New elections in Israel undermine chances for ‘Deal of the Century’

Netanyahu may be alone at the top but his failure to consolidate his election victory betrays more than a hint of weakness.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Costly setbacks. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 2.(AP)
Costly setbacks. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 2.(AP)

There is today a king in Israel and his name is Binyamin Netanyahu.

Faced with irreconcilable demands from potential coalition partners after winning elections in April, Netanyahu, rather than step aside to permit continued efforts to form a government, ordered the newly elected members to adjourn.

The stage is set for a tumultuous summer election campaign before national elections in September and post-election deliberations on the formation of a new government that promise to consume most of the rest of 2019.

Until then Netanyahu, who will soon eclipse David Ben-Gurion as the longest serving leader in Israel’s history, stands unchallenged in the exercise of government authority at home and abroad. He is prime minister and defence minister, presiding all but unchallenged by a hibernating cabinet and a somnambulant parliament.

Irreconcilable demands by Netanyahu’s former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman to end the exemption of military service given Israel’s burgeoning ultra-orthodox community were the visible cause of Netanyahu’s failure to cobble together a coalition of at least 61 members of the Knesset after the April election.

His decision to order the Knesset to disband was unprecedented, as was his failure, as top vote-getter in the contest that saw his Likud party win 35 seats in the 120-member Knesset, to form a government.

Political deals of the sort on the table after the recent election have long been the predictable stuff of Israeli politics. Israel has never been able to form a single-party government. So to create a parliamentary majority, socialists sit in reasonable comfort with capitalists, peaceniks with settlers, the orthodox religious with militant secularists.

This is “Team Israel” — the source of its vitality and dynamism and its ability for more than half a century to defy demands for an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu may be alone at the top but his failure to consolidate his election victory betrays more than a hint of weakness. Rivals, such as Lieberman and the former generals running the Blue and White party, see the September vote as an unexpected opportunity to beat Netanyahu. Rarely do politicians get a second chance to redress their political shortcomings.

Both Netanyahu and his opponents hope that the September election will provide what the April vote failed to do — enable the creation of a stable government with a convincing majority in the Knesset.

Count US President Donald Trump among those rooting for Netanyahu to prevail.

“It’s too bad what happened in Israel,” Trump said after new elections were announced. “It looked like a total win for Netanyahu, who is a great guy, and now they are back at the debate stage and they are back at the election stage. That is too bad because they don’t need this. They got enough turmoil over there. It’s a tough place.”

New elections in Israel exposed the debilitating shortcomings of America’s “peace” team. More significantly, Israel’s interminable electoral calendar spells the death knell for Washington’s “Deal of the Century.”

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner recently visited Israel hoping to give a boost to the long-anticipated opening act of the “Deal of the Century” later this month in Manama. Instead, he was blindsided by Netanyahu’s political travails.

Manama is already hobbled by crippling opposition. The Russians and Chinese aren’t going, even if they are invited. Palestinian officials, whose institutions are expected to benefit from the bounty Kushner wants to raise, will not attend. Ditto for Lebanon. Jordan is, as usual, uncomfortably straddling the fence.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an unguarded moment, was only acknowledging the obvious when he observed that the much-awaited US policy could well be “unexecutable,” regardless of the political developments in Israel.

Netanyahu will shed no tears if Trump’s enthusiasm for peacemaking wanes as the 2020 US election season moves into high gear. Israel has benefited handsomely from unilateral American actions that have little to do with diplomacy of the sort that has dominated the international consensus for decades.

He has pocketed Washington’s declarations on Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and applauded US efforts to reduce the international commitment to refugees by withdrawing support for UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and the Palestine Liberation Organisation by closing its mission in Washington.

Gaining Washington’s support for the annexation of some or all West Bank settlements is the next prize on Israel’s agenda. Strong efforts are being made in that direction.

To Netanyahu’s great satisfaction, Washington has declared its determination to craft a policy for the Israelis and the Palestinians rooted in an acknowledgement of the settlement “facts” that Israel has created on the ground and, as Kushner recently noted, an abiding distrust of the Palestinians’ ability to rule themselves.

Netanyahu has profited more than any other Israeli leader from this “new look” in US policy under Trump. With welcome support from Washington, the King of Israel expects to triumph yet again in September.