Little to choose from in Israel’s elections

April 08, 2019

On any other day, the announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he is considering formally annexing certain Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and that he is not ready to evacuate ”a single person” from West Bank settlements would be blockbuster news. But these pronouncements come just before the April 9 general elections, and they come from Netanyahu who could be victorious at the ballot box, producing further banner headlines.

Netanyahu, who also recently ruled out a Palestinian state as being an existential danger, is the only Israeli leader who has accepted the two-state solution only to do everything to prevent it from happening. He is certainly in no hurry to seek a Palestinian settlement. It used to be that the Palestinian-Israeli problem took center stage in the Israeli elections. Not anymore. The economy has grown greatly over the last decade. And though there has been conflict— the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza and recent rocket attacks from Hamas — the toll for Israelis has been relatively low and the impact on daily life has been minimal.

There are signs of some Netanyahu fatigue after 10 years and a corruption scandal concerning gifts he’s accepted and favors he’s done for media moguls to win positive coverage. But Netanyahu has touted his close relationship with Donald Trump, which has led to Washington backing Israeli claims to sovereignty in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and most likely now, illegal Israeli settlements.

But should Netanyahu trip up, waiting in the wings is Benny Gantz, the former Israeli army chief. New to politics, Gantz has positioned himself as a centrist alternative to Netanyahu. He heads the new Blue and White Party composed of former senior officers ranging from the center to the right. If he wins enough seats to form a government, it’s conceivable that he could form a ruling coalition with the center-left Labor Party as well as with right-wing parties. His party will have to garner more votes than the Likud, and he will have to hope that one or more of the small right-wing parties does not get enough votes to make it into the Knesset.

Gantz brags about how much killing and destruction he committed in Gaza in the 2014 war when he was chief of staff. Besides that, his references to the conflict are vague, advocating a policy of “separation” from the Palestinians without endorsing the idea of a two-state solution.

Netanyahu has an edge in most polls, but on the final days the polls paint a confusing picture. Some have Likud neck-and-neck with Gantz’s party. One poll had Likud bypassing Blue and White to lead the race by one or two Knesset seats. One survey result has Gantz pulling ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud by an impressive four seats. None of the polls give the center-left bloc led by Gantz any prospects of overtaking Netanyahu’s bloc.

There are other wannabes for the title, such as head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid and the new right pair of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. But the man to watch is Netanyahu who was prime minister for three years in the 1990s, was elected again in 2009 and won re-election twice. With another victory now, he could pass David Ben-Gurion as the longest serving Israeli premier. Annexing settlements will rouse new Palestinian fury as well as international condemnation but will resonate with several parties with which he’ll try to form a coalition government if he wins the biggest share of votes.

All previous Israeli elections have always been looked at by Arabs and the Muslim world through the lens of what will the new or old prime minister do to resolve the Palestinian question. There doesn’t appear to be too much daylight between Netanyahu and Gantz, certainly not enough to brighten Palestinian hopes.

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