The prevailing view ahead of the April elections to elect members of the 21st Knesset was that the main, if not only, obstacle to a sweeping right-wing victory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party were the various corruption scandals dogging the prime minister. The assessment-hope among his opponents, from the extreme left to the liberal right, was that the virtually daily revelations about the Netanyahu family’s allegedly corrupt conduct would determine the election outcome.
The results disabused them of their assumption. When counting Yisrael Beitenu as part of the right-wing camp, Netanyahu’s camp indeed received enough Knesset seats to compose a coalition. And it is safe to assume that most of the Israelis who voted Yisrael Beitenu wanted it to join a Netanyahu-led government. As it happened, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman refused to join a Netanyahu-led government, snatching victory from Netanyahu’s jaws.
The fact that with the Sept. 17 elections the personal and family corruption has dropped to a lower level on the campaign agenda is no coincidence. It turns out that the possibility of Netanyahu standing trial, being convicted and going to jail not only does not distance his fans, it strengthens them — somewhat like members of a mystic cult sticking by their guru, even when he is discovered to be a conman living at their expense, and coming to his aid. They view Netanyahu as a unique leader of his generation, a super-statesman, Mr. Security, a top-notch economist, a defense chief who has turned Israel into an empire.
His supporters, just like his opponents, understand that obtaining a 61-seat majority in the next Knesset is designed to provide Netanyahu with immunity from indictment on charges of corruption, by passing legislation that would protect him. However, the various corruption affairs have become a double-edged political sword. On the one hand, they alienate Israeli citizens, men and women, disgusted by Netanyahu’s greed and his abuse of the country’s gatekeepers. On the other hand, his devotees will flock to the polling stations to save the irreplaceable leader from the hands of the leftists and Israeli Arabs. According to Netanyahu and his associates, these are all trying to manipulate the election results and are threatening to annihilate the state and its people.
Netanyahu’s efforts on this front and his attempts at pushing the Camera Bill, designed to intimidate Israeli Arab voters, might actually boomerang back at him. The latest polls show an increase in support for the Arab Joint List. Instead of being intimidated, Israeli Arab voters might flock to the polls on Sept. 17, proving Netanyahu wrong.
Along with the attempt to portray him as a victim of persecution by the “elites” seeking to “depose an incumbent prime minister,” Netanyahu has once again succeeded in positioning the “Iranian threat” at the top of the campaign agenda and with it, obviously, his special relationship with US President Donald Trump, the man who destroyed the nuclear deal with Iran, transferred the US Embassy to Jerusalem and proved a faithful friend of the Golan Heights.
Luckily for Netanyahu, the meeting that appears to be in the works between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York is scheduled to take place after the Sept. 17 election. Either way, Trump’s courting of Rouhani and his firing of his uber-hawkish national security adviser John Bolton provided Israel’s center-left parties with a rare opportunity to take Netanyahu down a peg or two and expose his misjudgments. However, the Blue and White party and its partners on the political left do not have blueprints for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are any different than Netanyahu’s. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and his friends have not dared utter a bad word about the president of the United States on the Iran issue or on Israel's ambiguous nuclear policy. Nor do they dare declare publicly that Netanyahu gambled on a ruler devoid of any world view, moral principles and rational policy. After all, if Gantz becomes Israel’s next prime minister, Trump would be the one greeting him at the White House, at least until early 2021.
To divert attention from his embarrassment on the Iranian-American front, Netanyahu tries to focus voters’ attention on the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria as he refers to the territory). That was one of the goals of his “dramatic declaration” on Sept. 10 regarding his intention to annex the Jordan Valley. In this case, too, Blue and White could not challenge or criticize Netanyahu, in light of the fact that its leaders themselves took the trouble to conduct a highly publicized visit to the Jordan Valley several weeks earlier and vowed that the region would remain forever under Israeli control. The only joy they had left was the live Sept. 11 footage showing Netanyahu being whisked off stage at an election rally in the town of Ashdod to the sounds of sirens warning of incoming rockets and the wild cheering of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.
On Sept. 13, the 26th anniversary of the Oslo Accord, the Israeli opposition was handed another window of opportunity to restore to the public agenda the two-state paradigm designed to preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, as an antithesis to the right-wing’s visions of annexation that have already placed Israel on the road to apartheid. The right wing’s success in making the Oslo Accord synonymous with the words “terrorism,” “intifada” or “disaster” has removed from the public discourse any mention of the agreement for Israeli-Palestinian peace and its contribution to Israel’s security. Throughout the campaign of the past few months, the opposition made no attempt to tell Israeli voters that Area C, which Netanyahu and right-wing leader Naftali Bennett are pledging to annex, came into being as a result of the Oslo Accord.
People’s short memory and the crippling fear of discussing the Oslo peace deal allows Netanyahu to take credit for the achievements of the late Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres: the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces with which Israel cooperates to this day despite the freeze in negotiations between the sides and the creeping annexation; the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan; the demise of the Arab Boycott; the flow of foreign investment; and the flourishing relations with the Gulf states and Russia, China and India. The signatures of Rabin and Peres on the landmark Sept. 13, 1996, agreement with the Palestinians paved the way to the historic Arab League Peace Initiative in March 2002 that offered Israel normalized relations with the Arab world.
For years, the key issue engaging most Israeli voters ahead of elections was the question of how the results would affect the “diplomatic process” — code for peace talks with the Palestinians. Is there any chance that Israeli voters will elect a Knesset that would respond to the Arab Peace Initiative and put out its hand in peace to Israel’s neighbors? In the election campaign for the 22nd Knesset, as in the one conducted five months ago, these fateful questions made way for a shallow discourse, fraught with raw emotion but devoid of emotional intelligence. And we have not even mentioned the crumbling public welfare and health systems, the deteriorating level of education and the ongoing gaps between rich and poor, Jews and Arabs, residents of the center and the periphery. Obviously, Israelis have no patience for such nonsense when the media provides a new story every day from the prime minister’s Balfour Street residence.
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