Israel’s latest attempt at electing a Knesset may not have brought it closer to resolving the stalemate that led to an unprecedented second election within a year. The results were inconclusive and neither the right-wing religious bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party nor the Blue and White Party, led by former general Benny Gantz, and its allies won a majority.
Yet though Gantz didn’t win, there’s little doubt — his spin notwithstanding — that Netanyahu lost.
Even after a year of misjudgments and hubris, no one should underestimate Netanyahu’s political skills. Even with indictments on corruption charges hanging over his head, he still has the ability to block Gantz from becoming prime minister.
But if Netanyahu thinks he will improve his situation by subjecting Israel to the nightmare of a third election, he will be making yet another mistake. While he may not yet be finished, the expiration date on his long career may be coming up.
If so, that raises the question of how his departure — something that was bound to happen sooner or later — will materially change U.S.-Israel relations or those between the Jewish state and the diaspora.
So much of the narrative of the Jewish state’s critics and that of liberal Zionists has revolved around this one personality for so long that it has become difficult to envision a discussion about Israel that does not hinge on one’s opinion of him.
There’s no question that most Jewish liberals and Democrats will be overjoyed by the start of the post-Netanyahu era while an influential minority will mourn his downfall. To his fans, he is the indispensable man who has lifted Israel into a period of prosperity and security and the breaking down of its diplomatic isolation. To his critics, he is an obstacle to peace and a potent force lowering both the ethical and democratic standards by which the Jewish state is governed.
That he has become so central to the debate about Israel is understandable. After more than 10 straight years in power American Jews have come to see him as either the embodiment of Israel’s faults or of its virtues.
Netanyahu’s historic tenure has left his country better than he had found it. His economic expertise, diplomatic successes, and inherent caution when it comes to the use of military force have strengthened his nation.
But his lengthy stay in office has caused the debate about his personality and political tactics to overshadow or even replace serious discussions about the issues.
This is leading to some unfounded optimism about the ability of Gantz — should he wind up being prime minister — to win back Israel’s critics. While any successor will enjoy something of a honeymoon abroad, the difference between the policies of the Blue and White and the Likud on security issues are minimal. After all, Gantz tried to run to the right of Netanyahu in both campaigns.
Nor should anyone expect that putting an inexperienced former general in charge would decrease the chances of avoiding war with Hamas, Hezbollah, or their Iranian enablers.
Nor will Gantz be any more acceptable to the growing ranks of left-wing Democrats who are supportive of BDS campaigns and hostile to Zionism. Trump haters will be just as turned off by Gantz’s embrace of the president — who remains popular in Israel — as they were of Netanyahu’s red-state bias.
The alienation of young American Jews from Israel — a consequence of demographic trends stemming from assimilation and not so much critiques of policies that are a product of an Israeli consensus that was not orchestrated by Netanyahu — will continue to concern both communities.
But what Netanyahu’s eventual departure will do is to increase the chances that more Americans can discuss Israel in a more rational manner. Netanyahu has been around so long and been so demonized by the mainstream press and his liberal opponents to the point that opposing him has become shorthand for a host of misconceptions about Israel’s strategic needs and the intransigence of the Palestinians. It’s possible that removing him from the equation will promote a debate of the issues that will force Israel’s detractors to face up to the geostrategic realities that persuaded Israelis to elect him to three consecutive terms as prime minister and would have given him a fourth had not Avigdor Lieberman, a die-hard right-winger, not decided to depose him.
If so, that would be one more contribution — albeit a bittersweet one for Netanyahu and his admirers — to add to his long list of achievements.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review.