Back by (un)popular demand?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party will enter the Sept. 17 election rerun with their legitimacy dented, making them more likely to take risks both domestically and internationally to persuade voters to choose them.

Back by (un)popular demand? AFP PHOTO/GALI TIBBON

Back by the prime minister’s demand, Israeli elections are going for an encore. September’s legislative election, the second snap poll of the year, will reprise many of the same themes as April’s contest: the centrists of the Blue and White party of former Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz aim to topple the long rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, Likud’s allies squabble with one another for right-wing votes to maintain maximum leverage in future coalition talks and Netanyahu tries to hold together an unwieldy conservative alliance while fending off increasingly politically significant attacks by his main rival over corruption.

And in trying to bolster their security credentials and entice nationalist voters, Netanyahu will also take action that could inadvertently escalate tensions with the Palestinians in the West Bank, the Iranians in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

But beyond the immediate question of who will be Israel’s next prime minister, the election will once more shine a spotlight on Israel’s future. At home, the victory will reveal who has the upper hand in

The election will provide an effective referendum on Israel’s current rule of law amid Netanyahu’s thinly disguised attempts to avoid prosecution for corruption.

Israel’s culture wars between its increasing share of Haredi and ultra-Orthodox voters, and its secular and nationalist citizens. To boot, the elections will also test just how far Netanyahu can challenge Israel’s rule of law in his bid to beat pending corruption charges.

The next government must contend with regional Iranian influence, instability in Gaza, the White House’s potential Palestinian peace plan and the ever-present potential of another Hezbollah war. In the meantime, the leadup to the election – and the coalitions that might emerge from it – will go a long way in determining Israel’s behavior in the weeks and months to come.

Going for Round 2

The common themes notwithstanding, the Sept. 17 election is not an exact rerun of the spring contest. This time, for one, Netanyahu’s political weaknesses are more apparent. Not only did he fail to cobble together a new coalition after ostensibly winning the April 9 poll, his political machinations to secure
immunity from prosecution for graft became more apparent during the failed coalition talks. In addition, Netanyahu sought to secure the religious right’s loyalty by offering concessions, including the gender segregation of public services and spaces, as well as flexibility on military service, thus outraging Israel’s secularists and nationalists.

He also floated the possibility of weakening the Supreme Court’s oversight of the Knesset and stripping it of its ability to strike down parliamentary laws – moves that many saw as part of Netanyahu’s attempt to win immunity from prosecution.

That narrative creates a new challenge to Netanyahu, Likud and Israel’s rightwing parties, as the election will provide an effective referendum on Israel’s current rule of law amid Netanyahu’s thinly disguised attempts to avoid prosecution. Voters will also weigh how much influence they will give to religious parties in Israel’s future – influence that is already growing thanks to the demographic heft of the ultra-Orthodox and Haredi. In addition, the electorate will also pass judgment on the right’s competence in governing : having failed to agree to form the last government, will voters readily give  power back to the same sets of parties? Given the right’s narrow margins of victory on April 9, the Sept. 17 election will, in many ways, ultimately be an uphill battle for Israel's conservatives.

Politics abroad

In the lead-up to the polls, Israel’s foreign policy will also factor strongly into the final outcome. Netanyahu has peddled his successes with the Trump administration as a reason to vote for him, especially among Israeli nationalists. He successfully lobbied the White House to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, won formal American recognition for Israeli control over both Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and appears to be shaping a US Palestinian peace plan that will strongly favor Israel. Those successes gave him an electoral shot in the arm that he needed to edge out a victory in April.

But to replicate that electoral success this time around, Netanyahu is likely to chase more nationalist goals outside of Israel’s borders, in part to undercut right-wing rivals such as the nationalist-secularist Avigdor Lieberman (whose recalcitrance with Netanyahu helped bring down the last government and prevented the formation of a new right-wing coalition after the April 9 vote). In doing so, Netanyahu’s domestic political strategy will aim to persuade voters to jump ship from rival right-wing parties and thus prevent them from reaching the 3.25 percent electoral threshold they need to enter the Knesset.

With Palestinian policy, Netanyahu will dangle the prospect of further territorial annexations, particularly in the West Bank, to lure these voters to his side. But he risks a reaction from the Palestinians themselves, especially in the comparatively placid West Bank, which is struggling with aid cuts from the United States. That reaction could range from protests to violent unrest.

Meanwhile, Gaza will also be part of the electoral conversation. Gantz and Lieberman have attacked Netanyahu for being “soft” on Gaza, and Netanyahu’s national security credentials are tested every

time unrest flares up in the strip. To defuse the impact of such political attacks, Netanyahu will use his post to ratchet up retaliation for provocations from Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Already, Israel has resurrected its policy of assassinating militant leaders in response to the most recent violent exchange in May. Escalation, however, could result in a miscalculation that could lead to a major war.

In Syria, Israel’s comparative success in striking Iranian targets without triggering a regional war will grant Netanyahu the political opportunity to talk up such strikes. This would be an evolution of Israel’s media, rather than military, strategy: by increasingly bringing the ongoing campaign out of the
shadows, Netanyahu will burnish his national security credentials for Israeli voters rather than substantially escalating the military angle of Israel's anti-Iran campaign. But this, too, carries risks: the more public Israel becomes in its anti-Iran strategy, the more Tehran will seek to engage in limited and symbolic military action in response. Even such restricted action, however, could ignite a greater conflict between the two.

When they go to the ballot box in September, Israeli voters will be facing a similar set of choices as they did in April, albeit against the backdrop of different issues – particularly questions over the rule of law as Netanyahu tries to avoid prosecution for graft – that will hamper Netanyahu’s advantage in an election that will set the course for Israel’s future. Netanyahu’s savvy political skill at managing risk and grasping opportunity has served him well in the past, but with the region tense because of the US-Iran confrontation, the Palestinian peace plan and the challenge of Gaza, the prime minister has no room for error this time as he chases another term in office.

 



"This essay first appeared on the website of Stratfor, the US-based global intelligence firm, as part of its 2019 annual global forecast. Strategic Review has a content-sharing agreement with Stratfor."

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