The Israeli ballot papers listed dozens of options, yet for most voters there were only two: with Bibi or against him.
Benjamin Netanyahu, four-term Likud prime minister, was recommended for indictment on serious corruption charges just six weeks ago, after a two-year police investigation and an extended review from Israel’s attorney-general. However, when he refused to resign, few thought he was a spent force. This election proved that to be true and the feeling was perhaps best summed up by religious voter Yaacov Lemash, 76, who said: “It was the first time I voted for Bibi.
I know some of the things he did were wrong, but I’m not looking for a rabbi. I’m looking for a leader.”
The recommendation – pending a final hearing – could yet see him serve far less than his full term, but if he puts together a coalition of the willing, as seems likely, he could push through laws granting himself immunity from prosecution.
Those who voted for ‘anyone but Bibi’ see reasons to cheer. Bibi’s challenger, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s former IDF Chief of Staff, lacks his charisma, but his security credentials are second to none. With a matching 35 seats, Gantz came from nowhere to become a major political force.
The opposite is true of Labor, which founded the Israeli state, but has now stopped talking about two states. The Israeli left has been “obliterated”, but the signs were there. A recent poll showed 63 percent of Israelis now identify as right-wing; only 15 percent left-wing. And the young are the most right-wing of all.
Netanyahu’s other Trump card is the US president, who did all he could to help his friend. He moved the embassy. He recognised the Golan as Israeli. He closed Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington. He designated Iran’s military a terrorist entity. He shredded the Palestinian aid budget. All he needed was a hat reading “Make Bibi Great Again”.
Yet 35 seats means the electorate listened when told by the 6ft 5in General that Israel needed a change of direction. With Netanyahu’s promise to annex West Bank settlements, Gantz could be right. Even Netanyahu’s hawkish US backers have balked at his policies of late, while US Democratic frontrunner Beto O’Rourke called Netanyahu an outright “racist” this week.
Don’t be surprised if Bibi doesn’t follow through. Three days before the 2015 election, he said he no longer favoured a two-state solution. A day after the election, suddenly he was in favour again.
It was an old Bibi trick, from an old survivor, who showed his colours again in this election. As the going got muddy, Bibi got slinging. So, it is a case of ‘carry on as before’. Better the Bibi you know.
Smaller parties will side with “King Bibi” as his rule continues.