A good number of American friends have asked me how I feel about the recent elections here in Israel. In short, kind of lousy. Depressed.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is in a fairly solid position. However, contrary to some reports, he does not own the country. He did not win the vote overwhelmingly. The country is not all of one mind, i.e. right-wing.
As Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer wrote in an insightful and non-hysterical column, while Israeli democracy has its challenges, the election did not mark its demise.
The veteran Likud Party, with the master politician at the helm, won 36 seats, having received about 29% of the vote. A good number of its seats came by cannibalizing some of the parties to the right, such as Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked's New Right Party, which just missed the 3.25% threshold needed to be in the Knesset.
The main opposition, a newly-minted centrist party, fairly quickly thrown together by the amalgamation of four parties, two of which were themselves recent creations, led by a somewhat awkward former general in his first political campaign, captured 35 seats, having also received about 29% of the vote.
The right plus the religious parties that will form the coalition will have a total of 65 seats, or 54%. Saying "plus the religious parties" rather than classifying them as "right" is apt because these parties have narrow, parochial interests. Satisfy those interests (some would say "buy them off") and they will join the coalition. For years the religious parties were part of coalitions led by Labor.
The center and left plus the Arab parties will have a total of 55 seats, or 46%. Saying "plus the Arab parties" is appropriate because these parties range from Communist to strictly Islamic, and also because they are not Zionist, i.e. they don't believe in a nation state for the Jewish people even though they fully participate in it, they will not join a governing coalition, and a governing coalition will not invite them in.
However, they will support a coalition from the outside. There have been hints by some Arab political leaders of a willingness to change this position under some conditions, but this is the case for now.
If Netanyahu and the right did not win an overwhelming, crushing victory, why am I feeling lousy?
Because Israel needs a change.
It needs a prime minister who is not embroiled in several scandals and is subject to indictment pending a hearing. (In Israel, a person is entitled to a hearing before the Attorney General before the indictment can be issued.)
It needs a prime minister with a vision for how we move to a separation from the Palestinians, affording them the maximum opportunity to govern their own affairs while ensuring Israel remains a secure, democratic, and Jewish state. This could eventually lead to an independent Palestinian state, depending on how the Palestinians take up the mantle. i.e. much differently than what they've done in Gaza and the West Bank to date.
It needs a prime minister who is not so afraid of losing his coalition that he reneges on his agreement regarding the Western Wall and otherwise takes or allows policies and attitudes that unnecessarily alienate and disenfranchise millions of North American Jews.
It needs a prime minister who is not so desperate so as to run, even by today's standards, a despicable campaign. Israel has real issues that require real, substantive debate. The campaign was virtually devoid of such debate. Capably and frequently employing social media, the Likud dug deep into the dirt bag. Among some of its stunts was the spreading of rumors about Gantz' alleged psychiatric and marital problems.
In a disgraceful finale, Likud sent members with cameras into Arab polling stations. The purpose was intimidation. The transparently dishonest ostensible reason was the prevention of fraud. If the latter was the real reason, Central Elections Committee was the entity to ask to take appropriate action.
The Elections Committee ruled the camera stunt illegal. If Likud was really interested in preventing fraud, it might have wanted to send cameras into Ultra-Orthodox polling stations. One area reported a turn-out of 108%. Even Chicago's Richard Daley would have blushed.
Unfortunately, while Prime Minister Netanyahu is a bright, articulate, talented politician who has accomplished much, he has failed on these vital points. It was time for a change.
Yet, decent, reasonable, moderate people voted for Netanyahu and Likud. Why? Not because they are ignorant, or racist, or myopic. Rather, because they are people with everyday concerns. Concerns such as safety and security and feeding and clothing their families.
Many people who voted for Likud know very well Netanyahu's negatives, and they do not like them one bit. They know Israel risks losing the Jewish state if we do not move to separate from the Palestinians and give them some version of independence and sovereignty.
But they point to a few overriding factors:
1) The last 10 years have been prosperous. While not without challenges, the country is doing well economically. People are eating, getting educated, driving on good roads, vacationing, enjoying life. On nearly every scale measuring quality of life and contentment, Israel and Israelis score high.
2) Security. This is not a theoretical concern here. It is tangible, and it is life and death. Under very difficult circumstances, with threats everywhere, Netanyahu has kept the country safe.
Netanyahu has expanded and deepened relationships with African countries. While mostly under the public radar, he has established important strategic ties with several Sunni Arab countries. He has strengthened relations with China. He has managed to maintain a vital relationship with Russia's Putin while Russia and Iran prop up and establish a presence in Syria, having been given a green light to do so by both Presidents Obama and Trump.
While most American Jews and American liberals bemoan the fact, Netanyahu has established a close, dividend-paying relationship with the President of Israel's most important ally, the United States. These Americans, many of whom criticized Netanyahu for not having a good relationship with Obama, now criticize him for having a good one with Trump.
They forget two important things: a) Netanyahu did not elect Trump. Americans did. b) Netanyahu's job is to take care of Israel's interests, not worry about American domestic policies.
A few days before the election I was talking to a friend who said she was leaning toward Netanyahu. I expressed my surprise. Eileen (not her real name) has four adult children and a gaggle of grandchildren. She lived through the Intifada, when parents worried about their kids being blown up on buses and in restaurants.
There are memorial plaques all around Eileen's and my neighborhoods with names of people, many of them young, who were torn to bits by these terrorist acts. All four of Eileen's children have been in the army, a time when parents never get a good night's sleep.
Eileen told me that she knows Netanyahu has many faults. She does not like the alleged corruption and the feeling of privilege and entitlement. She is concerned about the future with the Palestinians. But she stressed that Netanyahu has given her family security, has protected her children, and that was foremost in her mind.
I asked: But Blue and White has three generals in its leadership. Don't you trust that they can keep you and your family safe?
Eileen: Rabin and Barak were generals. They didn't. (Many Israelis would add Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the ensuing years of missiles, as well as three wars, to the list.)
Me: Stuttering. I had no good response.
Eileen represents a lot of Israeli voters.
While Netanyahu will almost certainly be forming the next coalition, it will not be without difficulties. Some of the parties that he needs will be demanding policies and positions that will be difficult for him to give, or that conflict with the demands of other parties.
However, he is a master at the rubric's cube of Israeli coalition-building. It won't be pretty, but it would be a huge surprise if he were not able to pull it off. The old saying, "If you like law or sausage, don't watch how either is made" seems to have been thought up with Israel's system of forming a government in mind.
Netanyahu has one overriding ambition now: to stay out of jail. As the investigation into his alleged corruption proceeded, and as the state prosecutor recommended prosecution, and as the Attorney General issued his Indictment Pending Hearing, the prime minister got increasingly focused and strident in his defense. He resorted to attacking and undermining the institutions of a democratic society, attacking the press, law enforcement, and the judiciary.
Some of his allies have raised the possibility of passing what is referred to here as the "French law." The French law prohibits prosecution of the president while in office. The United States has no such law, but the Department of Justice currently has a policy that a president cannot be indicted or prosecuted while in office.
The "French law" being floated by some Israeli politicians on the right would be retroactive and, therefore, protect Netanyahu. Moreover, one Knesset member advocates covering all Knesset members. This is not a "get out of jail" pass. It's a "do whatever you feel like and never worry about going to jail" pass.
The fear is that Netanyahu is so desperate for immunity that he will agree to just about anything to get it passed. In this case, "anything" means extending Israeli sovereignty over major "settlement blocs" (i.e. Jewish communities) in the territories.
In the last days of the campaign, in addition to going to the gutter against Gantz and Blue and White, and in addition to visiting Trump and Putin, and in addition to visiting the Western Wall with the Brazilian president, and in addition to welcoming home the remains of a soldier missing for 37 years, Netanyahu pledged that he would annex these communities.
Even though any final agreement with the Palestinians would no doubt include some if not all of these communities under Israeli sovereignty, doing so unilaterally would be a very disruptive step. Netanyahu knows this. There is a reason he has resisted, at considerable political risk, taking such a step for all the years he has been in office. There is a reason no other Prime Minister in the 52 years of Israeli control of the territories took such a step.
But now he is desperate to stay out of jail, and remaining Prime Minister is the only path he sees to doing so. So he pledged to do something he knows is bad for Israel.
Netanyahu is a master at squirming out of commitments. So, even though he made the pledge, and even though he might very well base coalition membership on the pledge to annex in return for the French law, there is still a good chance he will find a way not to do it.
And here is a very rich irony. Who might "rescue" Netanyahu from his pledge? None other than his good friend Donald Trump. Trump may ask or pressure Netanyahu to not make a move until the "deal of the century" is unveiled.
The deal might include annexation in exchange for autonomy for Palestinian areas and a capital in a Jerusalem suburb. The Palestinians and the Israeli right that Netanyahu's government depends on would, for entirely different reasons, reject the deal.
We'd be back to where we are: No deal. No annexation. And, no surprise: Netanyahu as Prime Minister, protected from indictment while in office.
Proving the old axiom: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And me? I'm feeling kind of lousy. Depressed.
(Originally published in The Times of Israel)