Another Israeli election has come and gone – and nothing has been decided. The second round reinforced the divisions between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps, and between the ultra-Orthodox and anti-Orthodox.
Like America, Britain and, to a lesser extent, Canada, Israel is a polarized society, at least on the surface. Much of the polarization is focused on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The election results point to a decline in his support and a general realization that after 10 years in power (in addition to the almost three years he held the office in the late 1990s), Israelis are ready for a change.
But the battle over when and how this will take place is intense. Netanyahu and his supporters are fighters. He faces ongoing criminal investigations and indictments and, at least so far, he has fought them each step of the way, claiming, with some credibility, that the cases are politically motivated and that the evidence is weak.
Nevertheless, the erosion in his support has amplified discussions about succession and, at this stage, Blue and White Leader Benny Gantz is best positioned to take the prime ministership. Gantz ran a lacklustre campaign, but his steady and confident approach, which builds on the image he had when he served as the IDF’s chief of staff, drew support form one-quarter of the electorate.
Indeed, the main message to emerge from the two elections of 2019 is the need for unity around core principles. In his cautious post-election speech, Gantz promised to unite, rather than divide. Netanyahu also indicated that he understood this shift, emphasizing widely shared Zionist values and objectives. Yisrael Beiteinu Leader Avigdor Lieberman – who was part of the right-wing bloc, but refused to join Netanyahu after the April election – called for a broad unity government (in which he hopes to emerge as kingmaker).
The emphasis on a government capable of bridging these differences, rather than adding to them, also reflects concerns over external threats, starting with Iran. The likelihood of a major confrontation between Washington and Teheran over nuclear weapons, oil and support for terror is increasing steadily, and Israel will be caught in the middle. Netanyahu’s experience and record of success in dealing with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are important, and a unity government led by Netanyahu and Gantz would inspire confidence. (They worked well together during the 2014 Gaza conflict, when Gantz headed the IDF.)
The long-anticipated Trump peace plan adds to the urgency of a broad-based coalition. The “deal of the century” is likely to seek some Israeli territorial concessions, in exchange for sovereignty over the “consensus settlements” adjacent to the 1948 armistice lines.
According to public opinion polls, the majority of Israelis recognize the need for change after 52 years of uncertain borders and chaos across the pre-1967 Green Line. Netanyahu’s election pledge to annex the strategically vital Jordan Valley (or parts of it; the details were unclear) did not get him additional votes, perhaps because this was already factored-in by the majority of Israelis.
But it was also a prelude to the sweeping changes that are expected. A Netanyahu-Gantz coalition could lead Israel through this process, in the face of fierce opposition from the Palestinians (and their European allies), and perhaps result in progress towards fixed borders.
Of course, the devil is always in the details. Will Netanyahu agree to share power with Gantz and rotate the prime ministership after two years, following the successful Shamir-Peres model after the 1984 election? And will a pledge by Netanyahu to relinquish power at the end of this period, perhaps in return for immunity from prosecution, be seen as credible? How will they resolve the disagreements that are bound to arise? And will other ambitious political contenders in the Likud party and among Gantz’s partners agree to postpone their efforts and await other opportunities?
Political realism suggests that any of these issues could derail a unity government, but occasionally, sanity wins out, even in Israel.