Netanyahu’s political déjà vu | by Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi


Netanyahu’s political déjà vu

IT is consecutively fourth time that Israeli PM Netanyahu’s fate hungs in the balance, no clear victor has emerged in Israel’s elections, with nearly 90% of ballots counted in Tuesday’s vote.

Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his opponents appear to have a secure path to form a majority coalition needed to win. The scales could tip as more votes are counted in the coming days.

The path to a government is long. Israel’s President must consult with the parties and decide by April 7 which lawmaker has the best chance of forming a government.

As the polls in Israel for the country’s fourth election in two years closed on last Tuesday, the political future of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained unclear.

Initially, exit polls released by Israeli broadcasters projected that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party would take between 31 and 33 seats in the Knesset with rival Lapid Yesh Atid winning 16 to 18 seats.

Early on Monday, however, updated exit polls gave the pro-Netanyahu and the anti-Netanyahu camp more or less equal number of seats which would leave them both without a majority.

In a surprise development, an Arab Party which is projected to get four seats could hold the balance of power.

The outcome will among other things, determine the course of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians.

The Arab Party, Raam, has not declared whether it will support the efforts of Mr Netanyahu – not a natural ally — to form a governing coalition or those of the bloc of parties opposed to him remaining in office. The current vote shows once again how deeply divided Israeli politics are.

One truth: Israelis are weary of the do-overs. The balloting, like Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign, got good reviews for organisation — if only because everyone involved has had lots of practice, with the potential of even more if the results do not produce a governing majority.

That answer might not be clear for weeks. “It would be better if we didn’t have to vote, you know, four times in two years,” said Jerusalem resident Bruse Rosen after casting his ballot. “It’s a little bit tiring. There are several possible scenarios, says Dekel.

The first is that Netanyahu, with the help of several ultra-Orthodox and hard-line parties, like Yamina, headed by former Netanyahu aide Naftali Bennett, puts together a coalition.

The third poll gave the anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties an edge of 61 seats, potentially blocking Mr. Netanyahu’s path to victory and making the election too close to call.

The anti-Netanyahu camp is made up of ideologically disparate parties, which will hinder their attempts to replace him. Some have already rejected the possibility of cooperating with others.

The muddy result could extend the period of political uncertainty and polarization that has sent Israel reeling from election to election to election, failing each time to return a stable government.

Great power politics in the region stand to undergo important shifts throughout the coming decades, with some already underway.

For Israel, the greatest questions regard the United States and the bipartisan commitment to the American special relationship with Israel, its desire for engagement with the region more broadly, and its burgeoning rivalry with China.

Should the trajectory of American retrenchment continue, Russia and especially China seem likely candidates to play a greater role in regional geopolitics? Beijing’s interests as a massive energy importer from the region is likely to shape its policy choices, and more assertive Chinese regional policies could leave Israel either to navigate mounting US-China competition in its neighbourhood or to face the prospect of a dominant external power indifferent to its core interests.

Netanyahu’s negative pondering is reflective of his annexation trajectory. Netanyahu pledged to avoid compromising with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza areas under Israeli military control since 1967, and he allowed rapid expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

He rarely wavered from these two policies. Among his most tangible legacies is the physical barrier now separating West Bank Palestinians from Israelis, which gives Israeli authorities great control over how West Bank Palestinians enter Israel? The barrier has kept Israeli Jews from much contact with Palestinians other than during military service.

This physical separation and a strong Israeli military presence have decreased Palestinian attacks within Israel and increased misery in Palestinian-controlled areas.

The current mapping committee is made up of Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud), National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, Prime Minister’s Office Director Ronen Peretz and Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer on the Israeli side; and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, his adviser Aryeh Lightstone and the US National Security Council’s Israel and Palestinian Affairs Director Scott Leith from the American side.

Scott Leith — who has not even been able to travel to Israel since the pandemic outbreak — and Ben-Shabbat, the military experience on the committee is notably limited.

This contrasts starkly with the Israeli government’s strategy for mapping out the route of the West Bank security barrier in the early 2000s, when the Defence Ministry was put in charge of the effort.

Mr. Netanyahu’s plan, they argue, would open the door for a Palestinian state while ending any expansion of Israeli settlements in much of the West Bank.

“It’s either or,” Bezalel Smotrich, a firebrand lawmaker who has led the push for annexation, said in an interview. “Either the settlements have a future, or the Palestinian State does — but not both.”

The new US administration under President Joe Biden appears poised — based on staffing decisions and declared policies — to revert to a US policy in the Middle East that more closely resembles that of Obama.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu, who fought bitterly and publicly against Obama’s policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iran nuclear issue, remains at the helm in Israel.

The month that it took Biden after settling into the Oval Office to call Netanyahu fed speculation that the Israeli Premier was being snubbed.

The stage may be set for a sequel of the acrimonious relationship between Jerusalem and Washington.

—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.

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