Originally Published 2019-09-20 10:05:48 Published on Sep 20, 2019
Netanyahu or Gantz — No Israeli PM can rock India-Israel ‘boat’

Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, the MIT-educated, suave and articulate commando-turned politician, has held the record as the longest-serving Israeli PM, since he first became PM in 1996. In July this year, he surpassed the record of Israel’s founding father and first PM, David Ben Gurion, as the longest-serving PM.

Known popularly by his nickname ‘Bibi’, Netanyahu won a record fifth term as PM in this year’s April election, against adverse poll ratings triggered by corruption scandals. A fresh election on 17 September was not on the political calendar of Israel. Canceling his visit to India and the USA, Netanyahu was forced to call for snap election when he failed to form a sustainable coalition government. This election, the second in five months, may prove to be Netanyahu’s biggest political challenge so far.

Why Netanyahu Was Compelled to Call this Election

Netanyahu was compelled to call for this election for several reasons, one being the pre-trial hearings, scheduled to begin next month, on three corruption scandals that have rocked him and his wife’s reputation. He has denied all allegations of misconduct. Another term as PM will ensure immunity from prosecution.

The main reason, however, was the unbridgeable chasm between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its ultra-orthodox religious allies, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, a coalition partner. Lieberman insisted that at ultra-orthodox Yeshivas, religious students must be drafted for compulsory military service — like all other Israelis —and should not enjoy exemption on the basis of their beliefs. The coalition fell apart, and snap elections became inevitable.

Allegations of Corruption Against Netanyahu & His Wife

During his fourth term as PM, investigations began on several allegations of corruption, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu and his family members face charges of receiving ‘expensive gifts’ from wealthy friends.

Other allegations include:

  1. an attempt to help the Israeli publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s leading newspaper, against its rival Israel Hayom, in return for positive coverage for himself
  2. suspected bribery involving members of the security establishment close to Netanyahu — in a defence deal with Germany, for purchase of three submarines and warships
  3. influencing Israel’s biggest communications company ‘Bezek’ as the Minister of Communications, for positive media coverage via the web portal ‘Walla’, owned by Bezek
  4. a purported offer of a bribe to the Attorney General to drop a case against his wife Sara Netanyahu, for accepting gifts and not declaring them

Israel Elections: The Results Thus Far

Accusations of corruption and abuse of power against Netanyahu became an albatross around his neck, and a huge political liability. Investigations by the police have recommended indictments in two cases, while investigation continues in other cases. Netanyahu will have to defend himself in pre-trial hearings and convince the court to drop proceedings.

If convicted, Netanyahu could face a maximum of 10 years in jail for corruption, or 3 years for breach of trust.

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s PM from 2006-09, was the first PM who was convicted of corruption and sent to jail.

The latest election results announced by Israel’s EC, after counting of over 97 percent of votes cast that will decide division of seats in the 120-member Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, shows that Kahol Lavan , led by former Army Chief Benjamin “Benny” Gantz, leading with 33 sets over Netanyahu’s Likud Party at 31 seats.

Coming in third is the Joint List at 13 seats, Shas at 9 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu at 8 seats, United Torah Judaism at 8 seats, Yamina at 7 seats, Labour-Gesher at 6 seats and Democratic Union at 5 seats. Over a million votes of Army personnel are still being counted. Netanyahu’s right-wing and ultra-orthodox coalition’s tally of 55 seats, trails the Centre-Left coalition led by Benny Gantz whose tally is 57 seats. For a majority in the Knesset, any coalition will have to muster 61 seats.

Israel Elections: Significant Outcomes

Netanyahu’s election gamble has failed, leaving his party and coalition partners without a majority. The election result, though a deadlock, is not unexpected, given Israel’s electoral history of not giving an absolute majority to any party. Coalition governments have been the norm, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party is set to become the king-maker. Lieberman has strengthened his credentials as leader of secular Israelis, with his higher tally of seats. On voting day, Lieberman said that he would be pitching in for a broad liberal government of national unity, minus the right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties.

The other significant outcome is the performance of the Joint List, led by the Ayman Odeh, leader of Hadash, an Arab Party and the leader of the Joint List.

With its tally of 13 seats it can provide Benny Gantz the majority to form a government. Israeli Arabs constitute almost 16-17 percent of Israel’s population, and joined hands to oppose Netanyahu. But he has to overcome the suspicion of conservative Israelis who distrust their Arab citizens and view them as pro-Palestinians. The default position of the major political parties is not to ally with the Arab parties.

Netanyahu has already requested Gantz for talks to form a liberal national unity government. If a national unity government is formed, then Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, will stay out of the next government and Odeh will create history by becoming the first Israeli Arab to become the Leader of the Opposition.

Why No Israeli PM Can Rock India-Israel ‘Boat’

Netanyahu is caught between a rock and a hard place. Joining a national unity government without his traditional right-wing and ultra-orthodox allies, may lead to his ouster as leader of the Likud. His election campaign, demonizing the Arabs, sought to appease the hard-right voters. He also promised to annex the Jordan valley and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Gantz too has been pandering to hard-right voters.

Lieberman, holding the decisive card, is unlikely to sacrifice his secular voters and accommodate demands, that was the cause of his falling out with Netanyahu. Israel is in for some bruising political haggling, which is likely to end Netanyahu’s long run as PM — and may even land him in jail.

PM Modi and PM Netanyahu developed a close personal bond after PM Modi became the first ever Indian PM to visit Israel.

Netanyahu’s election posters featured pictures with Modi and Trump. Modi shifted India’s ties with Israel into a more transparent mode, balancing ties with Palestine. Bilateral ties have prospered, with trade, investment, IT, high technology and defence sectors benefiting from this close relationship.

Israel is India’s third largest defence equipment supplier. These ties are unlikely to be affected under any new government.

Benny Gantz, whose chances of becoming the next PM seem quite bright, is a former Army Chief and a low-key personality. He would be fully au fait with bilateral ties and its significance for both India and Israel. No Israeli PM will rock this boat, given the nature of India-Israel ties.

This commentary originally appeared in The Quint.

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty was a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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