature to count him out. But what is clear – as could have been predicted before this second election, five months after Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition –is that while Netanyahu’s career as prime minister may be over, a nationalist right-wing agenda prevails.

The Blue and White Party — led by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and by Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party — may be Likud’s rivals, but they share that agenda. That means an end to settlements, an end to the military occupation of Palestinians, and work towards a negotiated two-state solution along pre-1967 borders is simply not on the agenda.

It appears increasingly likely that a broad unity government between some or all of these right-wing parties will be formed and they will maintain the political status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians. On internal matters of religion versus state is where this election may have an impact.

However, Netanyahu’s failure to secure a majority and his possible removal after 10 consecutive years is in and of itself a significant outcome. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has several criminal charges hanging over him (his indictment hearing is next month), has led a racist election campaign saturated with hate speech against Palestinian citizens and leftists that led Facebook to suspend his chatbot twice, and broke several laws on Election Day, just to name a few infractions.

The Joint List, the united faction of Arab parties which received 13 seats to become the third largest party in the Knesset, managed to help deal this blow to Netanyahu: a modest but important win for Israel’s largest national minority. During his 3am speech on Tuesday night following exit polls, Netanyahu, looking somewhat defeated, went back to the talking point that has been the staple of his career — the existential threat from Iran — and reiterated that he is the only one who can deal with Trump.

At time of writing this, Trump hasn’t tweeted any reaction one way or another to the elections. It will be interesting to see how he responds, especially considering his firing of John Bolton and pivot on Iran in the days before the election. Assuming Netanyahu is no longer in charge, it will be a certain blow to the Trump administration, which has stood firmly behind the Israeli prime minister since 2016. We can assume that it will also hurt the longstanding friendship between Netanyahu and Trump’s son-in-law and most senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

However, who Israel’s next prime minister is going to be is not an issue for President Trump. Trump only cares about one election – the 2020 presidential election. He already gave Netanyahu the US Embassy move to Jerusalem, recognition of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and carte blanche to continue entrenching Israel’s settlement enterprise and depriving Palestinians of prospects for their own state. He did this arguably to boast his own right-wing pro-Israel base in the US, rather than to help Netanyahu in this election – which it didn’t anyway. Even the mutual defense treaty Trump floated last weekend did not seem to do anything to bolster Netanyahu’s chances. Trump is likely to continue showering Israel with gifts to serve himself, regardless of who leads the country.

The impact a government led by anyone other than Netanyahu is likely to have on US-Israel relations is not significant – we can assume that it will merely return to the status quo of paying lip service to a peace process while continuing with the same policies. Many liberals in both Israel and the US will be able to say, “Look, Netanyahu’s out — Israel is a sane country again; its democracy is vibrant.”

Benny Gantz, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and oversaw the offensive in Gaza in 2014, has almost identical policies to Netanyahu on the Palestinian front. “I am in favor of us pushing toward an agreement that is based on the principles of retaining control of the Jordan Valley, keeping the settlement blocs, no dividing Jerusalem, no returning to the ’67 lines, no move that is unilateral,” Gantz said at a conference earlier this month. On Iran, Gantz has also said there is “no daylight” between him and Netanyahu. And Lieberman, who is now in a position to dictate which way this coalition will go, lives in a settlement and is responsible for devising a transfer plan for Palestinian citizens out of Israel.

With or without Netanyahu, Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank and a formalized reality of one Jewish apartheid-like state has become entirely normalized in contemporary Israel, and it is supported wholeheartedly by the Trump administration. The bigger question is: what will happen to US-Israeli relations if a Democrat unseats Trump next year, and decides to actually hold Israel accountable for its actions?

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