[Israel will hold parliamentary elections on 9 April 2019, after which a new government will be formed. To get a better understanding of the main participants contesting these elections, the key issues in the campaign, and the views of the Israeli electorate, Jadaliyya Co-Editor and Quick Thoughts series editor Mouin Rabbani interviewed Dov Waxman, professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University, author of the forthcoming The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, May 2019). The Quick Thoughts series provides background, context, and detail to issues that are, or should be, currently in the news.]
Jadaliyya (J): The April 2019 Israeli parliamentary elections were precipitated by the November 2018 resignation of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being insufficiently tough in Israel's dealings with the Gaza Strip and the Hamas movement which rules it. This seems rather ironic given that pushing the Palestine question out of sight and out of mind, at least for the great majority of the Israeli electorate, has been among Netanyahu's primary achievements. Has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played a prominent role in the election campaign?
Dov Waxman (DW): From abroad, you might assume that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians would dominate its current election campaign, and you might well think—as I do—that it should be the dominant issue, but this is not the case. In fact, it is remarkable how little the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has featured in this Israeli election campaign.
In general, the campaign has focused much more on personalities than on policies. More than anything else, it has been about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and whether or not he should serve another term in office. But it has also been about his main challenger for the position of prime minister, Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli military who recently entered Israeli politics and now heads the “Blue and White” electoral list.
The Israeli media has focused on the competition, and associated mud-slinging, between Netanyahu and Gantz, making this election seem more like an American-style presidential election contest between rival candidates than a parliamentary election contest between different political parties (this “Americanization” of Israeli elections has been occurring for some time). Because this election has become a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, the campaign has largely avoided addressing policy questions, particularly those concerning Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The lack of attention given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also reflects the fact that most Israelis are not very concerned about the conflict, or even interested in it any longer. For example, surveys show that resolving the conflict is not a priority for most Israeli Jews. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict used to dominate the Israeli political agenda, and Israelis furiously argued about it. Israeli elections were once contests between the left and the right, which offered competing approaches to the conflict—with the left advocating “land for peace” and the right opposing it.
Nowadays, the Israeli left is small and marginalized, and the fierce debate between left and right over the Palestinian issue has given way to a broad consensus among Israeli Jews. Most have lost hope in the peace process and do not believe that peace is possible in the near future. They think that, for the time being at least, Israel can only “manage” the conflict, not resolve it. Consequently, they have stopped arguing about whether Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. They also do not think Israel can do much with regards to the Gaza Strip so long as Hamas controls it, just more or less maintain its blockade of the coastal enclave. This popular consensus has reduced the salience of the Palestinian issue in Israeli politics.
The fact that the lives of most Israelis are not greatly affected by the ongoing conflict and that most can easily ignore what is happening to Palestinians on the other side of the barrier in the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip has also allowed Israelis to focus on other things, like official corruption or the high cost of living in Israel. It is only when Israeli-Palestinian violence escalates that most Israelis pay attention to the conflict, and even then there is not as much debate or dissent as there was previously.
J: Prime Minister Netanyahu faces various corruption charges. How do you think this might influence the election and post-election efforts to form a new Israeli government?
DW: There are pending indictments against Netanyahu in three different corruption cases. Sometime after the election, he will be formally indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust, and bribery. If Netanyahu is still prime minister when this happens, he will become the first sitting Israeli premier to be indicted.
When Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, announced in early March that Netanyahu would be indicted it was a political bombshell. In the immediate aftermath, Netanyahu’s Likud Party lost support in the polls and Gantz’s Blue and White alliance surged ahead. It seemed to many that Netanyahu’s bid to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister would be derailed by his legal troubles.
Now that a few weeks have passed, however, Likud has rebounded a bit in the polls and the issue of Netanyahu’s alleged corruption no longer dominates the Israeli news cycle or the election campaign. This is not because Israelis do not care about his corruption. It is just that this is by now old news. Netanyahu’s supporters on the right will back him, regardless of these corruption charges. Many of them believe that these are trumped-up charges, driven by a left-wing media campaign against him—after all, that is what Netanyahu and his associates have been repeatedly telling them.
I do not think, therefore, that the corruption charges will greatly influence the outcome of this election. But they are influencing the nature of the election campaign as Netanyahu seems willing to do just about anything to stay in power, and out of jail.
Netanyahu’s ability to remain prime minister is undoubtedly jeopardized by the pending indictments. If he’s still prime minister when he is indicted, he will come under a lot of domestic pressure to resign. Whether he does so or not will probably depend on whether the Likud Party stands by him or if he faces a leadership challenge from a Likud rival.
J: The Blue and White party, composed primarily of former senior generals, took the lead in opinion polling shortly after its formation but then appeared to fall rather precipitously. Can you characterize this coalition and its main policy positions?
DW: Blue and White is not really a party but a political alliance, composed of three different parties: Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience), Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is A Future), and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem (which is a Hebrew acronym for National Statesmanlike Movement). Two of these parties—Hosen L’Yisrael and Telem—have only recently been created and their policy positions are unclear. What brings these three parties together is simply their desire to get rid of Netanyahu. In other words, they are united by what they are against—Netanyahu—rather than what they are for.
Broadly speaking, you could characterize the Blue and White alliance as politically centrist, at least compared with the Likud and other right-wing parties. Its official platform is pretty vague, probably because it is designed to appeal to Israeli voters on the center-left and the center-right. Its positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not novel or radical in terms of Israeli politics. The platform rules out any division of Jerusalem as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and it calls for Israel to keep the large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank as well as for Israel to retain control over the Jordan Valley. It also rejects a unilateral withdrawal—like Israel’s 2005 “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip—from anywhere in the West Bank. And, although the platform promises to “deepen the process of separation from the Palestinians,” it makes no mention of Palestinian statehood or a two-state solution.
These positions are quite similar to those of the Labor Party, which is a center-left party, except that Labor publicly supports a two-state solution (at some point in the future). What distinguishes the Blue and White alliance is not its policy positions, but its leadership. Three out of its four leaders—Gantz, Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi—are former army chiefs. This accounts for much of the political appeal of the alliance to Israeli voters. The Blue and White list emphasizes its security credentials, thereby making it harder for Netanyahu and the Likud to claim to be the only responsible custodians of Israeli security.
J: What are the motivations and significance behind the merger of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party with the Jewish Home and National Union parties? Can you also comment on the Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling banning the leader of Otzma Yehudit from running in the election?
DW: Netanyahu was primarily responsible for the merger of Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) with two other far-right parties, Jewish Home and National Union. These three parties collectively call themselves the “Union of Right-Wing Parties.” Netanyahu orchestrated this union because he was concerned that right-wing votes would be wasted if the three parties ran separately and each failed to receive more than 3.25 percent of the vote (the electoral threshold for parties to enter the Knesset, Israel’s parliament). If that were to happen, then Netanyahu would probably not be able to assemble another coalition government because the right-wing and religious bloc in the Knesset that he relies upon would be too small (i.e., it would have less than 60 out of 120 seats).
This was a smart move by Netanyahu politically because it might well enable him to form the next government, but it is deeply problematic for Israeli democracy and possibly for Israeli-Palestinian relations. Netanyahu has effectively empowered and helped legitimize an extremist and racist party, which has ties to a group (Kach) that has been officially designated as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. The “Jewish Power” Party embraces an ideology of Jewish supremacism and territorial maximalism. It wants Israel to annex all of the West Bank and it advocates for the expulsion of “disloyal” Arab citizens of Israel. If this party becomes part of the next Israeli government, then Israel’s policies could shift even further to the right, escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian-Arab citizens. While we should not exaggerate the likely political influence of the Jewish Power Party, its possible inclusion in government is at the very least symbolically significant—it indicates how far racist discourse has permeated Israeli politics and become increasingly mainstream (it is worth noting that some Likud politicians, such as former Likud MK Oren Hazan, have also made racist remarks).
The Israeli Supreme Court’s decision to bar former Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari, head of Jewish Power, from running in the elections because of his racist incitement against Arabs is at least an attempt to stop this trend and delegitimize explicit racism in Israeli politics (the Supreme Court, which includes an Arab judge, also overturned the Central Election Committee’s decisions to disqualify the Arab parties, Ra’am and Balad, and a Jewish candidate of the far-left Hadash party, Ofer Kassif). The Supreme Court’s ruling has been strongly denounced by right-wing politicians like Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, the co-leaders of the “New Right” party. The latter has already been challenging the power and independence of the Supreme Court while serving as Justice Minister in the current Israeli government. Now she has stepped up her attack on the Supreme Court, vowing to bring it completely under the control of the Knesset. This would seriously threaten judicial independence in Israel and the rule of law.
J: What is your prognosis regarding these elections, and the role the Trump administration is playing to bolster Netanyahu, if you find this relevant?
DW: I expect the outcome of this election to be a close one. Current polls show the Blue and White slate winning a few more Knesset seats than Likud, but what really matters is the overall size of the Likud-led right-religious bloc versus the Blue and White-led centrist-secular bloc (which is often misleadingly referred to as the center-left bloc, even though it is not very left wing). The relative size of these two competing blocs, and hence their ability to form the next government, largely depends on which smaller parties will win enough seats to enter the Knesset (four seats are needed to meet the electoral threshold). The latest polls indicate that the right-religious bloc will be slightly larger, but that could easily change.
The decisive factor will be the turnout on election day, especially Arab turnout. Netanyahu became prime minister for the first time in 1996 because many Arab voters boycotted that election. Now he might finally be removed from office, and even end up in jail, if Arab citizens vote in even larger numbers than they did in the previous election (when the combined Arab parties, the Joint List, won thirteen seats to become the third largest faction in the Knesset).
Finally, although President Trump is doing everything he can to help Netanyahu get re-elected—most recently Trump’s announcement on Twitter that “it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights”—I doubt that Trump’s blatant support for Netanyahu will be a decisive factor in this election. To be sure, Netanyahu undoubtedly benefits politically from Trump’s statement on the Golan and he will surely get a further boost from his scheduled meetings with Trump next week. But Israeli voters already know how close Trump and Bibi are and most regard Netanyahu as an effective statesman. Those who want him to remain prime minister will vote for Likud and other right-wing parties, while those who are fed up with him and want a change will mostly vote for Blue and White and other centrist parties. While Trump is popular in Israel (unlike much of the rest of the world), he cannot convince Israelis to re-elect Netanyahu if they do not already want to.