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King Bibi here to stay

  • victory
“This is an unimaginable achievement,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told exuberant supporters in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
by PAULA SLIER | Apr 11, 2019

Netanyahu was talking at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, where more than 2 000 well-wishers turned out to wave Israeli flags to the accompaniment of blaring music and decorations falling from the sky. The prime minister stopped every few sentences to take in the applause.

“I am very moved tonight,” he beamed, “a night of tremendous victory. I am very excited that the people of Israel once again trusted me for the fifth time, and with greater confidence.”

In what was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, by Wednesday afternoon, with 97% of the votes counted, the premier had mustered 35 Knesset (parliament) seats.

It was his best showing ever, and puts him well on the path to taking office for a fourth consecutive, and fifth overall term. This means, come July, he will become Israel’s longest serving prime minister, overtaking the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, who until now held this title.

But while Netanyahu is championing his success, he’ll face competition moving forward. Not least of all from political newcomer, former Israeli Defense Forces chief and head of the Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz. Before the votes of soldiers and Israeli diplomats based outside the country were counted (uncompleted at the time of writing) Gantz had garnered the same 35 mandates as Netanyahu. So, just 13 000 votes separated the two in the prime minister’s favour.

Positioning himself on the centre-left of the Israeli political spectrum, Gantz campaigned under the slogan of change, and rallied many of the country’s disillusioned Netanyahu critics behind him. It’s an excellent achievement for a new party, but it fell short of assuring a majority coalition.

This is what Israeli politics is all about. For a party to govern, it must be able to form a 60-plus majority in the 120 seated Knesset. And this is where Netanyahu has the advantage – regardless of whether or not he beat Gantz in the numbers game.

For weeks prior to the elections – and no doubt also in the weeks to come – Netanyahu has been building his coalition. He’s expected to put together 65 mandates, four more than he held during his previous term in office.

This will allow him to breathe more easily, and be less choked by the demands of his coalition partners. Having said that, a more united centre and centre-left opposition in the new government will keep him in check.

But the prime minister has his work cut out for him, and it could soon be payback time. His close ally, American president Donald Trump, is due to unveil his so-called Middle East “deal of the century” that will no doubt require Netanyahu to make concessions his right-wing support base presumably won’t be in favour of.

Until now, Trump has only boosted Netanyahu’s standing by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving his embassy there from Tel Aviv. He also recently recognised Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights, and on the eve of this week’s elections, announced that he considers Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards to be a terrorist organisation.

Just what the American president’s demands will be remains to be seen. But, there were murmurs of disapproval from Washington over comments Netanyahu made just days before the election.

Last weekend, he pledged to annex huge swathes of the West Bank, where Israeli settlements stand. He said Israel would take not just the big clusters of Jewish settlements, mostly around Jerusalem, but also the settler outposts deep inside the West Bank.

Trump has deliberately held back from criticising Netanyahu’s settlement building plans. However, it’s unlikely such statements – which would make the creation of a Palestinian state impossible – are in line with the proposed peace plan.

Neither Palestinians nor Israeli Arabs are fans of Netanyahu. The 61% voter turnout among the Arab community is significantly lower than in previous years. This is due in part to division within the community as well as disillusionment over whether Israeli elections bring real change.

Representing about 20% of Israeli society, the United Arab List was the third largest party in the previous parliament. Ahead of the elections, it split into two parties, one of which is not guaranteed to pass the threshold. In the bigger picture, this means a smaller representation of Arab citizens in the Knesset, and a weakening of the left-centre camp.

Netanyahu is also facing legal hurdles that have him in embroiled in five corruption charges. There is nothing in Israeli law that prevents a sitting prime minister from standing trial and remaining in office even while his appeal is being heard.

The process could take years. Interestingly, this was not an important factor listed by voters in the polls before the elections.

As Israelis try to understand the implications of this week’s results, a few things remain clear.

The country’s foreign policy is unlikely to change. Israel will continue to be ruled a by a right-wing coalition. And King Bibi – as he is both affectionately and disparagingly referred to – has once again proven his detractors wrong. He is here to stay.

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