Israelis Have Shown Netanyahu the Door. Can He
Inflict More Damage Before He Exits?
There looms the possibility of weeks of
horse-trading and the Joint List of Arab legislators
becoming the official opposition
By Jonathan Cook
September 20, 2019 "Information
Clearing House" -For most
Israelis, the general election on Tuesday was about
one thing and one thing only. Not the economy, nor
the occupation, nor even corruption scandals. It was
about Benjamin Netanyahu. Should he head yet another
far-right government, or should his 10-year divisive
rule come to an end?
Barring a last-minute upset as the final ballot
papers are counted, Israelis have made their verdict
clear: Netanyahu’s time is up.
In April’s inconclusive election, which led to
this re-run, Netanyahu’s Likud party tied with its
main opponent in the Blue and White party, led by
retired general Benny Gantz. This time Gantz appears
to have nudged ahead, with 33 seats to Netanyahu’s
31 in the 120-member parliament. Both parties fared
worse than they did in April, when they each secured
But much more significantly, Netanyahu appears to
have fallen short of the 61-seat majority he needs
to form yet another far-right government comprising
settler and religious parties.
His failure is all the more glaring, given that
he conducted by far the ugliest – and most reckless
– campaign in Israeli history. That was because the
stakes were sky-high.
Only a government of the far-right – one entirely
beholden to Netanyahu – could be relied on to pass
legislation guaranteeing him immunity from a legal
process due to begin next month. Without it, he is
likely to be indicted on multiple charges of fraud
and breach of trust.
So desperate was Netanyahu to avoid that fate,
according to reports published in the Israeli media
on election day, that he was only a hair’s breadth
away from launching a war on Gaza last week as a way
to postpone the election.
Israel’s chief law officer, attorney general
Avichai Mendelblit, stepped in to halt the attack
when he discovered the security cabinet had approved
it only after Netanyahu concealed the army command’s
Netanyahu also tried to bribe right-wing voters
by promising last week that he would annex much of
the West Bank immediately after the election – a
stunt that blatantly violated campaigning laws,
according to Mendelblit.
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Facebook was forced to shut down
Netanyahu’s page on two occasions for
hate speech – in one case after it sent
out a message that “Arabs want to
annihilate us all – women, children and
men”. That sentiment appeared to include
the 20 per cent of the Israeli
population who are Palestinian citizens.
Netanyahu incited against the country’s
Palestinian minority in other ways, not least by
constantly suggesting that their votes constituted
fraud and that they were trying to “steal the
He even tried to force through a law allowing his
Likud party activists to film in Arab polling
stations – as they covertly did in April’s election
– in an unconcealed attempt at voter intimidation.
The move appeared to have backfired, with
Palestinian citizens turning out in larger numbers
than they did in April.
US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, intervened
on Netanyahu’s behalf by announcing the possibility
of a defence pact requiring the US to come to
Israel’s aid in the event of a regional
None of it helped.
Netanayhu’s only hope of political survival – and
possible avoidance of jail time – depends on his
working the political magic he is famed for.
That may prove a tall order. To pass the 61-seat
threshold, he must persuade Avigdor Lieberman and
his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party to
Netanyahu and Lieberman, who is a settler, are
normally ideological allies. But these are not
normal times. Netanyahu had to restage the election
this week after Lieberman, sensing the prime
minister’s weakness, refused in April to sit
alongside religious parties in a Netanyahu-led
Netanyahu might try to lure the fickle Lieberman
back with an irresistible offer, such as the two of
them rotating the prime ministership.
But Lieberman risks huge public opprobrium if,
after putting the country through a deeply unpopular
re-run election, he now does what he refused on
principle to do five months ago.
Lieberman increased his party’s number of seats
to eight by insisting that he is the champion of the
secular Israeli public.
Most importantly for Lieberman, he finds himself
once again in the role of kingmaker. It is almost
certain he will shape the character of the next
government. And whoever he anoints as prime minister
will be indebted to him.
The deadlock that blocked the formation of a
government in April still stands. Israel faces the
likelihood of weeks of frantic horse-trading and
even the possibility of a third election.
Nonetheless, from the perspective of Palestinians
– whether those under occupation or those living in
Israel as third-class citizens – the next Israeli
government is going to be a hardline right one.
On paper, Gantz is best placed to form a
government of what is preposterously labelled the
“centre-left”. But given that its backbone will
comprise Blue and White, led by a bevy of hawkish
generals, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, it
would, in practice, be nearly as right wing as
Gantz even accused Netanyahu of stealing his idea
in announcing last week that he would annex large
parts of the West Bank.
The difficulty is that such a coalition would
depend on the support of the 13 Joint List
legislators representing Israel’s large Palestinian
minority. That is something Lieberman has rejected
out of hand, calling the idea “absurd” early on
Wednesday as results were filtering in. Gantz
appears only a little more accommodating.
The solution could be a national unity government
comprising much of the right: Gantz’s Blue and White
teamed up with Likud and Lieberman. Both Gantz and
Lieberman indicated that was their preferred choice
The question then would be whether Netanyahu can
worm his way into such a government, or whether
Gantz demands his ousting as a price for Likud’s
Netanyahu’s hand in such circumstances would not
be strong, especially if he is immersed in a
protracted legal battle on corruption charges. There
are already rumblings of an uprising in Likud to
One interesting outcome of a unity government is
that it could provoke a constitutional crisis by
making the Joint List, the third-largest party, the
official opposition. That is the same Joint List
described by Netanyahu as a “dangerous anti-Zionist”
Ayman Odeh would become the first leader of the
Palestinian minority to attend regular briefings by
the prime minister and security chiefs.
Netanyahu will continue as caretaker prime
minister for several more weeks – until a new
government is formed. If he stays true to form,
there is plenty of mischief he can instigate in the
Jonathan Cookis a Nazareth- based journalist and
winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for
Journalism. No one pays him to write these
blog posts. If you appreciated it, please consider
visiting his website and make a donation to support
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