The past year has been rather uncertain for Israel as the country has undergone two elections, both producing no final result. Maybe third time’s the charm, as incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu might finally have enough factors working in his favor to get across the finish line and fully beat his rival Benny Gantz.
Netanyahu’s Ongoing Political Struggle
Faced with a major corruption scandal including charges of bribery and fraud, Netanyahu has found it difficult to woo enough voters to his camp to form a majority. But he might just have gotten a golden opportunity to swing the decision of the upcoming March 2 elections by riding the international political waves of nationalism and anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Already the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s 72-year history, Netanyahu is currently serving his third term and he has been in power since 2009. During this period, he has steered the Jewish state further to the right, encouraging settlements in Palestinian territories and launching military offensives in Gaza that have killed hundreds of civilians.
In the elections too, Netanyahu has gone with the same strategy. Where his rival and former military chief Benny Gantz has taken a centrist outlook, Bibi has tried to pander to the far right and secure that voting bloc in perpetuity. While the strategy failed to get his coalition the required 61 seats in Israel’s Knesset to form a majority, things may well be different this time around.
Will American Support Boost Bibi’s Popularity?
For starters, Netanyahu’s popularity has been boosted by getting Washington firmly into Israel’s camp, first by its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and by shifting the US embassy there. This was followed by the Trump administration breaking away from a 40-year status quo, saying it doesn’t view the Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal.
The biggest problem for the Prime Minister, however, was when he flanked Trump while the US President announced his Middle East Peace Plan. A far cry from its namesake, the document basically gave the Jewish state unprecedented concessions, including the recognition of settlements as official territory while also making Israel the final authority on any Palestinian state.
Outcast by its neighbors and criticized widely by the international community, Israel almost always turns to the United States for diplomatic support. However, during the Obama era, it was hard to come by as relations between Netanyahu and the former US President were quite strained at times. However, ever since Trump came into power, that equation has changed drastically and Washington has rallied behind the Jewish state rather unconditionally, giving Bibi something to boast about and rely on.
Netanyahu has also tactfully exploited anti-Arab sentiment in Israel, especially in the last elections when the Joint List – a coalition of four Muslim parties in Israel – came out as the third largest electoral group with 10.6% of the vote share. Their success had put them in the kingmaker position, which centrist rival Gantz was expected to rely on to plug the gap in his numbers.
Netanyahu’s Skill at Stoking Anti-Arab Fears
Speaking on the possibility of Gantz forming a coalition with Joint List, Netanyahu said in a rally: “such a government is an existential threat to the State of Israel. If a minority government like this is formed, they will celebrate in Tehran, Ramallah and Gaza the way they celebrate after every terror attack. This would be a historic national terror attack on the State of Israel.” The strategy worked as Gantz didn’t seek Arab support since he couldn’t risk associating with perceived enemies of the Jewish state, thus leading to yet another election in less than a year.
To further establish himself among the nationalist camp, the Prime Minister on Feb. 25 approved new Israeli settlements of 3,500 homes in East Jerusalem, the proposed capital of Palestine, thus dealing another major blow to the two-state solution.
Even the international political currents are such that they put Netanyahu at an advantage. Just days earlier, Iran elected a new parliament in which conservatives and hardliners won 221 of the 290 seats, potentially giving Bibi another factor to stoke fears about.
Likud Party Passes Rivals in Polls
It is no surprise that after months, Netanyahu’s Likud was finally able to surpass Gantz’s Kahol Lavan in the latest polls. However, that’s not enough since the former is expected to get 57 seats, still leaving a shortfall of 4. Will closeness with the US or the threat of Iran give Bibi another term in the office? We’ll find out on March 2.