Stick or Twist: Israel’s Referendum on Netanyahu

Published at The Arab Weekly

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 31 March 2019

An Orthodox Jewish man looking at Israeli election campaign posters in Jerusalem, 27 March 2019 // Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in attendance on 25 March when President Donald Trump signed the order recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, but had to leave soon after a rocket from Gaza hit a house north of Tel Aviv. These events—and other regional developments—are taking place less than two weeks from Israeli elections, where Netanyahu is neck-and-neck with his challenger.

Netanyahu’s decade-long dominance over Israeli politics is being challenged by former chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Benny Gantz. Hardly inspiring, Gantz has a relatively clean record (while Netanyahu is to be indicted on multiple charges of corruption) and is bland enough to bring together nearly all of the anti-Netanyahu components of the Israeli political system.

The result is an Israeli election shorn of almost all policy issues—it is just a straight referendum on whether Netanyahu should continue as Prime Minister—and an electorate divided almost evenly between the two sides.

So tight is the race that the religious parties, which generally wait until after the election has taken place to cast their lot with a candidate, have already declared for Netanyahu, and the Prime Minister has orchestrated a merger to ensure the votes for a tiny racist faction do not go to waste, all in an effort to shore-up the nationalist Right part of the spectrum.

In this heavily personality-driven contest, the incentive has been for symbolism, negative campaigning, and dirty tricks.

Perhaps the best example of this was the apparent hack of Gantz’s mobile telephone by Iran. What actually happened and when remains near-totally mysterious. The leak is, of course, politically timed. The situation got even murkier when a senior Iranian cleric claimed that the regime had hacked the phones of members of the Netanyahu family.

For Gantz, this re-opened the accusations he is a “leftist”, i.e. weak, despite clear indications his policies would be more of the same, especially abroad, with Netanyahu and surrogates asking how somebody who cannot protect his phone could protect the country. And even the light-hearted responses—one Israeli commentator sarcastically asked that if Iran “found anything interesting on Benny Gantz’s phone, like anything at all about his political views”, they should pass this on to the Israeli public—pointed towards Gantz’s limitations.

The Israelis captured the Golan Heights during the war of 1967 and annexed the territory in 1981. There is little doubt that Israel will continue to hold the Golan and in the regional reality this is desirable; the alternatives are Iran and its tributaries. The American decision to recognise the annexation—and to recognise it now—is therefore mostly symbolic, and seems to be an attempt to boost Netanyahu’s fortunes in this election. Such an intervention might seem shocking, but in fact it is routine—it is just that such US interventions are usually against Netanyahu.

The Russians and their apologists have tried to argue that the US Golan announcement legitimises Moscow’s seizure of Crimea. In fact, the more worrying precedent is internal. Every single member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party running in this election, except the Prime Minister, has advocated annexation of the West Bank and most of the Right-wing coalition parties are signed-up to this idea as well.

Such a step would—unlike altering the status of the Golan—be a death knell for any possible “peace process”. The US has tried to argue that the Golan is sui generis, but if Netanyahu prevails in this election he has eyes on a law that would immunise him while in office and the votes for that might be available if he accedes to the West Bank annexation demands of his party and partners.

What was effectively a campaign stop for Netanyahu in Washington as Trump formally recognised the Golan as Israel’s was interrupted by a rocket from HAMAS-held Gaza hitting a house in Mishmeret, wounding seven family members. More rockets followed, and Israel launched a retaliatory wave of airstrikes. The IDF has been mobilised to the borders of the Strip.

It remains unclear exactly who attacked Israel and why. It is possible the missile came from a stray faction like the Iran-controlled Harakat al-Sabireen, which HAMAS recently moved to suppress, and Iranian cells within HAMAS. It is possible, as HAMAS told the Egyptians during ceasefire talks this week, that rockets went off by accident. Or maybe it was simply HAMAS, seeking to deflect attention from its brutal suppression of the Gazan protests and to pressure Netanyahu into concessions so he can avoid a war on the eve of an election.

It is key to understand that Netanyahu, a notoriously cautious leader, does not want a war in Gaza. The mobilisation of IDF troops is a pro forma step. Netanyahu has facilitated the transfer of $1billion from Qatar and more to HAMAS over the last few years to help keep Gaza quiet—something that provides a strong talking point about “funding terrorism” for Gantz. An outbreak of hostilities would cancel out any claims Netanyahu has handled the HAMAS situation well.

Despite strong interests against it on both sides, there is no guarantee this flare-up will not escalate, especially with Iran meddling in Gaza. HAMAS vowed another “return march”, an event in which dozens of people were killed last year. That most of the slain were HAMAS operatives did not undo the political damage to Israel. The options for preventing a repeat are few and drastic.

Meanwhile, Iran is taking advantage of its Russian-mediated takeover of southern Syria to organise cross-border terrorist cells into Israel and is generally consolidating its position throughout the country.

It will soon be clear whether these trends have rallied Israelis around the man they know or vindicated Netanyahu’s critics.

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