Israel’s election will be a ‘referendum on Netanyahu’ – but he would only be replaced by another right-winger

By Kit Roberts

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s only serious threat is from the right during the nation’s fourth election in two years, an expert has said.

The beleaguered Israeli PM, who’s position appears to be weakening by the month, called the election after failing to pass a budget through the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

He is also facing charges of corruption.

However, it is still very unlikely that any opposition party will be able to mount a successful challenge to Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. 

Lior Sternfeld, an assistant professor of history and Jewish studies at Penn State University, told Redaction Politics: “I think that this time there is a chance of Netanyahu losing, but he will lose it to someone who is even more extreme to the right than him. 

“It’s like replacing Trump with Newt Gingrich. 

“It’s not going to be some kind of major policy change, it’s use going to be more diplomatic or made with more statecraft, not any better policies or change in priorities.”

As Israel gears up for the election, Professor Sternfeld is doubtful that the left will be able to entertain serious prospects of replacing Netanyahu.

Despite the polarising figure of Netanyahu, the Jewish left’s unwillingness to form a coalition with Arab parties in the Knesset is undermining the left’s ability to contest the Likud party.

He said: “Every candidate on the left always tries to appeal to the right in order to get credibility but always refuse to consider the Arab parties in the Knesset for ad hoc coalitions or something that would form some kind of partnership or alliance between the Arabs and the Jews in Israel. 

“Mathematically you can’t form a left wing or left centre government without the Arabs. It’s not possible.

“And as long as left wing leaders prioritise appealing to the right wing base or centre-right voters, call it whatever you want, over forming meaningful partnerships with the Palestinians, right wing will always grow even more fierce than ever.”

This, he added, is part of a lasting problem, as the idea of patriotism, even of Zionism, has been co-opted by the right wing.

The right wing ideas dominate the discourse two such an extent that the left is largely reactive, and unable to set the agenda. 

It is reflected also in their seeming inability to put forward a meaningful political programme outside of the old issues.

He said: “The left wing in Israel, in the past twenty years did not offer anything in terms of economics, in terms of how to control the cost of living, how to control unemployment or the labour market, and so on. 

“There was no viable left wing agenda to challenge the right agenda, and I think that essentially this was also one of the things that really did hurt the Not Right camp.”

Despite widespread condemnation of Israeli operations in the West Bank, Netanyahu is not entirely without foreign policy triumphs either. The normalisation of relations with several Arab states, including the UAE and Bahrain, will give him something to brag about on the campaign trail. 

Nonetheless, critics may still argue that Israeli relations with many Arab states were already unofficially cordial, and based on a back-channel pragmatism.

Far from a great step forward, this is more an official acknowledgment of what has been the unofficial state of affairs for a long time.

Professor Sternfeld elaborated: “I think that Netanyahu is going to frame all the most recent normalisation agreements as a major achievement of his administration and unfortunately there’s no-one in any opposition party to think about the normalisation agreement as something that maybe it’s not exactly the breakthrough agreements.”

Ultimately however, policy is unlikely to feature prominently in the election. Instead, this represents a potential vindication of an incredibly divisive figure in Israeli politics. It will also be a judgement on the country’s tackling of Covid-19. 

But even if Netanyahu loses his position, it is unlikely to change much in the status quo.

Professor Sternfeld explained: “It’s going to be a referendum on Netanyahu. This is how everybody’s going to frame it. Netanyahu is going to frame as a referendum on his management of the coronavirus crisis. 

“The others are going to position it as a referendum on Netanyahu’s corruption and trial and mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. 

“You’re not going to see the Palestinians at all in the discussion. You’re not going to see the economic crisis at all. 

“It’s going to be yes to Bibi or no to Bibi.”

Featured Image: Chatham House @Flickr

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