Netanyahu wins Israeli vote, Palestinians’ prospects uncertain

For Palestinians, it will be crucial to see if Netanyahu’s comments on annexation of parts of the West Bank were merely campaign rhetoric or whether actions will follow.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shakes hands with a supporter at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 10. (AFP)
Record tenure. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shakes hands with a supporter at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 10. (AFP)

Immediately after Israel’s April 9 election, both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his main challenger, Benny Gantz, gave victory speeches to supporters. The next morning, however, it was Netanyahu who had emerged victoriously and Gantz conceded.

Netanyahu’s Likud party secured 36 seats in the Knesset while Gantz’s Blue and White party won 35. Projections showed a right-wing bloc led by Likud could muster 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, passing the threshold of 61 parliamentarians to form a government.

Parties will present recommendations on who should lead the next government to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Netanyahu is expected to receive the most nominations. Foreign officials, among them US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, congratulated Netanyahu on his victory.

Most observers saw the elections as a referendum on Netanyahu, who is facing allegations of corruption. If he does form the next government, Netanyahu would become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, overtaking David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, in July.

In a late effort to rally support on the right, Netanyahu said he would annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move that would undermine remaining chances of a peace deal with the Palestinians and the establishment of an autonomous Palestinian state. He also said Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights were among Netanyahu’s achievements.

Reaction from Palestinian officials to the election results was swift. Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said Israelis “have said no to peace and yes to the occupation.”

Netanyahu’s promise to annex Jewish settlements was one of the few points during the campaign in which Palestinian issues took centre stage.

“None of the parties has offered any real path forward for resolving Israel’s conflict with its Palestinian neighbours,” said Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. “No one is seriously talking about ending the occupation.”

Journalist Gideon Levy said the issue of Gaza was not discussed during the campaign.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are eligible to vote and form political parties. The election results indicate that two Arab parties — Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am Balad — passed the electoral threshold and will be represented in the Knesset. Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip do not have any voting rights in Israel.

Lovatt said Netanyahu had “once again exploited anti-Arab sentiment for political gain and Palestinian territory as an electoral bargaining chip.”

Before the 2015 elections, Netanyahu warned that Arab voters were heading to the polls “in droves,” threatening a right-wing government. Many condemned his comments as racist.

Hanging over Netanyahu’s apparent election victory are corruption allegations that could see the prime minister face the courts. Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said he intended to indict Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. Pre-indictment hearings, in which the prime minister can plead his case, are to take place within three months.

The corruption allegations were not a straightforward issue in Likud strongholds, said Israeli journalist Peggy Cidor. Some of Netanyahu’s supporters reject the idea that he is corrupt, saying the left and the media were after him. Others, an even larger segment of his base Cidor said, acknowledge Netanyahu might be corrupt but support him nevertheless due to his achievements for the country and because, in their view, all politicians were doing similar things anyway.

Likud Knesset Member Miki Zohar said Mandelblit should drop plans to indict Netanyahu, citing the prime minister’s election victory. There is speculation that Netanyahu might ask the Knesset to pass a law granting him immunity from prosecution. He is not legally required to step down unless he is convicted.

An important reason the right-wing bloc around Netanyahu appears to have been successful is that “the social fabric in Israel has changed over the last 20 years,” Cidor said. Many immigrants to Israel during this time period are right-wing and religious, bolstering Netanyahu’s support base.

For Palestinians, it will be crucial to see if Netanyahu’s comments on annexation of parts of the West Bank were merely campaign rhetoric or whether actions will follow. The prime minister has blocked several moves to annex Jewish settlements but he could face renewed pressure from the right to act on his latest promise.

Writing before the elections, Michael Omer-Man, editor-in-chief of the left-wing +972 magazine, said “a creeping, de facto annexation is already taking place and will continue to progress even if Netanyahu isn’t elected.”

US national security adviser John Bolton said after the elections that the Trump administration would release its Middle East peace plan in the “very near future.” The rollout of the plan could inflame tensions with Palestinians who have rejected the plan even before it has been released and cut political engagement with the United States after Trump’s Jerusalem announcement.

Despite corruption allegations and rocket fire from Gaza, Netanyahu staved off his challengers. “It is a night of colossal victory,” he told supporters on election night.