Opinion

Israel Election Results: Netanyahu Will Pull Out All the Stops - Including Military Action - to Hold on to Power

Israelis voted to save their democracy. But the country may soon face a severe constitutional crisis if Netanyahu, facing political failure and criminal prosecution, adopts Nixon-style desperate measures

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote at a voting station in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019
AFP

The final results from Israel’s do-over elections are not yet in, but barring entirely unrealistic developments, Benjamin Netanyahu’s long reign as king-premier will soon be over.

To be sure, Israel faces a protracted period of ugly coalition machinations, prior to what is the most likely outcome - the formation of a national unity coalition, based on Benny Gantz's Kachol Lavan, Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, possibly others, as well. The identity of the future premier is less clear - whether Gantz, or a successor to Netanyahu from within the Likud.

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Despite the close outcome, the election did produce one clear winner: Israeli democracy.

First of all, the rule of law was upheld.

Netanyahu’s repeated electoral efforts to save himself from criminal prosecution, by means of a deal based on "annexation for exoneration" (annexation of the West Bank in exchange for the right-wing parties’ support for legal immunity), have now failed conclusively.

So have his deplorable attempts to undermine Israel’s judicial system and, short of a deal for clemency, it is now highly likely that he will soon be indicted on a number of criminal charges and face time in prison.

Second, the calls for annexation of the West Bank are off and the possibility of a future two-state solution has now been kept alive.

Crucially, the dangers to Israel’s fundamental character as a democratic and predominantly Jewish state have been put off. Already today, 40 percent of the combined populations of Israel and the West Bank are not Jewish (but just 20 percent without the West Bank).

Had the annexationists’ delusional vision prevailed, this already grave challenge would have become virtually insurmountable. Palestinian rejection of past peace proposals, and the horrific terrorism of the second intifada, devastated Israel’s peace camp, but opposition to a binational state remains virtually monolithic.

Third, Netanyahu’s attempts to incite public opinion against the Arab population failed and instead produced a backlash. Arab voters turned out in greater numbers than in the previous elections – and, in so, doing expressed both their belief in the system and desire for further integration into Israeli society.

Arab political leaders now have an historic opportunity to change their extremist and hateful rhetoric and adopt a more moderate approach designed to actually deliver benefits for their constituents, rather than waging the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Knesset.

Benny Gantz, one of the leaders of the Kahol Lavan political alliance, attends a campaign event in Tel Aviv, Israel on September 15, 2019
AFP

Pending that kind of change, most Jewish Israelis oppose the Joint List’s inclusion in any coalition - but it can certainly back a coalition from the outside, deliver benefits to its constituents in exchange, and begin a process of legitimization leading to its future inclusion.

A more positive Arab approach would also illuminate the absurdity of Netanyahu’s call to bar "non-Zionist parties" from the coalition he aspires to asemble: after all, the ultra-Orthodox parties aren't Zionist, either.

Fourth, those ultra-Orthodox parties are the election's big losers, even though their Knesset representation increased. The hottest issue in the election, other than Netanyahu himself, was the severe backlash produced by Haredi parties’ growing attempts to impose religious values on the secular majority.

Both Gantz and Lieberman ran on tickets calling for the establishment of a broad secular coalition, without the Haredim, the likely outcomes, as things now stand. Ultra-Orthodox overreach may have created the basis for a long-term redrawing of Israel’s political map.

The next government’s foreign policy, with Kachol Lavan's imprint, will likely be far more moderate than its predecessor’s. That would lead to an improvement in Israel’s international standing, including with its closest ally, the United States. The collapse in support for Israel on the Democratic left, to which most American Jews belong, will at least be arrested and the basis created for renewed support.

With a more forthcoming Israeli position on the peace process, possibly significantly so, the onus for the lack of progress will be placed back where it truly belongs, on the Palestinian rejection of every possible peace proposal.

The elections further demonstrated that Bibi’s ardent embrace of both Trump and Putin failed to turn the tide. Donald Trump’s stated desire to begin talks with Iran, his failure to respond so far to its devastating attack on Saudi Arabia, and declared intention to finally announce his Mideast peace plan, portended growing differences with Netanyahu.

Israeli Likud party supporters wave a Trump 2020 electoral banner as they react to exit polls at the Likud's campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv early on September 18, 2019
AFP

Now, paradoxically, Trump's differences with a new, more moderate Israeli government, may prove less contentious.

The elections also herald a return to greater sanity, decency and, dare I say, decorum in Israeli politics.

These are, of course, relative terms, Israeli politics have always been a highly-charged, no holds barred free-for-all, but the invective of recent years and near absence of fact-based political discourse, reached unprecedented and dangerous heights.

To date, Kachol Lavan leaders have demonstrated admirable determination to turn away from demagoguery towards a more restrained form of discourse. Sometimes, it is the small things that count.

In the coming weeks, even months, Israel may face a severe constitutional crisis, as Netanyahu pulls out all the stops, even military ones, to save himself.

Recent reports have shown just how close we were to war last week, when senior defense and judicial officials ultimately succeeded in dissuading the premier from what they considered to be a politically motivated decision to escalate against Hamas. Standing up to the premier is hardly their constitutional responsibility and their ability to continue doing so is unclear.

This is uncharted legal territory for Israel, somewhat reminiscent of Nixon’s final days, including the Yom Kippur War, when Kissinger, acting in an extra-constitutional manner, partly filled in for him.

We have to hope that Israel's legal institutions, and its political norms - weakened but still standing - remain solid enough to defend Israel from a desperate loser.  

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and a professor at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of "Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change" (Oxford University Press, 2018). Twitter: @FreilichChuck