With Israel facing national elections in six weeks, the parties are organized and the Knesset aspirants are now aligned on their various party lists. As is frequently the case in Israel, there is a much jockeying at the beginning of the campaign and once again just before the Party lists are submitted. Often as well, the final moves are the ones which have the potential to shape the system the most.
Former Israeli IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz decided to run and formed a new moderate, center-left Party, the Blue and the White. He was joined by the Yesh Atid Party leader, Yair Lapid, as his number two, with other former military and intelligence leaders also high on the party’s list. Together they have assembled a list which initial polls have shown reached an equal number of seats to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party; assuming elections were held today. (There is serious caveat about polls in Israel. They tend to have large sampling errors and, even closer to elections, historically tend not to be very reliable.)
Sensing that this was developing and with some cracks already in his previous coalition, Bibi recognized that he could face serious opposition from both sides; even though the historic Labor Party in Israel was disintegrating. In the name of trying to win another term as Israel’s Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu demonstrated once again that he does not care what it will take to form the next Government.
In a daring and surprise move, Netanyahu reached out to the revived Jewish Home Party—without its religious Zionist component and its prior leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. This version of Jewish Home Party now includes the ultranationalist Oztma Yehudit party. This group is the successor of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach Party, which had been outlawed from the Knesset in 1994. In order to make this alliance, it was reported that Netanyahu pledged to give the Otzma Party two government ministries in a new Government. Having lost Bennett and Shaked, Netanyahu opted to include the most extremist group in Israeli politics; signaling that he is likely to take an even harder stand on a two-state solution with the Palestinians. It implies as well that he is considering an annexation of the West Bank, something that Otzma champions.
Assuming that Likud is the leading party after the April 9 election, Netanyahu is given every indication that he will seek to govern with an even more, right-wing coalition. This may well be the essence of the challenge that the Israeli voters will face.
If as has been widely rumored, President Trump’s long-awaited peace proposal will be announced after the elections, Washington should not expect any conciliatory moves towards peace from a new Netanyahu Government. Having offered his plan, the President now will be off the hook with the Israelis and the Congress. Trump will not push Israel, while America’s (and Israel’s) Gulf allies are unlikely to demand action as long as the Iran card remains in play. In response the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza could initiate a level of heightened tension, with increased terrorist attacks and Israeli reprisals. For the U.N. and the international community this will be viewed as a failure.
If Netanyahu is not chosen to lead the next Israeli Government, matters could move in a very different direction, albeit slowly. The U.S. relationship will need to be re-connected and Trump may find a non-Netanyahu Government not necessarily prepared to grovel to his every wish. A new Prime Minister may secure a more bi-partisan flank of support in Congress. Ironically, given some time, a different Israeli Government also may be prepared to act in ways which might enable much of the alienated American Jewish community to re-connect with Israel.