Israeli PM puts scare into voters in bid to keep power

Benjamin Netanyahu’s work is almost done.

If he wins Tuesday’s election and forms yet another government (he is now the longest-serving Israeli prime minister), he will put a stake through the heart of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was born in the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

Hamas should send him a gold watch for long service.

Netanyahu and Hamas have always been what our Marxist friends used to call objective allies. That is to say, they hated each other, but they shared one overriding objective: to thwart the creation of a semi-independent Palestinian state based in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that had been envisaged in the Oslo deal.

It was the Israeli left that made that deal, in the person of Yitzak Rabin, a war hero who thought he saw a chance for a permanent peace settlement.

His Arab partner was Yassir Arafat, the terrorist-turned-statesman who led the secular Fatah organization, the largest Palestinian group. Arafat too was ready for a compromise peace by 1993.

Both men, of course, faced bitter opposition at home. Arafat’s strongest critics were the Islamist fanatics of the Hamas party. Rabin’s were the Israeli ultra-nationalist right, who included the Orthodox religious parties and most of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.

The Oslo deal started to collapse when an Israeli right-wing extremist assassinated Rabin in 1995. It was assumed at first that his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat, would win the ensuing election on a sympathy vote.

Then Hamas staged three huge suicide bombings killing 58 Israelis in the three months before the 1996 Israeli election campaign.

Hamas’s goal was to radicalize Israelis and push them into the camp of the anti-Oslo nationalists, led by one Benjamin Netanyahu. It worked, Netanyahu formed a government – and there were no further bombings of comparable scale for five years afterward.

Netanyahu was not in cahoots with Hamas, but as a former professional soldier, he would certainly have understood their strategy.

And as prime minister, he did what they hoped: he successfully stalled on delivering any of the Israeli promises in the Oslo accords until he lost power in 1999.

It was 10 years before Netanyahu came back into power in 2009, but the pattern was set. Only once, briefly, was there an Israeli government that tried to revive the two-state solution, and since Netanyahu has been back, it has been completely off the table.

In fact, there’s no risk any more, even if he isn’t in power: the two-state option is well and truly dead.

Hamas would probably still prefer Netanyahu to any plausible alternative Israeli prime minister, but from their point of view, his work is done.

So what is this election in Israel about? Not very much, really.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its usual coalition partners, the extreme right and religious parties, won a majority in last April’s election, but he was unable to put a coalition together afterwards.

One key party in his last coalition demanded that the large numbers of young Orthodox men studying for years at a time in religious seminaries must lose their automatic exemptions from military service.

Netanyahu couldn’t agree to that without losing the support of the religious parties, so he called another election instead.

It may work: the last opinion poll legally permissible before the election predicted that the right-wing bloc would win a solid majority of 66 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

It is possible that Kahol Lavan, a centrist party led by former armed forces commander Benny Ganz, will win more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud party and thereby gain the right to try to form a government.

But it will probably not succeed, because the larger coalition of parties Ganz leads, the Blue and White Alliance (after the colours of the Israeli flag), will come up short: the polls say only 54 seats in the Knesset.

So Netanyahu will probably be prime minister again, even though he is facing fraud, bribery and corruption charges and may face pretrial hearings within weeks.

Netanyahu denies all charges and would not be legally required to step down unless he is convicted and all his appeals are rejected. That process could take years.

But still, how does he go on winning? He has all this legal baggage, his domestic performance is no better than fair – most Israelis feel their budgets are pretty stretched – and anyway, you’d think they would be getting bored with the same old face after 13 years.

He does it, every time, by throwing a scare into them, and by simultaneously promising to expand Israel’s territory.

This time, he presents himself as the only man who can keep the U.S. on side against the allegedly mortal Iranian threat, warns that Israel’s Arab minority will steal the election (by turning out to vote), and says he will annex the Jordan valley and the northern Dead Sea coast (one-third of the West Bank) as soon as he is elected.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).

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