On Tuesday, the people of Israel will, for the second time in the space of five months, head to the polling stations to vote for their Knesset representatives.
The previous election in April failed to produce a coalition government — and if the current poll predictions about next week’s vote are correct, Israelis might face the prospect of being asked to vote for a third time in an attempt to reach a decisive outcome.
Turnout will play a major role in the result next week. In view of the vile and toxic nature of the campaigning, however, it will not come as much of a surprise if voters have been completely turned off by it and snub the election altogether.
Instead of a mature debate over policy alternatives on the issues of concern to ordinary citizens, the ghastly slugfest between the parties — provoked and orchestrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — puts voters off and undermines the legitimacy of the democratic process.
In the closing days of the campaigning, with the polls predicting another stalemate with only minor, albeit significant, differences from April’s results, it would be naive to expect any electioneering concentrating on policies that are detailed and have been costed. Instead we should brace ourselves for more nasty personal attacks and baseless statements and promises.
Netanyahu and his supporters should have had a major wake-up call, because the realities on the ground are a far cry from his campaign demagogy. During a rally in the southern city of Ashdod last week, where the prime minister was addressing some of his most ardent supporters, he had to be swiftly ushered away as Hamas rockets rained down on a nearby town. It was a clear demonstration that one of the major selling points of his campaign — that only he can provide security to Israelis — is not remotely the case, especially for those who live close to the Gaza Strip.
If policies are to be issue-based, debate is an important aspect of any election campaign. Trust, credibility and integrity are also commodities to be assessed by the electorate. Hardly any of these elements have been on display since this second election was called in May. Netanyahu, who is trying to dictate the agenda, is quite happy to drag policies through the mud and appeal to the lowest common denominators of fear and hatred.
Yet this is not the same Netanyahu we have seen during previous elections. He looks jaded, and even his customary false promises and incitements against his political rivals, especially those representing Israel’s Palestinian minority, have been seen by many for what they are.
After all, for the prime minister this is the last-chance saloon. If he loses, his whole world collapses in on him. It would mean the end of his long political career and, even worse for him, he would most certainly face prolonged court proceedings over grave corruption allegations, and possibly years of incarceration as a result. If he cannot cling to power, his anti-democratic and corrupt “immunity law,” which would protect politicians from indictment while in office, will never see the light of day.
Netanyahu has announced that if re-elected, his government will quickly annex the Jordan Valley and the north of the Dead Sea, and that Israeli intelligence has all of a sudden found a new Iranian nuclear site. He is also pushing for legislation allowing the installation of cameras in polling stations in towns and villages where Israeli-Palestinians live. Together, these represent just a sample of Netanyahu’s strategy for consolidating his base and attracting the support of those who might otherwise be tempted to vote for more extreme right-wing parties rather than his own Likud party.
However one reads the polls, Netanyahu’s bloc is still well short of the magic number of 61 seats that would give him a majority in the Israeli legislature. Likud is expected to win only about half of that number. In his desperation, he is making policies on the hoof, sharing sensitive intelligence information — about Iran’s violations of its commitments in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, for example — and appears happy to inflict a fatal blow to any hopes for relations with the Palestinians and a future peace agreement with them.
The introduction of cameras at certain polling stations is a contemptible attempt to single out the Arab minority in Israel as fraudsters who need to be monitored. Worse, in a post on his Facebook page he made the baseless accusation that “Arabs want to annihilate us all — women, children and men.” All in the name of attracting votes.
Announcing the annexation of parts of the West Bank is another cheap ploy to appease his base and try to present himself as the only person who can get away with violating international law in such a flagrant manner, even if it is being done with Washington’s blessing. If this is not enough, he pitches himself as the only person capable of circumventing the international community’s objections to annexations in the West Bank, while berating his main political rivals for their readiness to give up parts of the occupied West Bank in return for peace with the Palestinians.
The desire to negotiate peace and bring the conflict to an end has been painted by Netanyahu and his loyalists as a sign of betrayal, and even treason, as has the call to include in the Cabinet representatives of Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
Ultimately, the results on Tuesday will depend on very small margins, which means that any movement within, and more importantly between, the blocs will decide the nature of the next government. The election might even be decided by last-minute campaigning and the mobilization of voters by persuading them to exercise their civic duty.
However, it would be overly optimistic to expect any clear, definitive result. Yisrael Beiteinu, the party led by Avigdor Lieberman, prevented Netanyahu from forming a government after April’s election and might do the same this time. Lieberman cunningly positioned himself as the defender of secular Israel; for him, this is just a slogan but it is, nevertheless, one that might bring down the curtain on the Netanyahu era.
It will then be left to others to pick up the pieces after a decade of divisive and strategically lacking leadership.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London.
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