By Barry Rubin
Israel is apparently going to have elections this autumn and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly win by a big margin. Understanding why explains a lot about the country that people think they know the most about but in fact comprehend the least.
According to polls, Netanyahu’s Likud party may go from 28 to 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset. That may not sound like a big percentage but with around 12 different parties likely to win seats that margin would be sufficient.
One key element in this equation is that the country is doing pretty well. True, it faces serious security problems but that’s the norm for Israel. Indeed, with no other trusted leader on the horizon, Netanyahu is the one most trusted to manage that dangerous situation.
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True, too, there has been increasing attention paid to social problems, including the gap between low salaries and high living costs that provoked protests earlier this year. That the protests have dissipated and Israel’s economy is doing better—including low unemployment, low inflation, and manageable state debt–than any other in the West, partly due to the same economic problems that impose those social costs.
A third factor is the total fractionalization of the opposition. Indeed, one might speak of Netanyahu and the seven dwarfs. Aside from Kadima there are three other mid-sized parties that take votes from the same potential constituency and quarrel among themselves:
- Kadima, the main opposition party which is vaguely centrist, is so discredited by its former, failed leader Tzipi Livni that it will not be saved by its new head, the militarily competent but colorless Shaul Mofaz, from falling as far as losing 20 of its current 29 seats.
- Labor, which has reinvented itself as a social issues party has an untested leader who is a radio personality, might come in a distant second.
- A new centrist party—named, perhaps in wishful thinking for itself—There is a Future—pushes the same secular centrism that has repeatedly produced one-election parties before.
- Israel Our Home, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has a solid base among immigrants from the former Soviet Union but by that very fact—and given the fact that Lieberman is widely disliked and close to indictment—should hold but not expand its base.
It is ironic to think that the Obama Administration, whose ignorance of Israel and its politics cannot possibly be overestimated, thought it was going to bring down Netanyahu and replace him with a more pliable Livni. In fact, by its periodic bashing of Israel and ham-handed Middle East policy promoting Israel-hating Islamists, Obama unintentionally mobilized domestic support for Netanyahu.
Speaking about myths about Israel and Israeli politics here are some of the main ones:
- Netanyahu is no longer a “right-winger” in the way he was 15 years ago. He has moved into the center, a key factor explaining his success.
- Israelis do not believe they have a peace option at present, with the Palestinians uninterested in a deal and Egypt, Iran, Turkey, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria in an all-out hostile mode.
- There is no faith in U.S backing given the Obama Administration’s views and actions.
- Israelis are neither stupid—giving away everything, as the foreign right often seems to think—or evil, as the foreign left definitely does think.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.