Bibi’s Next Act

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, and his wife, Sara, greet Likud party supporters in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2019. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Jewish Light Editorial

He faced the biggest political and legal challenges in his long career and endured an election that was too close to call most of the day and night. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eventually won enough seats to form a right-far right coalition that should assure him of another term as head of Israel’s often-contentious government.

Now, he must figure out the best way forward on a number of fronts, both domestic and on the world stage.

In last week’s balloting, Netanyahu beat back a strong showing from the popular Benny Gantz, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Gantz’s Blue and White Party is very close to Netanyahu’s Likud Party in its views on the issues.

While Likud and Blue and White each won 35 seats in the 120-member Knessest, the once dominant Labor Party and the small far left Meretz Party captured barely enough support to earn seats in the legislative body.

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The headline on an excellent analysis of the implications of the election by David M. Halbfinger in The New York Times on April 10 says a lot: “It’s Netanyahu’s Israel Now.”   

Halbfinger said Netanyahu’s re-election “attests to a starkly conservative vision of the Jewish State and its people about where they are headed. They prize stability, as well as the military and economic security that Mr. Netanyahu has delivered.” 

Halbfinger quotes Michael B. Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, with this perspective:  

“Let’s be honest with ourselves. Our economy is excellent, our foreign relations were never better, and we’re secure. We’ve got a guy in politics for 40 years: We know him, the world knows him — even our enemies know him.” 

Under such conditions, even a candidate as respected as Gantz could not overcome Netanyahu’s popularity. Even Israelis who dislike and distrust Netanyahu credit him for the nation’s economic stability and for his considerable diplomatic skills. He is the “devil we know” versus Gantz, who lacks the experience and the breadth of knowledge of Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s victory comes despite the legal cloud over his tenure from the attorney general’s expected issuance of indictments on corruption and fraud charges. It is considered unlikely that he will be forced from office even if he is indicted over what many Israelis regard as overblown issues, including gifts of fancy cigars, cases of champagne and attempting to leverage favorable coverage in an Israeli newspaper.

Netanyahu’s eleventh-hour promise to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank has drawn fire from those who see it as the final nail in the coffin of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. That could change if the long-awaited peace plan from President Donald Trump revives that goal. Netanyahu would most likely be reluctant to reject a Trump “deal of the century,” which could result in posters of himself shaking hands with the president who moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and who supports Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

If that plan becomes public in upcoming weeks while the new Israeli government is being formed, the influence of the White House and of American Jews in general could play a significant role.

As that process proceeds, how well Netanyahu can navigate the sometimes stormy climate of Israeli and world politics will be determined in part in the coalition he puts together. Given the strong showing of far-right parties, that wing of Israeli politics is expected to have a solid position in the upcoming government. Future policies on the West Bank, Gaza and the delicate relationship with the United States are likely to become more conservative.

As Netanyahu prepares to surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest serving prime minister, let us hope that he continues the sound economic and diplomatic policies that enabled him to win a fifth term, and that he uses his wisdom and skills toward achieving peace to go along with the security and prosperity his leadership has provided.