Israel′s parliamentary elections

To be or not to be – the Netanyahu question

Rarely has there been a more exciting run-up to an election in Israel – yet rarely one so polarising either. After ten years in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's re-election now hangs in the balance. His challenger, former Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz, is matching him in the polls. Inge Gunther reports from Jerusalem

On 9 April it will be decided whether Israeli society will continue to drift to the right under Benjamin Netanyahu or return to a more moderate course with political novice Benny Gantz.

In the past, Netanyahu's supporters have followed him as fanatically as others follow their football team. This time, though, even die-hard supporters of his conservative right-wing Likud party are thinking twice about whether to give him the vote again. Though his reputation is far from clean when it comes to corruption, this was widely tolerated when the only charges he was facing were related to receiving expensive gifts. When Netanyahu announced an early election, he was banking on once again winning the support of a broad majority that would stymie any indictment by the attorney general.

However, during the course of the election campaign new allegations have come to light that affect Israel's security policy. Netanyahu was forced to admit to giving the German Chancellery the green light for the sale of high-tech submarines to Egypt without notifying the military or intelligence services. This unauthorised procedure aroused the indignation of the Israeli security apparatus. And then there's the dubious stock deal in which Netanyahu evidently made four million U.S. dollars in 2010 through shares of a partner company of ThyssenKrupp – supplier of Dolphin class submarines to Israel.

Netanyahu quickly denounced the suggestion that he had purchased extra submarines that the army did not need out of self-interest as a smear campaign. It is hardly surprising, however, that the Blue and White party is making a big deal out of it, since their top candidate, Benny Gantz, has for his part been criticised for having his phone hacked (allegedly by Iran). So far, the rumours spread by those in the Prime Minister's circle suggesting that Gantz is vulnerable to blackmail and therefore a "security risk" appear to have gained only limited traction. Gantz has denied any risk, reassuring the public that there is neither data relevant to the country's security on said mobile phone nor sex videos, as has been alleged. The majority of Israelis believe him.

Benny Gantz – no partner for the Arab side

As the man in the middle, Gantz needs to get votes from the right as well as the left. That is the only way his Blue and White party, named after the Israeli national colours, can hope to overtake Likud. The party's political programme is rather flimsy, designed to alienate no-one. It avoids adopting a clear position on the question of Palestine and the peace process. At the beginning of the campaign, Gantz boasted about how many Palestinian terrorists had been defeated under his command. He also stressed that under him, Jerusalem would not be divided. Likewise, the West Bank would have to remain Israel's eastern border, which leaves little room for a two-state solution.

Former chief of staff Benny Gantz at an election rally in Tel Aviv (photo: AFP)
Posing a serious challenge? As the man in the middle, former general chief of staff Benny Gantz needs to get votes from the right as well as the left. That is the only way his Blue and White party, named after the Israeli national colours, can hope to overtake Likud. The party's political programme is rather flimsy, designed to alienate no-one

The Blue and White electoral alliance, which includes three generals as well as Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid (There's a Future) party, was formed with the sole purpose of "replacing Bibi", as the Israelis call their Prime Minister. "Israeli democracy is at stake," says Gayel Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The country's liberal character has been eroded by various legislative initiatives brought forward by the right-wing nationalist government. Gantz wants to put an end to that. His strength is integrity. Netanyahu's trump card is the Golan, which Donald Trump declared part of Israel's state territory – in violation of international law.

In the head-to-head race between the two of them, the smaller parties have faded into the background. Even the social democratic Labour party, once proudly the party of the people, is languishing well below the ten percent mark in the polls. The religious and ultra-right parties, the left-wing Meretz party and the Arab minority are facing even worse results.

Divided opposition

The latter took 13 seats in 2015 through the united list, becoming the country's third-largest faction. A dispute over the ranking of candidates caused the alliance to split into two parts. Taal-Hadash – led by former Arafat advisor Ahmed Tibi, the most prominent Arab-Israeli politician, and left-wing civil rights lawyer Ayman Odeh – is now running separately from Balad-Raam, a union between national protagonists and the Islamic movement.

Election poster in Tel Aviv showing Israel′s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Donald Trump (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Election gift for Benjamin Netanyahu: last week U.S. President Donald Trump signed a declaration in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognising the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Israel conquered the area in 1967 during the Syrian war and annexed it in 1981

This division has created enormous political apathy among Palestinians with Israeli passports, says Amjad Shbita, co-director of Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab association for civil equality. "They have lost hope that they can change anything by voting." The only way to counter the right-wing agitation is to stand united. The Nation-State Bill pushed by the Netanyahu government has made them feel even more alienated from the majority of Israeli society.

Recently, the Prime Minister made it known that in fact Israel is not a state for all its citizens but rather "the nation-state of the Jewish people – and only them". But for Palestinian voters the Blue and White coalition, which rejects a partnership with the Arabs, is "no real alternative", according to Shbita. Their voter turnout is likely to be accordingly low.

Of the 14 parties that hope to gain seats in the Knesset, at least five are polling just below the 3.25 percent threshold. Their bids to gain attention have hence become all the more shrill. Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, who is running for the New Right party, sprayed himself with a perfume called "Fascism" in a seemingly ironic campaign ad. Meanwhile, Moshe Feiglin, a Likud renegade, and his far-right splinter party Sehut (Identity) is campaigning for the construction of the Third Temple, as well as for the legalisation of marijuana.

How they fare in the election could decide whether the right-wing bloc or the centre-left camp will win the government majority of 61 mandates. Since Gantz rejects the idea of a coalition with Arab groups, in the event of his defeat, Netanyahu could become Prime Minister once again. Unless there is a large coalition between Blue White and Likud, but without "Bibi".

Inge Gunther

© 2019

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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Comments for this article: To be or not to be – the Netanyahu question

I don't think you are doing good service to critical thinking by using the word "democracy" with explicit narrowness. You are not encouraging readers to question the fundamentals. It is as if they are taboo. How come that apartheid, racism, occupation, decades of oppression, backing of Western powers, assassinations, etc are not included in "democracy"?

Nadeem05.04.2019 | 13:55 Uhr