As Israel heads to the polls for the fourth time in the course of two years later this month, interest in the voting among American Jews is not great. After more than a year of coping with the coronavirus pandemic and still shell-shocked from the most divisive presidential election in living memory, few people on this side of the pond are obsessed enough with Israeli politics to have the headspace to care about it. Besides, won’t it be the latest version of the same movie they’ve seen before?
While the cast of opponents seeking to take down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has changed, their differences remain a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to their joint desire to finally finish him. After 12 consecutive years in office (in addition to the three-year term he served in the 1990s), beset by corruption charges as well as the burden of dealing with a pandemic that has left no leader anywhere on the planet unscathed, he seems to be more vulnerable than ever. The sense of fatigue in dealing with him and his unquenchable desire to hold onto power is palpable. But in spite of the fact that most polls show that the most likely outcome of the March 23 vote is a fourth consecutive stalemate between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps, for the time being, he still remains the most likely candidate to lead his country into the future.
As his most recent published interview in English reveals, the prime minister is undaunted by the challenge of leading his Likud Party into elections for the 10th time in his career—a number that ties him with the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Begin lost the first eight times he ran over a period that stretched from Israel’s first Knesset election in 1949 to 1981 before winning the last two. Netanyahu’s record consists of four wins (1996, 2009, 2013, 2015), two losses (1999, 2006) and three ties (2019, 2019 and 2020). A generation of Israelis has grown up, completed their army service and then moved on to civilian life since Netanyahu first became prime minister. Similarly, American Jews under the age of 40 can’t remember a time before Netanyahu was part of the discussion about the Jewish state.
From the point of view of the overwhelming majority of American Jews who aren’t Orthodox, that interview was vintage Netanyahu in that he tried to have it both ways on the question of religious pluralism. On the one hand, he spoke of his “liberal” record on conversions with respect to Israelis who are not considered halachically Jewish despite identifying as Jews. But he also threw in a line—that got the most attention—in which he openly pandered to his ultra-Orthodox allies by warning of the danger of “fake conversions.” While haredi voters may see conversions authorized by the Reform or Conservative movements as inherently “fake,” the notion that the African migrants might avail themselves of fraudulent ceremonies organized by the liberal movements rather than corrupt Orthodox rabbis in order to get Israeli citizenship is risible.
Netanyahu was similarly disingenuous when speaking of his close relationship with President Joe Biden, which he touted as being no less genuine than the affinity he has for Republicans like former President Donald Trump. While he is right to defend his applause for Trump’s historic tilt towards Israel on issues like Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Iran nuclear deal and accountability for Palestinian support for terrorism, there is little doubt that the atmosphere between Washington and Jerusalem has become a lot chillier since January and is likely to remain so as long as Netanyahu is in power while a Democrat sits in the White House.
Still, the main headline about Netanyahu this week is one that reminds us not only of his effective partnership with Trump but why, despite the enormous Bibi-fatigue felt by so many Israelis after all these years, he remains such a dominant player in his country’s affairs. His trip this week to the United Arab Emirates is not just a pre-election publicity ploy (though it is certainly that) as it is a reminder that for all of the baggage he carries with him in terms of political chicanery, Netanyahu remains his country’s most able and versatile statesman.
Even before the signing of last year’s Abraham Accords that jump-started normalization between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, one of the most under-reported stories in international affairs was Netanyahu’s success in breaking his country’s isolation in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as well as among Third World nations that have previously shunned the Jewish state. The UAE trip signifies the fact that in the midst of all the gloomy predictions by the Jewish left about the doom that awaited Israel if it didn’t make suicidal concessions in order to create a two-state solution that the Palestinians didn’t even want, Israel has grown stronger—not weaker—on Netanyahu’s watch. The agreements are the product of a growing alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab states that are threatened by Iran. They also demonstrate that business ties between Israel’s First World economy and the Arab world won’t continue to be held hostage to Palestinian intransigence any longer.
All of this shows that the issues that have divided Israelis since Begin’s time have largely been resolved in favor of the Israeli right. And yet, despite the fact that the voters will likely elect a Knesset dominated by as many as 80 or more members who hold right-wing views about security issues, as many as half of that number see defeating Netanyahu as their No. 1 priority.
If some members of right-wing parties unite with others on the left with the sole object of the proposed coalition being ousting Netanyahu, then his long run in office will be over.
Right now, there doesn’t appear to be enough votes for a traditional right-wing/religious party coalition like the ones Netanyahu led before 2019. The idea of a party like Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, which is supported by Modern Orthodox and nationalist voters or New Hope—the Likud splinter led by former minister Gideon Sa’ar joining with the center-left Yesh Atid or Labor—let alone any alliance with the Arab parties, seems like a fantasy. And yet the heads of these parties, like the secular right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu and its leader Avigdor Lieberman, know all too well that joining a coalition under Netanyahu won’t end well for them or their parties. All bear the scars of his “friendship.” Netanyahu’s record of double-dealing and undercutting allies is such that they think just about anything is preferable to the prospect of another few years of him in office.
If they were to join with the left in this manner, many of their voters might not like it. Yet it’s also possible that, as Netanyahu’s trip shows, the great divide over security issues is—American liberal criticisms of Israel notwithstanding—firmly in the past.
While a stalemate that would leave Netanyahu in office, as he has been during these last two years of political limbo, is still the most likely outcome, it is also possible that his unparalleled achievements could be his undoing by allowing elements of the right to join with the left to topple him.
That would be an ironic legacy for the prime minister. But unless he can squeeze a few more Knesset mandates out of his UAE trip—and any other last-minute maneuvers he is likely to pull out of his hat in the final days of the campaign—the close of the Netanyahu era would be not so much a repudiation of his policies as the result of their success.
UPDATE: After this column was first published, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trip to the U.A.E. was cancelled.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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