Vowing annexation, charging voter fraud, ‘King Bibi’ looks poised to extend rule

If polls are in the ballpark, Netanyahu’s tactics will have worked and next Knesset will represent more hawkish Israeli electorate, undeterred by his attacks on media, cops, judges

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in the Knesset on September 15, 2019, two days before elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in the Knesset on September 15, 2019, two days before elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s opinion polls are always a little off, but they’re generally in the ballpark. And if that’s the case with Tuesday’s election, we’ll wake up on Wednesday to a very different Israel.

We’ll wake up to an Israel almost all of whose parliamentarians no longer pay even lip service to the eventual possibility of a two-state solution with the Palestinians — the very basis upon which Israel was revived by UN mandate more than 70 years ago.

And we’ll wake up to an Israel whose prime minister was returned to office despite, or because of, his attacks on a widening array of state institutions allegedly working against him, including the police, state prosecutors and the Central Elections Committee.

Five months may be an unprecedentedly short period between elections, but our political map appears to have shifted significantly in the interim. Crucially, the polls point to an electorate — battered by Gaza rocket fire, still traumatized by Second Intifada Palestinian terrorism of the early 2000s, wary of Hezbollah and its nuclear-aspiring state sponsor Iran — that has deepened its faith in Benjamin Netanyahu, even as the prime minister has moved steadily to the right and battered away at key pillars of Israel’s democracy.

The eclipse of the left

In April, there was much wringing of hands on the left at the collapse of the Labor Party — which fell to a historic low of six seats under its then-leader Avi Gabbay, from the 24 it had managed under Isaac Herzog as part of the Zionist Union in 2015. In Tuesday’s elections, Labor has allied with the social activism-focused Gesher party, marginalizing its historic emphasis on efforts to achieve long-term security and peace for Israel. The shift under new/old leader Amir Peretz would seem to have done nothing to broaden Labor’s appeal; some polls suggest Labor may struggle to make it back into the Knesset at all.

Democratic Camp party leaders Ehud Barak (left), Stav Shafir, and Nitzan Horowitz hold a press conference launching their campaign ahead of the Knesset elections, in Tel Aviv, on August 12, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

That in turn leaves the Democratic Camp as the only Zionist party centrally devoted to the idea of seeking an agreement with the Palestinians. Largely composed of Meretz, with the addition of ex-Labor MK Stav Shaffir and ex-Labor prime minister Ehud Barak, its leader Nitzan Horowitz remains convinced, as he told this writer at a Times of Israel event in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening, that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a thoroughly viable partner for peace, and that the sooner Israel reaches an agreement with him, the better.

The Democratic Camp began the campaign with something of a bang, and was polling as high as 12 seats in late July. But it has since been sinking steadily. Barak’s soaring return to politics, as the most energetic critic of Netanyahu — who he long ago commanded in the elite IDF Sayeret Matkal, and under whom he had served as minister of defense — was abruptly deflated when his friendship with the late sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein made headlines. His call for a grand alliance of the left with Labor was rebuffed by Peretz. And he settled for what seemed at the time to be the somewhat unrealistic 10th spot on the party’s Knesset slate. As things stand now, Ilan Gilon and Issawi Freij, in fifth and sixth place on the list, will be lucky to get into parliament.

The humbling of the center

In the ostensible center, the Blue and White alliance led by Benny Gantz emerged ahead of April’s elections with the confident goal of defeating Netanyahu and his governing Likud. A curious mix of political hawks utterly mistrustful of the Palestinians (such as former Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon), relative doves (notably from its Yesh Atid component, whose leader Yair Lapid supports a two-state solution in principle) and political unknowns, it fared just well enough in April, with the unexpected assistance of Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, to deprive Netanyahu of the 61 seats he needed to form a new coalition.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz attends a party rally in Tel Aviv, two days before the elections. September 15, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

But as this election campaign comes to its end, an apparently humbled Gantz, rather than even talking of supplanting Likud, is now declaredly seeking to head a Blue and White-led “secular” coalition along with a post-Netanyahu Likud and Yisrael Beytenu. Gantz has said Israel does “not want to rule the Palestinians,” but has been evasive about the issue of Palestinian statehood, while insisting on retaining a united Jerusalem and maintaining the Jordan Valley as Israel’s eastern security border.

Underlining the extent to which the very issue of “peace” has been absent from this election campaign, Gantz was neither asked about nor volunteered to discuss the Palestinian issue in his primetime Saturday night interview on Channel 12 news, for instance, other than a brief mention of Gaza when he blamed Netanyahu for failing to build on the deterrence that he said the IDF, under his command, achieved against Hamas during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

The new Netanyahu

While the left has all but disappeared, and the center has edged rightward, the Israeli right has shifted righter still. The self-declared Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit, who have urged the annexation of the entire West Bank and the resettling elsewhere in the Arab world of those within the expanded borders who it deems Israel’s enemies, is polling around the 3.25% Knesset threshold. Naftali Bennett, newly re-subsumed into an alliance with the religious right in Yamina, meanwhile, told the same Times of Israel event on Sunday that he opposes relinquishing even “an inch” of the biblical Judea and Samaria and favors annexing the approximately 60 percent of the West Bank defined as Area C.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, June 14, 2009, backing a demilitarized Palestinian state. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner,Pool)

Most importantly, however, Netanyahu himself, who 10 years ago, in an address at Bar-Ilan University, set out terms for “a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state,” has every few days in the final stages of this campaign widened his stated vision of annexation.

As before the April elections, he has vowed to apply Israeli law to all the settlements, in coordination with the Trump administration, which has raised no public objection. Last Tuesday, he promised to apply Israeli law to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area — about a quarter of the West Bank — immediately after he forms his next coalition if he wins these elections, apparently with American consent. (He said the diplomatic conditions for this move had now “ripened.”) On Sunday, in a little-noticed remark during a lengthy interview on Army Radio, he said he would then move on to annex additional unspecified “vital areas” in the West Bank. And on Monday he specified that his settlement annexation plans would “of course” include the Jewish enclaves in the city of Hebron.

Until relatively recently, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister was one of the very few Likud Knesset members prepared to so much as countenance, with caveats, and amid relentless criticism of Abbas, the possible, eventual notion of Palestinian statehood. As of this campaign, that Netanyahu is a man of the past.

So, too, is Netanyahu the prime minister who liked to place himself and Likud at the center of his coalitions, flanked by parties to right and left. In 2013, it may be hard to recall, he formed a coalition that comprised Likud, Bennett’s Jewish Home, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua. In recent years, as he has fought against corruption allegations, he has denounced those former coalition partners and others to his political left as part of the ostensible witch hunt to oust him.

Widened targets

In the final days of this campaign, moreover, Netanyahu has widened the targets of his fire as he seeks to rally his loyalists and widen support for Likud. Not only are the opposition, the media, the cops and the state prosecution bent on removing him from office via unmerited corruption allegations, but the very election process, overseen by a Supreme Court justice, is being skewed against him, he has charged. Those who opposed his bid to allow party observers to bring cameras to monitor polling stations want “to steal the elections,” he alleged last week — after both Hanan Melcer, the judge who heads the Central Elections Committee, and the Knesset had thwarted his efforts.

Central Elections Committee chairman Hanan Melcer (L) hands the April 2019 election results to President Reuven Rivlin in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 17, 2019. (Screen capture/Twitter)

On Sunday, after repeating unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud in the Arab sector and fuming that Melcer was refusing to meet with him on the matter, he declared that “the conduct of the Central Elections Committee has been scandalous. Seriously!”

Gantz has argued that Netanyahu’s voter fraud allegations are designed so that if the prime minister loses on Tuesday, he will claim that the elections were unfair, and the results are unacceptable — a charge that Netanyahu has waved away, declaring himself outraged and aggrieved at the very idea.

The opinion polls, however, would indicate that Netanyahu has little to fear going into Tuesday’s fateful vote. Rather, they suggest that his electoral tactics are paying off handsomely, with far-reaching consequences for Israel come Wednesday.

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