Pessimists are often right but invariably sorry about being right. Pessimist that I am, I was in no doubt that the political right in Israel would get a comfortable majority in the elections held earlier this month. I’m sorry that it happened – not because I believe that the Blue and White coalition led by Benny Gantz would necessarily be more open and liberal, but because it was time for Israel to have another prime minister and a coalition not dominated by extremist right-wing parties.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s frenzied determination to get a fifth term as prime minister may not have been motivated only by his conviction that his way is the best for Israel, but also because as prime minister he probably won’t have to face the criminal charges currently hanging over him. Trusted Knesset members are likely to propose legislation of the kind that exists in France that exempts the prime minister from prosecution as long as he’s in office. By the time Netanyahu finally retires, he’ll be well into his 70s. Even if convicted, the president is likely to grant him a pardon.
None of this, however, should minimize Netanyahu’s achievements as a seasoned politician, much of which has also benefited the country. Israel’s greatly improved relations with several Arab and African states come to mind. The special bond that exists between him and U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have brought such benefits to the Jewish state as the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the recognition of the Golan Heights as an integral part of the Jewish state. No wonder that Netanyahu’s promise to do the same for the Jewish settlements in the West Bank figured prominently in the prime minister’s election campaign.
In addition to the special relationship with Trump, Netanyahu appears to work closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu is a frequent visitor in the Kremlin. His last visit was only days before the election, and was linked to the return of the remains of a soldier lost in battle in Lebanon almost four decades ago – an event that further enhanced Netanyahu’s standing in his country.
He overshadowed the leading candidates on the opposing Blue and White party list. Though three of the first four names on that list were highly regarded former chiefs of staff, the second name, Yair Lapid, seemed to have been something of a liability. Though the leader of Blue and White, Benny Gantz, needed Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and, therefore, agreed to rotate the office as prime minister with him if elected, there were strong indications that Blue and White would have gained more seats without that agreement. Gantz might then have replaced Netanyahu as prime minister.
This is disappointing for Israelis who believe that, despite Netanyahu’s political skills and diplomatic achievements, the country needs a shift at the top. Some are also dismayed by the massive electoral losses by Israel’s Labor Party. By electing Avi Gabbay as its leader, the party brought in an untried outsider with no roots in the labour movement. By the time you read this, he may have been replaced.
Those who fear the power of the ultra-Orthodox have reason to be distressed by the growth of their representation. The leader of the Sephardic Shas party, Aryeh Deri, who had spent time in prison for corruption and may be charged again, is one of those who put pressure on Netanyahu not to yield to the demands for equal rights by non-Orthodox religious Jews. In a statement before the elections, he urged his opponents abroad not to bring their controversies to Israel.
By all accounts, the Netanyahu cabinet has never been a place where its members trust and respect each other. As his next government will no doubt include political allies who may be personal foes, he’ll need all his reputed skills to keep it together. Though many Israeli politicians may bemoan it, others will use it to their own advantage.