He was desperate and he has come up short. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bared his inner being in the run-up to the Israeli election — promising to annex much of the West Bank, inciting hatred against Israeli Arabs, railing about plots against him — only to find that Israelis may have had enough.
Final election results are not yet in, but it’s clear that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is in a near tie with Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White movement, and may well trail it by one seat. Netanyahu does not have the 61 Knesset seats needed to form the religious-nationalist-rightist coalition that would have allowed him to push through his annexation plans and bury any last hope of a two-state peace.
Since he first took office as prime minister in 1996, 23 years ago, this has always been Netanyahu’s core underlying purpose: to prevent, forever and always, the emergence of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Any gestures or statements to the contrary were never more than diversionary tactics. His tactical genius in advancing this goal must be acknowledged, even if the strategy leaves Israel mired in a forever conflict.
Why was Netanyahu desperate? Because he sees himself as the savior of Israel, without whom it will fall to the plotting of Arabs and the perfidy of anti-Zionists around the world. That’s been a given for a while.
There was another, more pressing element. Netanyahu faces possible indictment, as soon as next month, stemming from accusations of fraud and bribery. Power was, and still tenuously is, the best insurance for the prime minister against prison.
Netanyahu faces an uphill struggle, as his crumpled appearance and frantic pre-election, me-or-disaster flailing suggests. Even President Trump, unusually silent, has not rushed to his friend’s aid. It now falls to President Reuven Rivlin to offer either Gantz or Netanyahu the opportunity to form a government.
Gantz may be favored, certainly if Blue and White has a one-seat advantage, and even in the event of a tie at 32 seats each. The election has been a disavowal of Netanyahu, whose failure to form a government after the April vote led to this do-over.
The kingmaker is now Avigdor Liberman. His secular, nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party appears to have almost doubled its Knesset seats to nine after Liberman rebuffed Netanyahu earlier this year, precipitating this election. Liberman has captured the exasperation of many Israelis with the overwhelming influence of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, whose mass exemptions from compulsory military service are widely resented. Netanyahu has depended on ultra-Orthodox parties to govern. Liberman, whose animus toward the prime minister is intense, will not go that route.
He favors a national unity government bringing together Likud, Blue and White, and his own party. Gantz, a former general and Israeli military chief of staff, has also expressed interest in this outcome, but has said he won’t join a government with Netanyahu in it, citing the impending corruption charges. “Netanyahu failed, we succeeded,” Gantz said as results came in. A unity government without Netanyahu does seem the most plausible means to avoid a third election at this point.
Gantz’s post-election theme was repair of the divisions in Israeli society that Netanyahu has cynically fanned, not least against Arab citizens, who constitute a little over 20 percent of the Israeli population.
That well-worn Netanyahu tactic did not work this time. Arabs voted in large numbers and their Joint List, an alliance of four parties, emerged as the third-largest political force with 12 or 13 seats. Ayman Odeh, its leader, said its aim had been to “stop a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu” and demonstrate that “there is clearly a price for incitement.” Mission accomplished, it seems.
Netanyahu will now cite this strong showing in his relentless Doomsday scenario: Without him, all hell will be loosed upon Israel in the form of an Arab takeover. King Bibi cannot abide opposition, which is what democracy delivers. He will not go easily, that is certain. As in many things these days, Israeli politics often look like prologue for the United States.
Yitzhak Rabin, at the time of the Oslo accords, did govern with external support from Arab parties, but the consensus against bringing them into government is strong. This barrier cannot, however, endure forever if Israel is to be a democracy of equal citizens. Change in this area will be slow and depend on the wider context of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
In his misleadingly titled book of almost two decades ago, “A Durable Peace: Israel and its Place Among the Nations,” a rehash of a book published in 1993, Netanyahu called the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as he puts it, “the heartland of Israel.” Withdrawal from it would leave Israel as a “truncated ghetto-state squeezed onto a narrow shoreline.” He argued that the Palestinian people didn’t exist, or were a very recent invention, and that the Arab campaign against Israel was not a “negotiable grievance” but a “basic opposition to the very existence of Jewish sovereignty.”
Netanyahu never wavered in these beliefs, comparing Rabin to Chamberlain, progressively trashing the Oslo peace accords, relentlessly attacking any Palestinian leader, like Salam Fayyad, who did see Palestinians’ plight as a “negotiable grievance.” He never evolved, in the way that Rabin or Sharon or Begin did with the responsibilities of office and the beckoning of history. It has been a sinister, brilliant, empty performance, abetted by the hopeless divisions and fecklessness of the Palestinian national movement.
If Israelis have indeed, at last, brought down the curtain on the Netanyahu show, they will have saved not only the last faint chance of a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians, but also their precious democracy itself. That would be quite something — and the angry patriarch in his labyrinth will fight it to the last.
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