Saturday, May 21st | 20 Iyyar 5782

March 27, 2019 9:24 am

Considering the National Interest in the Coming Elections

avatar by Isi Leibler


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in Jerusalem March 20, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Jim Young/Pool.

Despite the high-pitched abuse being exchanged between the principal contenders, the Likud and Blue and White parties, this Israeli election paradoxically highlights the unity of the nation. There is barely a sentence in the political manifesto of Blue and White that differs materially from the policies of the current government. In fact, this election reflects the unprecedented consensus where the vast majority are in favor of separation from the Palestinians — providing this could be achieved while retaining security — an option that is currently virtually impossible. In addition, most Israelis oppose the creation of an adjoining terror state, which could be a springboard for Iran to threaten Israel’s existence.

So, what is this election about? The bottom line: Are we willing to accept Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for another term?

Netanyahu’s principal asset is that his opponents, Blue and White co-heads Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, aside from their inexperience, are largely perceived as “nice” guys but political lightweights lacking the ability to step into his shoes. Many Israelis who currently support Gantz are not enamored at the prospect of a rotating leadership that would put Lapid in the driver’s seat.

The small parties upon which Netanyahu will be relying to form a majority are also problematic. The biggest obstacle to Netanyahu’s reelection appears to be mandates lost by right-wing parties not passing the electoral threshold (3.25 percent of the vote). Netanyahu’s role in convincing the Jewish Home party to merge with the extremist Otzma Yehudit, headed by followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, in order to avoid both parties falling below the minimum threshold, disgusted most Israelis, including many traditional Jewish Home voters. That Netanyahu was forced to promote such an unholy union is the result of a dysfunctional political system. The solution would be to adopt a second party preference system whereby voters could elect a second party in the event that their first choice did not pass the threshold, but also raise the threshold to five percent or even 10 percent, thus limiting the power of small sectarian parties to hold the balance of power and exert undue influence on government policies.

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It is noteworthy that the High Court overturned the decision of the Central Elections Committee to disqualify the Arab parties that openly justified Palestinian terror and opposed a Jewish state, but at the same time, intervened and barred Otzma Yehudit head Michael Ben-Ari from running for the Knesset even though his candidacy was approved by the committee. Although the High Court endorsed the position adopted by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the clear bias of this ruling only serves to provide greater ammunition to those seeking to undermine the High Court’s standing. Amazingly, Gantz and Lapid foolishly praised the High Court decision, seemingly oblivious to the obvious double standards applied in the rulings.

Netanyahu sparked an upheaval when he warned that if the right bloc does not obtain a clear majority, a Blue and White government could only be formed with the tacit support of the Arab parties. He described such a scenario as a catastrophe.

He was accused of racism, which, under the current circumstances, is absurd. All the Arab parties support the elimination of Zionism. Some wish for the transformation of Israel into a “state of all its citizens” — a binational state that is a repudiation of Israel as a Jewish state. Others are even more radical, excusing terrorism and identifying with our adversaries in what could be considered treason.

It is therefore totally legitimate for Netanyahu to highlight the fact that voters face the alternative of a Netanyahu government or a Gantz government that necessitates the tacit support of at least one of these extremist Arab parties. It is the proliferation of small parties that may well be disenfranchised by not reaching the electoral threshold that may lead to this outcome.

There is also the phenomenon of Moshe Feiglin’s insane Zehut party, which in addition to promoting the legalization of marijuana, calls for a myriad of nutty policies. It is difficult to envision how he will join any coalition.

Blue and White’s initial surge in the polls, subsequent to its highly publicized launch and the announcement of the state attorney’s intention to indict Netanyahu, came as no surprise. Over the last week, after the initial euphoria, Likud and its right-wing allies seemed to be ascendant.

So long as there are confused messages, Blue and White will likely continue to slip in the polls. And given the contradictory and irreconcilable positions of many of its personalities, it is difficult to see how the party will be able to retain any coherent policy. The hysterical response to the embarrassing exposure of Iran’s hacking of Gantz’s phone certainly did not improve his party’s public standing.

The latest effort to cast aspersions on Netanyahu in relation to the submarine issue may have found favorable short-term coverage in the media desperately seeking to demonize him at any cost, but it is doubtful this can be sustained. If anything, it points to the lack of any real substance in the Blue and White campaign. Despite facing a very confrontational interviewer, Netanyahu’s performance at a surprise visit to the Channel 2 TV studio on Saturday night was calm and measured and he successfully presented his strong case. His mistake, however, was his failure to realize that that no matter how effective he was, the subsequent media reports would grossly distort the interview.

Many are demanding that if Netanyahu is indicted, he should step down. Yet, no matter how unpalatable the prime minister’s hedonistic private behavior may be, noted civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who cannot be regarded as a right-winger, insists there is every likelihood that none of the charges will be upheld in court. Surely our legal system recognizes that a person charged with offenses is deemed innocent until he has been tried and found guilty; there is no suggestion that a prime minister should be denied this right.

That these indictments were released on the eve of the election, following years of endless leaks from the investigations of him and his family, may have the reverse effect of rallying his base. Whether substantiated or not, it is hard to refute the strong perception of bias.

Ultimately, the election will be a referendum on whether the public will support Netanyahu despite the massive “just not Bibi” campaign.

There are many reasons to reject him. There is a widespread feeling that, after 10 years, it is time for change. And how can a prime minister with the responsibilities of a state under siege apply himself to his task when his focus is constantly diverted to defend himself from accusations of criminal corruption?

I have never written a column suggesting how my readers should vote. Today is an exception. While there appears to be a consensus on the basic direction for this country, the selection of our leader today is nevertheless crucial. Accordingly, I have no hesitation in stating that as of now, not one of the candidates for leadership can even remotely match the qualifications of Netanyahu.

In a country not facing existential threats, voters should display their disdain of a candidate if they are offended by his behavior. And yes, nobody is irreplaceable and there is a time to retire.

But when one reviews Israel’s amazing position on the world stage today, this is clearly the achievement of a diplomatically skilled leader of international standing and tremendous intellect. Just as Netanyahu adeptly confronted the pressures of US President Barack Obama, so he has interfaced effectively and successfully with President Donald Trump. Nothing highlights this more than Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. In addition, Netanyahu has created an unprecedented diplomatic relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and has succeeded in initiating and developing Israel’s strategic ties with India, China, Latin America, Africa, and even Gulf Arab states.

It would thus be an awesome gamble at this time to replace Netanyahu with an inexperienced political leader.

Israelis should set aside their personal feelings about Netanyahu and even those who despise him should recognize that his reelection at this time is in the national interest.

 Isi Leibler is an Israeli columnist. His website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.comHe can be contacted at [email protected].

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