Opinion: Early elections might be just what Israel’s right needs

Netanyahu’s political victory over Bennett in saving the coaltion and preventing an election for now may prove to be a pyrrhic one that could well come back to haunt him.

By Martin Sherman

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry – Robert Burns (1759 – 1796).

The “received wisdom,” as reflected in much of recent press coverage, is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a resounding victory against hawkish Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, in forcing him to back away from his threatened ultimatum to resign and bring down the fragile Likud-led coalition—unless he was appointed Defense Minister

Indeed, despite the almost ubiquitous opprobrium much of the generally left-leaning mainstream media harbor for Netanyahu, most pundits could not conceal a scornful smirk in reporting on what was almost universally perceived as a humiliating climb-down by the even more “distasteful” Bennett and his hardline Jewish Home faction.

Admittedly, it is difficult to dispute that, in the clash of wills between the two, Netanyahu, who wished to avoid an early election without submitting to Bennett’s “extortion”, did indeed prevail.  There is, however, good reason to believe that Netanyahu’s victory may prove to be a pyrrhic one, which could well come back to haunt him.

The argument commonly brandished against early elections was the traumatic memories of the past precedents of hardline right-wing factions bringing down somewhat less right-wing coalitions—such as the Shamir government in 1992 and the first Netanyahu-led government in 1999—thus ushering in the hapless left-wing coalitions headed by Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak respectively.

Both had catastrophic consequences—the former leading to the disastrous Oslo Accords and murder and maiming of countless Israelis, sacrificed on the gory alter of the false deity of two-statism; the latter, to the undignified flight of the IDF from south Lebanon and its abandonment to Hezbollah.

Accordingly, it is undeniable that, over the last two decades, left-leaning governments have wrought strategic perils on Israel, gravely jeopardizing its long-term security. This, of course, includes the Ehud Olmert coalition (2006-9), which grossly mismanaged the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Readers will recall that this war culminated in the appalling Security Council Resolution 1701, brokered by then-Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, and facilitated the rapid enhancement of Hezbollah’s formidable arsenal, now capable of menacing virtually all Israeli cities.

Consequently, the fervent desire to avert the election of another left-leaning coalition is entirely understandable.

Netanyahu: The achievements and the animus

However, it is important not to draw misleading conclusions from the past. For while it is true that early elections have led to the unseating of right-leaning coalitions and the ensconcing of gravely detrimental left-leaning ones in their stead, it does not follow that this is an immutable law of nature—or politics.

Quite the reverse!

A compelling case can be made for the argument that early elections might just be what are needed to ensure the continued incumbency of right-wing coalitions and to preempt and prevent the emergence of an effective challenge from the left.

Indeed, given the emerging realities in Israel’s political landscape, the danger to right-wing incumbency entailed in early elections might well be considerably less than those entailed in postponing them.

To grasp the rationale behind this alternative caveat, it is necessary to acknowledge the giant shadow Netanyahu himself has cast on Israeli politics—both in terms of the achievements he has attained and the animus he has aroused.

Although I am far from an uncritical apologist for Netanyahu—indeed, I have, in the past, even called for his resignation—it is clear that in many ways, he has been a truly transformative leader.

Under his stewardship, Israel has become one of the best performing economies in the world—with GDP per capita breaching the $40,000 mark for the first time ever in 2017, up sharply by almost 45% since 2009, when he was first reelected after losing power in 1999.

He drastically reduced Palestinian terror from the horrific levels he “inherited” from the Rabin-Peres era—and, despite occasional flare-ups, he has largely managed to contain it to hardly perceptible proportions—certainly nowhere near the grisly scale that prevailed under his predecessors.

In terms of foreign policy, he has produced remarkable success. He managed to wait out the inclement incumbency of Obama, emerging largely unscathed—despite the undisguised antipathy between the two men. His views on Iran and its perilous nuclear ambitions have been embraced by the Trump administration. He has managed to initiate far-reaching changes in Middle East politics, with increasingly amicable—albeit, as yet, only semi-overt—relations with important Arab states, inconceivable several years ago, while sidelining—or at least, significantly reducing—the centrality of the intractable “Palestinian problem.”

He has overseen Israel’s “pivot” eastwards, and burgeoning relationships with the ascendant economies of India and China, increasingly offsetting Israel’s commercial dependence on the oft less-than-benign EU. Notwithstanding difficulties with western European countries, he has fostered increasingly warm relations and understanding with those in central and eastern Europe.

Yet despite—indeed, perhaps because—of his extraordinary achievements, Netanyahu has aroused fierce, almost visceral, animosity in influential sectors of the Israeli public, particularly by self-anointed “elites” in Israel’s civil society. Although he has been in office for almost a decade, they still view him as an “upstart” who has inexplicably usurped political power—which they view as their inalienable birthright.

Bibi-derangement syndrome?

Determined to dislodge him, they are nonplussed by his resolve and resilience, and enraged by their failure to remove him from office—despite the almost insurmountable challenges he faces. Accordingly, his bitter and embittered adversaries are coming to the realization that none of them are capable of defeating him on their own.

There are, therefore, increasing signs of an endeavor to build a “united” anti-Netanyahu, center-left front, hopefully comprised of virtually all and anyone with sufficient name-recognition to garner votes—whether active politicians such as Opposition head Tzipi Livni; Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid; Zionist Union boss Avi Gabbay; former politicians such as ex-Defense Minister Moshe “Bogey” Yaalon; or well-known newcomers such as Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, both former IDF chiefs-of staff.

One of the leading figures active in concocting this political brew is Ehud Barak, arguably Israel’s worst prime minister ever, and inarguably, the shortest serving in the annals of the nation, who lately has embarked on a series of high-profile, toxic fire-and-brimstone rants against Netanyahu. Curiously, until recently, Barak himself served under Netanyahu for several years as defense minister—and probably would be serving today had he had any chance of winning enough votes to be re-elected to the Knesset.

Of course, it is still far from clear what ideological platform—other than an advanced Bibi-derangement syndrome—would unite such a divergent collection of highly opinionated individuals and whether they could ever agree who would be “Number One”…and who wouldn’t.

The case for political preemption

However, given the intensity of the anti-Bibi animus, its eventual coalescence should not be dismissed as totally implausible, at least in the short run—i.e. at least long enough to mount a credible challenge for the leadership. Whether it endures for long after that, or whether it breaks up and disappears—as did the once powerful Kadima faction—is irrelevant if it succeeds in unseating Netanyahu or replacing a right-of-center coalition at the helm of government. By then, the damage done might be incalculable.

It is precisely the possible specter of such a coalition forming to run in the upcoming elections that provides a compelling reason for moving them forward and holding them well before their scheduled date—before the potential challengers can organize effectively, raise and rally resources and “get their act together.”

Netanyahu’s coalition, with the slimmest majority, is on a knife edge. True, he may be able to enlist a few renege opposition MKs to help slightly increase his parliamentary edge. But all this is temporary and unreliable—and it would seem highly imprudent to allow his political adversaries to choose the time and issue to bring his government down.

There is, thus, a powerful and persuasive case for political preemption—to strike before the “Bibi-derangement syndrome” folks can patch up their differences, marshal their forces, and mobilize their followers. Netanyahu should seriously consider acting on it.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.