Netanyahu’s Enablers

What the Israeli Elections Mean
White House senior advisors Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are seen with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, during the U.S. embassy inauguration in Jerusalem May 14. (CNS photo/Abir Sultan, EPA)

For a time it seemed possible that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party were headed for defeat in Israel’s April 9 election. Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party—running from the center-right with a slate that included former Israeli military leaders—mounted the most serious challenge Netanyahu has faced, and even election-night exit polls deemed the race too close to call. Though he campaigned on a prospering economy and military security, Netanyahu was also running under the shadow of potential indictment for bribery and fraud, and he appeared vulnerable. Largely avoiding the topic of Palestine through most of the campaign, he seized on the issue rather desperately in its final days, pledging to annex parts of the West Bank if elected. Whether that pledge made the difference is uncertain—Netanyahu has made alarming promises before other elections, without following through—but no matter: forging a coalition with two far-right, ultra-Orthodox parties, he eked out a narrow victory, and will now surpass David Ben-Gurion’s record four terms in office.

At this point, no one should expect Netanyahu to deviate from the hard line that has helped him make history. Freshly empowered, he is likely to push his policy agenda still further while continuing to stoke divisiveness and fear, aided by a right-leaning majority in the Knesset and unchecked by a severely diminished Labor party. No less concerning is what he might be willing to do in order to fend off a criminal investigation that he calls a “witch hunt.” Some observers believe he could make good on his threat to annex the West Bank in exchange for the passage of a law that would protect sitting prime ministers from indictment. His attacks on the press—he has encouraged wealthy supporters to purchase news outlets because “I need my own media”—have raised alarm and drawn comparisons to the illiberal tendencies of Donald Trump, as has his success in identifying his personality so strongly with the office that all opposition is deemed unpatriotic, even treasonous.

With less than ever standing in Netanyahu’s way, the possibility of a just peace in the region seems ever more remote.

Of course, there’s still more for which Netanyahu can be grateful to Trump. The U.S. president has served up a number of diplomatic and policy gifts to the prime minister, including recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, relocation of the U.S. embassy to that city from Tel Aviv, withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, and recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Just before the election, Trump designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization—a move Netanyahu claims he convinced the president to make. Where previous administrations counseled a halt on settlement expansion and encouraged continuing negotiations, Trump’s team—especially since the arrival of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—has backed off those positions. This has raised questions about the influence of a strain of American Evangelicalism that sees a secure Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in preparation for the Apocalypse. Both Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence speak of Israel in these terms, while characterizing any of the Palestinians’ supporters, including Iran, as existential threats. Evangelical leaders like John Hagee and Robert Jeffress enjoy special access to the administration’s foreign-policy discussions, and their input has been solicited for the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is supposed to be working on. Given the signals the administration is sending, it does not seem likely that this plan will take Palestinian concerns seriously; in Congressional testimony, Pompeo has hinted that Kushner’s plan will stop short of creating a Palestinian state. If so, it would be dead on arrival. It should be pointed out that too many Democrats have supported Trump’s policy gifts to Netanyahu. They appear more intent on tamping down controversy over remarks from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn.) than criticizing pro-Israel lobbyists. To their credit, though, Democratic presidential hopefuls are very deliberately separating support for the safety of Israelis from the Israeli government’s policies.

The Trump administration’s uncritical support for Netanyahu will no doubt affect the way he sets about building a governing coalition in the Knesset. Though there may be some pressure to forge connections with Gantz’s Blue and White party, he’s more likely to stick with the far-right groups that have gotten him this far and seem ready to stand by him should he be indicted. For now at least, the two-state solution seems dead. If Netanyahu continues on the path he followed to re-election and fulfills his promise of annexation, Israel’s de facto apartheid will become law. With less than ever standing in Netanyahu’s way, the possibility of a just peace in the region seems ever more remote.

Published in the May 3, 2019 issue: 

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