By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
A call for early elections in Israel a few months before they are actually due cannot be regarded as an earthquake. Governments there rarely survive for a full term, and when early elections take place on April 9 the fourth Netanyahu government will have served for nearly four years. In the tumultuous reality of Israeli politics, this should be regarded as something between an achievement and a miracle.
However, one would be hard pressed to find any other achievement of this government or its prime minister that is worth celebrating. Netanyahu’s decision to call it a day for his coalition is a calculated risk, some might say a gamble. It is based on an assessment that he will be forming the next government, or at least on a belief that he can create for himself and his corrupt inner circle some breathing space from the police investigations into their abuse of public office.
Two recent and not unrelated developments have left Netanyahu and his government vulnerable, and forced the prime minster to reassess the balance of power on the political chessboard. This has led him to concede that the coalition’s days are numbered. First was the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who quit the government along with his party. This left Netanyahu presiding over a coalition with a majority of just one member of the Knesset and at the mercy of several unpredictable, unreliable and at times unscrupulous others. It would inevitably have meant a further year of paralysis and caving in to the whims of almost every single coalition member. The second development, which has to do more with his personal fate than the country’s destiny, is the near inevitability of the PM’s indictment on at least one of the corruption affairs he is embroiled in. This will have increased the pressure on him to relinquish the premiership while he defends himself in court. In other words, Netanyahu has decided to jump into another election campaign before he is pushed into one, or out of politics altogether.
In the past few weeks a team of lawyers from the state prosecutor’s office, evaluating the meticulously collected evidence in two bribery cases against the Netanyahus, joined the police in recommending that the prime minister and his wife be indicted on two separate charges. Make no mistake, from now until his day of reckoning at the ballot box, whatever the Israeli electorate and the world hears and sees from Netanyahu should be considered in the light of his desperate attempt to cling to power and avoid justice, rather than of the good of the country.
Early figures from public opinion polls suggest that while a majority of Israelis do not trust Netanyahu, his Likud party will still gain about a quarter of the votes, leaving him with a very good chance of leading the next coalition government. This is a result of one of the idiosyncrasies of Israel’s murky politics, where personal integrity is a secondary issue for voters, because they see their personal security as closely linked to what they perceive as a threatening external environment and an economy that is thriving under the present administration. In the absence of an attractive alternative, they would rather stick with an untrustworthy leader than experiment with an alternative. Hence, the country is now entering a dangerous pre-election period in which Netanyahu and his Likud party will inevitably trigger another episode of their Project Fear. This instalment will resemble those of past election campaigns, but will have added zest considering the high personal stakes and aggressive style of some of those in Netanyahu’s circle.
Those who oppose the current administration will be portrayed as betraying the national interest, if not worse. Other parties, politicians, the media, and human and civil rights NGOs will be accused of undermining Israeli security and unjustly victimizing the prime minister and his family. To admit his faults and to seriously reflect, let alone regret or apologize, are not going to be part of Netanyahu’s lexicon and such an attitude has never been his forte. Instead, what will dominate his campaign will be provocation and incitement; he will stoke up fear of an existential threat from the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, from neighboring countries, from the BDS movement, from the “anti-Israeli European Union” and who knows who else. And should the polls begin to show that he may lose the election, he is quite likely to once more sink as low as questioning the loyalty of those Palestinians who are citizens of the state of Israel.
As is the case in almost every Israeli general election, new parties and alignments will be formed, and new faces will join either new or old parties. One, maybe two new parties/alignments are expected to fill the roles of surprise successes at the ballot box. However, all eyes are on the former chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, who is expected to be the dark horse of these elections, whether he forms his own party or joins one of the existing ones. In the strange political terrain of the Jewish state, Gantz’s main appeal is not what is known about him and his highly distinguished, decades-long military service, but that very little is known about his views on almost anything that should be of concern to the voters. He is mainly recognised as a person of integrity and courage. To be sure, considering who is currently leading the country, these traits are already a great advantage.
It is early days, but in the present circumstances these elections are not only about policies as such, but about the very soul of the country and whether its future will be in the spirit of the founding fathers — that is to say Jewish, democratic and inclusive. If Israel is to have such a future, then a thorough clean-out of the rotten and the corrupt is long overdue.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.