Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2019-09-19 09:41:47 Published on Sep 19, 2019
Israel’s evolving political landscape

So after all the hullabaloo of a second election in five months, it seems nothing much changed in Israeli politics. According to the information available as of this writing, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan are likely to win each 32 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. While Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties is at 56 seats, the centre-left bloc of Gantz, excluding Arab parties, has 43 seats. For majority in the Knesset, a prime minister needs to have 61 seat support. As a result, once again, the smaller Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman appears to hold the balance of power. With neither major party set to get a clear majority, even with their coalition parties, Israel faces the prospect of a long period of political haggling once again.

Though it is always difficult to predict the future of politicians, and that too a politician as formidable as Benjamin Netanyahu, it seems that we might be standing on the cusp of an important political moment in his political career and of Israeli politics. For more than two and half decades now, Netanyahu has defined Israeli politics in more ways than one but if the available results are to be believed, then by not gaining seats in the recent elections, Netanyahu’s political position gets weakened considerably. While the formation of a new Israeli government would take weeks, we would know in a matter of days, if this is the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu era in Israeli politics.

It clearly looked like that last night when Netanyau’s Likud party was downbeat and Netanyahu addressed half empty chairs in the party office. He was upbeat about the future and hammered home the point that “in the coming days, we will enter into negotiations to establish a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government.” His “anti-Zionist” pitch was aimed at Israel’s Arab parties, which could become the third-largest force in parliament. With this, Netanyahu was also making a key point about himself, an argument that has stood the test of time: that Netanyahu is the only one who can effectively protect the Israelis from the numerous threats that pervade the region and domestically. In the days and weeks to come he will play on this even more. He has already made it a point to mention the US President Donald Trump, suggesting to his supporters that “negotiations with President Trump will shape the future of Israel for generations to come. And because of this, Israel needs a strong and stable and Zionist government.”

For his main rival, Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White, the fact that Netanyahu, despite calling these snap elections, could not really improve upon his tally, is in itself a moral victory, arguing that “it looks like for the second time, the citizens of Israel gave their trust to us.”  In his speech, he is reiterating that he would seek to form a unity government with his political opponents and called on them to meet with his to form a better government for all citizens.

But it is Avigdor Lieberman who is the kingmaker and has already laid out his demands, including military service for the ultra-Orthodox, public transportation and commerce on the Sabbath, making it clear that he would not speak to other party leaders until they meet his preconditions. Much like Gantz, he is in support of a broad liberal unity government but Netanyahu’s base remains firmly opposed to this.

For Netanyahu, of course, this is also personal as he faces three corruption charges on which pre-trial hearings are about to commence soon. A majority in the Knesset could grant him immunity from prosecution. Whatever might happen in the coming days and weeks, Netanyahu stands much weaker today than he was at the beginning of these elections. But he has already made his mark in Israeli history. He has not only overtaken Israel's founding father David Ben Gurion as its longest-serving prime minister but he has singlehandedly defined the trajectory of Israeli polity over the last two decades. Even his declaration in the closing days of Israeli elections that if he was returned as prime minister, he would annex the Jordan Valley, and Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank would now shape the future of what remains of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

For India, Netanyahu has been a great friend. He understood New Delhi’s compulsions in following a multi-aligned foreign policy in the Middle East. And his personal equation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi helped. If he is back as the Prime Minister, it would be business as usual for New Delhi. But even if his opponents were to come to power, Indo-Israeli relations are today being driven by political consensus in both capitals that strong ties between the two nations are an imperative. This will continue to shape the trajectory of Indo-Israeli ties irrespective of changes in government.

This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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