Watching Britain begin to play coalition politics on Friday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have ruefully mused that he’d be delighted with an election result leaving his party just a few seats short of a parliamentary majority.
Like Theresa May, Netanyahu in 2015 called snap elections. And while May’s Conservatives on Friday came close to retaining their parliamentary majority, his Likud won a mere 30 seats — just a quarter of the Knesset. Yet here he is, having cobbled together the routine bickering Israeli multi-party coalition, as safely ensconced in office as any Israeli prime minister ever is in our endlessly chaotic political system. And there she is, battered and discredited and facing calls from within her party and without to resign.
The fact is, however, that while Netanyahu has long proved himself the master of Israel’s complex and splintered political reality, his British counterpart showed herself incapable of capitalizing on a straightforward opportunity to cement her hold on power, and seemed to do everything possible to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Netanyahu has wanted to believe that political forces in many places worldwide are shifting in what he considers to be Israel’s favor. Not in the UK, they’re not.
More than 20 points clear in the polls when she called these elections less than eight weeks ago, and hoping for a majority of 100-plus in the 650-member House of Commons, May’s Conservatives wound up losing 13 seats.
Labour under the ostensibly unelectable leftist Jeremy Corbyn gained 30. Even as she drove to Buckingham Palace early on Friday afternoon to formally ask the Queen for permission to form a government — based on a curious alliance with Northern Ireland’s 10-seat Democratic Unionist Party — analysts were discussing which of her rivals would likely emerge first to challenge her leadership.
May ran a truly dreadful campaign. She alienated core voters with talk of making the elderly pay more for their care. Three terrorist attacks in three months brought her past record as home secretary — when she cut police numbers — under awkward scrutiny. She stayed away from a TV debate. She appeared strained and wooden in public appearances.
Corbyn, by contrast, belied his radical reputation and proved a charismatic, affable candidate who resonated particularly among young voters. Relatively high turnout nationwide was widely attributed to his appeal. Hugely unpopular with many of his Labour parliamentary colleagues, who had hoped this election would spell his demise, the left-winger is now in a position to remake more of the party in his own radical image.
Like Bernie Sanders in the US, he was the anti-establishment candidate whose unapologetic conviction politics proved compelling in a Britain riven with inequality. Unlike Sanders, Corbyn is hugely bolstered in defeat.
Needless to say, neither attitudes to Israel, nor anti-Semitism, were central factors in the British campaign. But Corbyn is emphatically no lover of Israel, and his success will embolden those who share that mindset in the re-energized opposition party. Many in the British Jewish community also feel he has not acted with sufficient determination to marginalize the anti-Semitic elements within Labour. He will be less vulnerable to criticism over that, or over any other aspect of his leadership, after this vote.
Theresa May — who just months ago praised Israel as “a remarkable country” and “a beacon of tolerance” — is clinging onto power by her fingernails after an election she chose to call. Jeremy Corbyn — who notoriously once referred to his “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah, who has indicated support for an arms embargo on Israel, and whose party manifesto promises the unilateral and immediate recognition of a State of Palestine — has garnered more momentum than almost anybody had expected to challenge her.
You can be sure there is no delight over that in Jerusalem.