In Israel’s Vote, Bibi Looms as the Key Issue

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The New York Sun

TEL AVIV — Left or right? War or diplomacy? Socialism or free-market economy? Tuesday’s election here is about none of these. It’s about Bibi.

Israel’s politics nowadays seem almost as crazy as Britain’s, but unlike the Mother of Parliaments, which can’t sort out London’s relationship with Brussels, the Knesset’s biggest issue was merely to decide whether to keep or oust Benjamin Netanyahu — the leader who this summer became the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Its inability to settle that triggered a new election.

As much as 40% of Israel’s electorate adore Mr. Netanyahu, or at least his policy record: They credit him with tremendously boosting the economy, steering clear of major wars, and forming new relations with countries they never could have dreamed of befriending. A roughly similar number see Mr. Netanayahu as a criminal — or at least believe he’s been in power too long, whether they like his accomplishments or not.

The parties representing minorities like the Arabs, the Orthodox, and others will be critical in determining if the next leader will be Bibi or Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue & White party, so named after the Israeli flag. Mr. Gantz promises little to no change on issues like defense, diplomacy, or economics. Indeed, several Blue & White leaders are even more hawkish on security than Mr. Netanyahu.

Last week, the European Union, the United Nations, and veterans of the Obama administration unanimously condemned Bibi’s announced intention to annex the Jordan Valley, predicting it would end all hope for peace. As far as most Israelis are concerned, though, hanging on to that area is non-controversial. It’s a natural barrier separating Israel’s eastern flank from a turbulent Arab world, where hatred of the Jewish state is still prevalent.

Mr. Gantz favors staying there, while — as his supporters note — Bibi all but accepted a John Kerry-led peace plan that would have given it away. The only cabinet member who opposed it at the time was Mr. Netanyahu’s then-defense minister, Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, who has since parted ways with Mr. Netanyahu and is now a top Blue & White candidate.

For the second time this year, and on issue after issue, most of the Israeli electorate is divided over who should lead them, but much less on how and what policies that leader should adopt.

Mr. Netanayahu got the nod in the last round, five months ago. He failed, though, to secure support from a majority of the Knesset’s 120 members. Avigdor Lieberman, a former defense minister and foreign minister, refused to join with his former party, Likud, arguing that Bibi has made too many concessions to the country’s Orthodox.

Polls predict Mr. Lieberman’s party, Israel Beiteinu, will almost double its five Knesset seats, remaining smaller than Mr. Gantz’s and Bibi’s, but an Israeli friend insists, it’ll be “Lieberman for prime minister.” That’s unlikely, but the wily Moldovan-born politician is widely predicted to become post-election kingmaker.

Still, Mr. Netanyahu has a small advantage. “This time, for whatever reason, the Orthodox parties are in Bibi’s pocket,” says veteran political analyst Hanan Krystal. So are the parties to Bibi’s right.

A party representing the country’s Arab citizens, some 20% of the population, can also make a key difference. Arab politicians are no fans of Mr. Gantz, but after Mr. Netanyahu pushed a law declaring Israel primarily a Jewish state, “they may, just this one time, support Gantz,” who, for them, is not as bad as Bibi, says Mr. Krystal.

In that case, and unless Mr. Netanyahu succeeds in luring Mr. Lieberman into joining forces with Likud again despite recent bad blood, Mr. Gantz wins, while Netanayahu loses immunity from prosecution and perhaps any hope of a political comeback.

Another big question: Some Likud members despise Bibi and fear he’ll be forced to stand trial. Would they defect to form a unity government headed by Mr. Gantz? That this seems even plausible owes mostly to the fact that ideological differences between Israel’s parties have increasingly narrowed in past years.

Mr. Netanyahu may yet pull a rabbit out of his hat again, but non-Israelis praying for Bibi’s ouster should take note: Even if he loses Tuesday, Israel’s policies aren’t likely to change much. If he is finally shown the door, it won’t be because of Netanayahu’s policies but because of Bibi himself.


Twitter: @BennyAvni. This column first appeared in the New York Post.


Benny Avni is a columnist who has published in the New York Post, WSJOpinion, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Israel Radio, Ha’Aretz, and others. Once New York Sun, always New York Sun.

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