Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking an unprecedented fifth term as prime minister of Israel tomorrow, barely five months after the April election when he failed to cobble together a coalition. Pre election polls point to a neck-and-neck race between Netanyahu’s Likud and the centrist Blue and White Party led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz. Neither is expected to get the required 61 seats. If coalition-building fails, a unity government may be formed.
Netanyahu’s campaign has a distinctly desperate edge. At stake is his political future, clouded by serious corruption charges. A fifth term may help him win immunity from prosecution. But win or lose, he will probably be damaged goods.
Netanyahu’s oversized campaign ads have featured him shaking hands with world leaders — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi — all to show he’s in a league of his own. He has talked up his relationship with Trump, who has gone the extra mile in moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
But efforts to get a declaration from the US along the lines of a US-Israel Defence Pact have not fructified. He pushed for and got a September meeting with Prime Minister Modi, but couldn’t come. His meeting with Putin last week was aimed at the 1.5 million Russian origin Israelis, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, pulled the rug from under his coalition efforts in April.
Unsettled by reports of a possible Trump-Rouhani meeting, Netanyahu again pointed to another Iranian nuclear site.
The move, otherwise openly electoral, got an unexpected boost when the International Atomic Energy Agency validated his earlier assertions.
Then, just a week ahead of elections, Netanyahu pledged to annex the Jordan valley, which forms nearly a third of the West Bank. Unlike earlier assertions, this pledge is more specific. He plans to coordinate the annexation with the White House, whose own peace plan is expected soon.
This may well be Netanyahu’s move to pre-empt the US from sliding back. Annexation would appeal to the rightwing, including the 650,000 Israelis living in the settlements and East Jerusalem.
At least half the Israeli population would support such a move — even Gantz has claimed ownership. But there is no immediate trigger. Israel’s concern for a secure eastern border is already addressed — it has full control over the Jordan valley under the Oslo Accord, and has always intended to retain some form of control under any eventual peace treaty.
Netanyahu is clearly betting on Trump’s support and deep-set Israeli security fears from the intifada years.
The implications for the region, and for Israel itself, cannot be ignored.
First, it would kill the already comatose peace process; the land that could form the heart of any Palestinian State would have been annexed and contiguity rendered difficult. The Palestinians have stated that they would walk away from all signed agreements.
Second, it would end security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanians, a major factor in maintaining relative peace in Israel. Escalation of violence appears inevitable, and has already begun on the Gaza front.
Most Israelis would not want troops to be deployed in the West Bank.
Israel has long lived with international criticism, and expects it from the UN and Arab League. But it could do without damaging its relations with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Even Russia condemned the proposal hours ahead of the Bibi-Putin meeting. Relations with the US, too, are not all rosy. Netanyahu has just lost two White House allies, former National Security Adviser John Bolton and Middle-East envoy Jason Greenblat.
Further, as a two-State solution dies, the issue of Arabs and Palestinians as Israeli citizens in a possible one-State is getting more oxygen. Arab-Israelis form one-fifth of Israel’s population. While their social lot has seen improvement, they are not politically acceptable. The four Arab parties could be critical in the election, but no major party will include them in a coalition.
Palestinians in the West Bank enjoy no political rights. Arab Jerusalemites have access to Israeli medical facilities and educational institutions, a clear advantage given the lack of comparable development in the West Bank.
Will the Palestinians of annexed lands be given Israeli citizenship with full civil rights, or be second-class subjects? The annexation will sharpen this debate, though the issue will be marginal in the immediate case, since the populated Jericho area is to be carved out as an enclave; the rest of the valley has only a few Palestinian hamlets. With an increasing Arab population, will Israel be able to manage the contradiction between being a genuine democracy and a Jewish State? Will an integrated State with four million Arab-Israelis and Palestinians enjoying equal rights ever be acceptable? It would be best if the annexation turns out to be nothing but a cynical electoral googly from a desperate incumbent.
Otherwise, Netanyahu, the champion of Israel security, may actually end up endangering it.