By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
It has been a long slog of an election campaign since the collapse of the Israeli coalition government in June. By Israeli standards it has been a relatively low-key campaign, though still a toxic one with the familiar below-the-belt personal attacks.
It might be the case that it is difficult to generate much interest, let alone excitement, in a fifth election in three-and-half years, in which the main protagonists are almost the same and the parties’ manifestos have barely changed at all.
Nevertheless, there is something different about this fifth time of asking Israelis to make up their minds about who should govern them — and it is not necessarily the expectation of a decisive outcome.
It is the first time for more than a decade that Israel has had experience of a government not led by the populist and divisive former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In the space of less than a year and a half, the country has had two prime ministers. The first was right-winger Naftali Bennett, who for now has left the political arena, and the second was the more centrist Yair Lapid, who replaced him in June as part of the rotating leadership agreement between the two of them.
The “change” government, as it came to be known, has been far from faultless. But despite its almost impossible composition — made up of a wide range of Zionist parties from the left and right plus, for good measure, an Islamist Palestinian-Israeli party — it has nevertheless restored an element of calm and good governance after all the chaos and deliberate discord sewn by the Netanyahu years.
Israeli elections are probably the only ones in the world in which as soon as the results of exit polls are announced, politicians, commentators and many of those who only few hours earlier cast their vote are already reaching for their calculators and embarking on what has become a the national sport of forming a coalition government.
The night of Nov. 1 will be no different and do not hold your breath for an outcome that will make the identity of the next prime minister or the composition of the government any clearer. However, this is not to say that the Israeli electorate does not have a choice to make; it does and it is rather a stark one.
They can either vote for the parties who formed the outgoing coalition government, which was an inclusive one that during its brief term in office succeeded in passing a budget bill after years during which this crucial element of governance was blocked and held to ransom by Netanyahu; a government that recently agreed a historic deal with Lebanon on the two countries’ maritime border that means they will share the natural resources under the seabed; and a government that has protected the justice system against attacks from the right and has also improved relations with the international community.
Alternatively, voters can choose a return to the Netanyahu years and an administration that thrives on driving a wedge between segments of society, increasing tensions with even its closest allies, and whose main aim, as before, will be to guarantee Netanyahu an indefinite hold on power and discredit the legitimacy of the justice system while seeking to undermine his ongoing corruption trial.
The main demarcation line in Israeli politics is between two blocs: One that has vowed at any cost not to share power with Netanyahu as long as his corruption trial, on three cases of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, continues in a Jerusalem court, and those who are committed to Netanyahu, and no one else, and his attempt to become prime minister once again.
It is rather shocking, especially in face of the evidence presented during Netanyahu’s trial, that he would be allowed to run for office while the trial is still ongoing. He is, of course, entitled, as any other citizen would be, to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty — but his hedonism and moral bankruptcy are beyond reasonable doubt.
To a large extent Netanyahu’s time as prime minister can be split into two periods, before and after the emergence of the corruption allegations against him in early 2017. Before then he was a nationalist-populist who would stop at almost nothing to gain and remain in power. But subsequently, his opportunism spiraled out of control in his attempts to destroy the justice system. First came his failed effort to halt the police investigation into his activities, then came his failed attempt to prevent his trial from going ahead. To that end he was also prepared to legitimize the ultranationalist Kahanist elements in Israeli society, in the form of the Religious Zionism party led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.
This party might become the main story and represents the most regressive political forces in Israeli politics. Ben-Gvir, who not so long ago was regarded as a political pariah, has now, in the most repulsive manner, been lauded by the right, who would like to see him holding a key ministry in the next government.
Netanyahu, and those who support him, including the ultra-Orthodox camp, all see the Supreme Court as a bastion of the left and a defender of the progressive democratic liberal values they despise. They would love to radically weaken this institution, not only to get Netanyahu, who is looking at a possible jail term, off his legal hook but to promote religious legislation in accordance with Jewish law.
Whatever the election result on Tuesday, do not hold your breath for any change when it comes to the Palestinian issue — if it happens at all it will be more nuanced than radical. Only the Arab parties and the left-leaning Meretz party put a fair and just peace with the Palestinians high on their agendas. For the rest the issue has become a distraction and most definitely not a vote winner.
Whoever forms the next coalition government will continue to expand the settlements, will refuse to enter into any meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians, and will perceive Israel’s long-term security as relying on force rather than peace and reconciliation. And the right will pursue such a path with glee.
Still, this could yet prove to be a watershed general election for Israel. If Lapid and his allies should retain power, improvements, maybe even in relations with the Palestinians, will continue, albeit incrementally and in a less demagogical style.
The return of Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office would be more dangerous than ever for the country and the region, due to his desperate need to avoid imprisonment, which would make him a prisoner of the most extreme right-wing elements in Israeli society.
In the meantime, it is for the voters to think long and hard about what kind of country they would like to wake up to on Nov. 2, because the power to unlock the impasse in their political system is in their hands.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg