In the wake of last week’s election, the State of Israel now stands at a fateful crossroads. The nation’s leaders must choose between a future with Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu or, alternatively, without him. But either way, the agenda that the prime minister has shaped for Israel in the region and in the world will continue for the foreseeable future—with or without Netanyahu himself.
Regardless of which of the top contenders becomes prime minister when the current round of negotiations concludes, Israel will be led by a government increasingly committed to strengthening ties with the Gulf Arab countries but with diminishing interest in achieving peace with the Palestinians. Regardless of whether Netanyahu keeps his current position or is replaced by any of his most plausible successors, Israel will continue to warn the West of the dangers of placating Iran but will also attempt to push negotiations to include agreements on ballistic missiles and terrorist-sponsored activities.
And regardless of whether or not a fifth round of elections becomes necessary, the broader right-leaning orthodoxy that Netanyahu has established on international relations and foreign policy will continue apace. As the pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi coalitions reinforce their battle lines, the most significant differentiator between the two groups is Bibi himself.
There are more pronounced differences on domestic matters, and of course, Netanyahu’s own legal fate is directly related to the election’s ultimate outcome. But as it relates to the regional and transnational issues that will shape Israel’s future, none of the leading contenders for the premiership are likely to greatly deviate from the current trajectory.
Netanyahu’s chief competitor, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, uses somewhat different language than Netanyahu when he talks about Iran and the Palestinians, but even a Lapid government would not be much different on those fronts than the current leadership. The most important differences between Lapid and Bibi are on domestic and religious matters; Israel’s international agenda would continue mostly along current lines. (If anything, it’s a mark of how far-right Israeli politics has shifted in the post-Labor era that Yesh Atid is sometimes described as “center-left.”)
Israel’s other prominent leaders—Naftali Bennett of Yamina, Gideon Sa’ar of the New Hope Party and Benny Gantz of Blue and White—all occupy various patches of conservative turf on the ideological landscape and all split from Netanyahu over personal, religious or domestic policy matters more so than over differences on international or security matters. If a situation emerged in which one of them was able to form a government, meaningful change from Netanyahu’s current course seems even less likely.
Every election in every country is a referendum on the incumbent. But usually, the incumbent’s challengers or potential replacements bring with them some type of ideological shift along with a change of identity. The unique nature of this campaign is that it was waged almost exclusively over Netanyahu himself rather than the future he has framed for the country. Even the debate over the government’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic seemed less about COVID-19 and more about Bibi. While traditional left-leaning Labor and Meretz have exhibited some signs of life, unless or until they manage to grow their ranks or decide to merge into one left-wing party, the nation’s policy debates will continue to reflect a decidedly Bibi-esque footprint.
We will spend the coming weeks watching the nation’s leaders scramble to develop a workable governing coalition. Given the outsized role that the Arab party Ra’am Party may play in the next round of negotiations, it’s currently hard to see the result being anything other than yet one more round of elections for a weary Israeli electorate. But no matter which individual ultimately becomes Israel’s next prime minister, it’s very safe to predict that “Bibi-ism” will ultimately emerge victorious. The only unknown factor at this point is the identity of the man who will carry Netanyahu’s policy prescriptions for the country into the future.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.