Is Benjamin Netanyahu’s dominance of Israeli politics the product of a consensus he helped build, or is he merely a convenient beneficiary of forces that were beyond his control? Like the old question about the chicken and the egg, it hardly matters. The only thing that does matter is that in the wake of Tuesday’s election, the right’s hold on Israeli politics remains undiminished.
This is something about which the liberal mainstream media in the United States and Israel continues to gnash its teeth. Left-wing pundits have been supplying the public with a steady diet of laments about the impending destruction of Israeli democracy ever since Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office 10 years ago, and they increase in volume and hysteria with each of his succeeding electoral triumphs.
But the basic math of Israeli politics remains unchanged. Parties linked to the disastrous legacy of Oslo or the subsequent Gaza-withdrawal fiasco have no chance of winning an election. To the extent that a viable opposition to Netanyahu and his Likud Party emerged this year in the form of former Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party, it was only because it was careful to voice no opposition to the prime minister’s policies.
Netanyahu’s supporters still insisted that Blue and White was a “leftist” party in spite of the presence of people like former Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon in its ranks. But that just shows that the Israeli left, which once dominated the country’s politics, has disintegrated. While American liberals cling to the myth that “land for peace” is a viable formula, most Israelis disabused themselves of that destructive fairy tale a long time ago.
Netanyahu may be triumphant today, but he also knows that the corruption charges that hang over his head won’t be wished away even if he’s better off facing them with a mandate from the voters. Israelis who cast their ballots for Likud and other slates that were pledged to support him, did so not merely in spite of those accusations but because many feel they are part of an effort to destroy him on the part of the country’s legal and media establishment.
Yet if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit goes ahead with indictments after another hearing later this year, Netanyahu will be cornered in spite of the good economy and consensus about security issues. At that point—and since resignation and going quietly away is not something anyone can believe he will consider—Netanyahu will have two choices. He can seek to evade the problem by having his allies pass a law giving him immunity from prosecution in office, or brazen it out and insist on staying on even while facing a trial that could lead to imprisonment.
The former tactic will not only bring down on his head even more opprobrium than he’s already faced, but probably also be struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court. The latter will almost certainly bring on a coalition crisis that will inevitably lead to early elections in which Gantz and the Blue and White—assuming that he can actually mold that fractious alliance of disparate elements into a party that can sustain itself—would have a huge advantage.
That leads to two questions about the durability of the right-wing consensus that rules Israeli politics. One is whether it is strong enough to withstand the spectacle of a prime minister on trial. The other is whether it can be sustained under a different, less able and charismatic Likud leader.
Perhaps this election—conducted as it was in an unprecedented fashion in the shadow of corruption charges against Netanyahu—gives us the answer to the first question. If his followers are prepared to serenade him with the “Bibi, melech Yisrael” (“king of Israel”) that Likudniks once sang for the party’s founder, Menachem Begin, then perhaps they will be similarly undaunted by actual indictments.
There are no natural successors to Netanyahu within his party because he (and reportedly his wife, Sara), have chased all potential rivals out of the Likud. But that doesn’t mean that some of his subordinates don’t dream of the post-Netanyahu era, even if none of them dares to raise such a possibility in public.
In particular, Gideon Sa’ar—a once-rising star within the Likud who eventually ran afoul of the prime minister, and then withdrew from politics for a few years before returning to run and help organize the party’s victory this year—is one of the few people in the party who can be said to have a real following. He, among others, is waiting patiently for Netanyahu to leave.
But could someone like Sa’ar or any other Likud leader pose as another indispensable man who embodies the nation’s hopes and fears as ably as Netanyahu does? At that, could a centrist like Gantz—whether a leftist in disguise or not—rearrange the map of Israeli politics in such a way as to not only elect a new prime minister unencumbered by scandal, but also encompass what might be a sea change about other issues? Maybe. But it’s also possible that Palestinian intransigence would wind up sinking any challenger to the right the way they did to Labor Party leaders in past elections.
As long as Netanyahu is still standing, the Israeli right doesn’t have to worry about this. But anyone who watched his early-morning victory speech had to notice that he was more emotional and reflective this time than at past such events. Was he wondering whether this was going be his last time celebrating an election triumph?
Only he knows the answer to that question. But sooner or later, the end of his political story will come. When it does, a true test of whether the right-wing political consensus can endure will follow.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.