By Gwynne Dyer
Israeli voters are indefatigable. The election on November 1st will be the fifth in just three-and-a-half years, and yet the turnout is still likely to be around 70%. That’s especially remarkable because all five elections have really been about the same question: should Binyamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu go to jail, or should he be prime minister?
He is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, the evidence against him is strong, and his peril is real. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in jail (reduced to 18 months on appeal) on exactly the same charges Netanyahu now faces.
Netanyahu has benefitted from being a right-wing populist and ultra-nationalist at a time when that flavour is in fashion, but it’s still remarkable that one man can make his fate the core political issue for a country of 10 million people.
Political attempts to bring down various coalitions led by his Likud Party began even before he was formally indicted in late 2019, and he barely squeaked a victory in each of the first three elections. After twelve consecutive years in power he lost the fourth election in 2021 by an equally narrow margin, and is currently in opposition.
But Bibi is trying hard to make it back into office next month – and this time he might be able to form a coalition that would end his legal worries. The Religious Zionist Party (RZP) is relatively new on the scene, but it is already the country’s third biggest party.
If the RZP joins a victorious Likud-led coalition, its proposed ‘Law and Justice’ plan would take power from the courts and give it to the politicians instead. In particular, it would annul the current law against fraud and breach of trust.
The leading figures in the RZP, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, were once beyond the pale in Israeli politics.
Ben-Gvir famously admires Israeli terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 others in Hebron in 1994. Smotrich says “Israel should be run according to Torah law” – a theocracy like Iran, in other words. But Israeli politics has by now moved far enough right to include even them: 62% of Israelis now identify as right-wing.
Smotrich’s ‘legal reforms’ would quash Netanyahu’s indictment, so he would welcome the RTZ into a Likud-led coalition if the right-wing parties get enough seats in this election to form a government. Will they?
Impossible to say. The magic number is 61 (out of 120 seats in the Knesset), and the right-wing, pro-Netanyahu parties consistently come up with only 59 or 60 seats in the polls. This may not even be the last election in the series, for most Israelis are just voting the same way every time. Meanwhile, however, the real world around them is going to hell.
The three million Palestinian Arabs in the occupied West Bank are near the breaking point. The Palestinian Authority, Israel’s instrument for controlling the occupied territories, has lost all authority. The PA’s unelected leader, 86-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, is in poor health and has no deputy or designated successor.
The cities of Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank are already effectively beyond Israeli or PA control. The young and heavily armed militants of the ‘Lion’s Den’ militia dominate the streets except when the Israeli army goes in shooting, and a third full-scale ‘intifada’ may be just weeks away.
Yet Israeli voters, permanently distracted by the Netanyahu melodrama, seem largely unaware of what is heading their way.