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A second Israeli election proves Netanyahu’s grip on power is slipping

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In a sign of how politically vulnerable he has rapidly become, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu plunged Israel into new elections last week – less than two months after his far-right bloc appeared to win at the ballot box.

Netanyahu was forced to dissolve the 120-member parliament to block his chief rival, Benny Gantz, from getting a chance to assemble an alternative governing coalition.

Gantz, a former army general who heads the Blue and White party, won 35 seats, the same number as Netanyahu’s Likud party, in the April election, but had fewer potential allies to form a majority. So in September, Israelis will cast their votes afresh.

The ostensible reason for the parliament’s dissolution is a stand-off between Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, his former defence minister. They clashed over Lieberman’s insistence that ultra-orthodox Jews be drafted into the army.

But Lieberman, it seems, chose to turn a relatively marginal issue into a full-blown crisis as a way to unseat the prime minister.

To win a far-right majority, Netanyahu needed not only Lieberman’s small Yisrael Beiteinu party but also the ultra-Orthodox parties, which vehemently oppose conscription.

Netanyahu grew so desperate that at the last moment he tried – unsuccessfully – to woo Avi Gabbay, leader of the centrist Labour party. Labour was crushed in April, receiving just six seats, its lowest-ever result.

Netanyahu’s panic was fully justified. He is due to face a hearing in October, when it is widely expected he will be indicted on multiple corruption charges.

With parliament’s dissolution, he no longer has time to pass two pieces of legislation that could have absolved him of charges before the October deadline. First, he needed an immunity law exempting him from trial, and then a so-called “override law” to prevent Israel’s supreme court from using its powers of judicial review to rule the immunity law unconstitutional.

Gabbay objected to Netanyahu insisting on support for the immunity law as the price for Labour’s inclusion in the coalition.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the biggest party representing Israel’s Palestinian minority, one-fifth of the population, mocked Netanyahu’s frantic bargaining.

He provoked much mirth from other legislators by joking that Netanyahu had offered an “end to the occupation” and a promise to “recognise the historic wrongs of the Nakba”, the Palestinians’ dispossession by Israel in 1948, in return for Palestinian parties supporting the immunity law.

Lieberman also humiliated Netanyahu, albeit without the humour. He understood that the prime minister was in no position to haggle.

The gain for Lieberman is that by proposing a bill to draft ultra-orthodox Jews into the army, he appealed to secular Jews. That, he hopes, will win him new supporters in the September election, setting him up again to be kingmaker.

Netanyahu will not be able to count on Lieberman’s support and that in turn puts pressure on Likud to drop its leader.

But there is another, less obvious, way that Lieberman can strengthen his own hand.

The battle lines in the new election, like the last, are between the far-right parties, led by Netanyahu, and the centre-right parties, led by Gantz.

Lieberman can now hedge his bets. The far-right has become more overtly religious, with the rise of ideological settlers to prominence and the rapid growth of the ultra-orthodox electorate.

Lieberman’s appeal, meanwhile, has been restricted to a declining constituency of disgruntled immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose politics is ultra-nationalist but implacably secular.

And this gives him reason to want to influence Gantz’s Blue and White party, which is largely secular too.

In recent weeks, a political “resistance” movement has emerged in Israel against Netanyahu, echoing the one against Donald Trump in the US. With Gantz as its figurehead, it has mobilised over the threat Netanyahu poses to Israel’s system of checks and balances.

The chief concern has been the far-right’s intensifying assault on the supreme court, the last relatively liberal institution. The override law, which would neuter the court, has epitomised, for the centre-right, the intensifying erosion of even the most superficial of democratic norms.

Tens of thousands of Israelis attended a protest last month against Netanyahu and his legal manoeuvres.

But Odeh, the most prominent of the Palestinian minority’s leaders, was not invited – not until Gantz had a last-minute change of heart.

Without the Palestinian parties’ 10 or more seats in the parliament behind him, Gantz currently has little hope of tipping the balance in his favour against Netanyahu at the forthcoming election.

Lieberman, a settler, has a special loathing for Palestinian legislators. He has even called for them to be executed. One option is for him to lure Gantz away from Odeh, promising that his Yisrael Beinteinu party can serve up the the keys to the castle after September’s election.

What does all this jostling mean for the Palestinians?

If he can win again, Netanyahu will doubtless scheme to avert a trial and hope to carry on as before.

If he is felled, a successor from his Likud party is unlikely to prove either more moderate or more amenable to Palestinian ambitions for statehood. Likud has lurched significantly to the far-right over the past decade.

But Gantz, the only plausible alternative, is no peacenik either. He oversaw the terrible destruction of Gaza in 2014, supports keeping most of the settlements in place and seems unlikely to pay more than lip service to a peace process.

Should he find himself reliant on Lieberman to build a government, Gantz will have to emphasise the more right-wing elements of his party’s already hawkish programme.

Faced with the current political turmoil, however, the Trump administration might prefer to abandon efforts to press ahead with its “deal of the century” peace plan – at least beyond an initial investment conference scheduled for late June.

That is a reprieve of kinds. All indications were that the plan would prove catastrophically bad for the Palestinians and might have included annexing parts of the West Bank.

But even if that specific threat is lifted, the next Israeli government – whether led by Netanyahu, his successor or Gantz – is not likely to depart from Israel’s long-term consensus, one that the Trump plan was simply set to accelerate.

The settlements will continue their relentless expansion and more Palestinian land will be stolen, eroding any prospect of a viable state for Palestinians emerging.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook
About Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is jonathan-cook.net.

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5 Responses

  1. DaBakr
    DaBakr on June 4, 2019, 10:12 pm

    Well duh. He didn’t form a coalition. That is pretty much the definition of slipping. But how much and wether he will win again is more based on our peculiar democratic system of parliment. There are a lot of variables. Just one of them is : only approx 50% of non Jewish Israeli citizens voted. It’s possible that a larger % will vote if they think their vote can sway. And that is just one of many small variables that will plsy a role. It’s a complex messy system but I like that it makes it hard to refute (except to the dedicated zionist Israel and jew haters) that Israel is not a democratic system

    • eljay
      eljay on June 5, 2019, 7:22 am

      || @aak … It’s a complex messy system but I like that it makes it hard to refute (except to the dedicated zionist Israel and jew haters) that Israel is not a democratic system ||

      It is a complex messy democracy but I like that it remains impossible to refute (except to dedicated Jewish supremacists (Zionists) and their lackeys) that Israel is a deliberately and unapologetically colonialist, (war) criminal and religion-supremacist state.

    • Misterioso
      Misterioso on June 5, 2019, 9:40 am

      @DaBakr

      Pathetic, ineffective comment. Reality: The borderless, expansionist, racist, fascistic entity known as “Israel” is rotting within and increasingly scorned by the world, including the U.S.

    • Misterioso
      Misterioso on June 5, 2019, 9:55 am

      @ DaBakr

      “Democracy in Netanyahu’s Israel Under Greater Threat Than in Trump’s America, Warns Lawfare Editor Benjamin Wittes, one of the most sought-after commentators on legal affairs in Trump-era America, says Benjamin Netanyahu could wreak a lot of damage on the legal system in a very short space of time” By David B. Green, June 5, 2019, Haaretz.

      EXCERPT:
      “Benjamin Wittes has been warning Americans about Donald Trump since early 2016. If anything, his fears about the president have only intensified as his tenure has proceeded. Nonetheless, he sees Israel as being more vulnerable to its own leader’s machinations than the United States is from Trump. Whereas the U.S. will be rid of Trump one day with its legal institutions intact, Israel’s balance of powers may be left permanently off-kilter post-Benjamin Netanyahu, he believes.

      “If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it may be because you aren’t a devoted follower of inside-the-Beltway wonkery. If you were, you’d know that Wittes — editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog — is one of the most sought-after commentators on legal affairs in Trump-era America. Even though he is not a lawyer. As a frequent visitor to Israel (Haaretz met him last week while he was participating in a conference at the Israel Democracy Institute) and amateur follower of its politics, he is well placed to do a comparative analysis.

      “Both Netanyahu and Trump, of course, are under investigation on a variety of criminal suspicions that could ultimately land each of them in prison. But it’s only Netanyahu who can change the rules of the game even as it’s being played, he explains.

      “Wittes notes that with a ruling coalition behind him — admittedly, a possibility that was put on hold once the Knesset voted to dissolve itself last week and hold a new election in September — the Israeli prime minister ‘can in relatively short order pass both an immunity bill,’ which would shut down any possibility of indicting him, and the ‘override’ bill that would deprive the High Court of Justice of the power to declare the immunity bill unconstitutional.
      “’In other words,’ he says, ‘Netanyahu proposes — and could actually implement — pretty dramatic changes to the legal system quite quickly.’

      “Wittes attributes this dramatic possibility to Israel’s anomalous constitutional regime, which he characterizes as ‘super-weird.’

      “Asked to elaborate, he explains in a follow-up email that, beyond the fact that Israel lacks a written constitution (which is not in itself unique), it also has ‘the combination, on the one hand, of a system of parliamentary supremacy, and, on the other hand, a highly aggressive court that asserts broad authority of judicial review.’ Ironically, however, anything the High Court does can be reversed by the legislature, ‘given that the court’s authority itself is a creature of the Knesset.’

      “Wittes says he is unaware of any other system ‘in which the judiciary has been more aggressive while wielding less ultimate power.'”

  2. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block on June 5, 2019, 10:25 am

    The alternatives to Netanyahu are no better. Though the need to include Ayman Odeh suggests a bit of hope.
    As for Netanyahu destroying Israel’s democracy and rule of law, that assumes that Israel is democratic to begin with, and that it is governed by rule of law. I don’t think so.

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