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Netanyahu Stages Historic Comeback


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29 May 2019
Netanyahu Stages Historic Comeback

It was vintage ‘Bibi’. For the third time in his record five election victories, Israelis went to bed thinking Benjamin Netanyahu was vanquished only to awaken the next morning and discover he was their prime minister.

It first happened in 1996, when Netanyahu trailed in the late night returns before narrowly eclipsing Shimon Peres by 30,000 votes come morning. Again in 2015, the evening exit polls had the National Union edging Likud before the next day’s official tally showed Netanyahu handily winning by six Knesset seats. Even in 2009, when Kadima bested Likud by one seat, Netanyahu still managed to outflank Tzipi Livni and retain the premiership.

His victory on April 9th was equally dramatic – especially given the forces arrayed against him. For starters, he was facing indictment in three corruption probes. The Israeli media was decidedly against him. And three former IDF chiefs-of-staff banded together to topple Netanyahu, calculating that their combined military experience would neutralise his advantage as “Mr. Security”.

Yet Netanyahu managed to shock the nation and the world by scoring what looks to be an historic fifth term in the Prime Minister’s Office. He must still forge a coalition government with majority support in the new Knesset. But with this triumph, Netanyahu has achieved legendary status as modern Israel’s most victorious and longest-serving premier – surpassing David Ben-Gurion’s four victories and 13 years in office.

The close results, with the two central parties splitting the lion’s share of ballots, indicates the campaign indeed boiled down to a referendum on Netanyahu. The three IDF generals, led by Benny Gantz, united with Yair Lapid’s faction to form the upstart Blue & White list, whose sole agenda was to send Bibi packing. The new alignment did not assail his economic or security policies, and they even acknowledged his competency in running the country and handling foreign affairs. Rather, they denounced his “divisiveness” and his sense of entitlement after holding onto power for so long.

Netanyahu did upset many Israelis, and many American Jews as well, by repeatedly bowing to the ultra-Orthodox parties on Western Wall prayers and Haredi draft exemptions. He also drew complaints for legitimising the anti-Arab Kahanists on the far-Right.

But his recent accomplishments, most notably on the world stage, also gave many voters added confidence in his stable leadership. Just days before the election, Netanyahu was invited to Washington, where US President Donald Trump handed him a timely boost by recognising Israel’s claim to the Golan. He then was hosted by Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow and came back with the long-sought remains of an IDF soldier missing for 37 years.

Certainly, no other aspiring Israeli leader at present could pull off such diplomatic feats. Thus, in the waning days of the campaign Netanyahu and his Likud party picked up crucial extra votes at the expense of other factions to his right. Even so, Netanyahu and his “natural partners” in the Right bloc will hold 65 seats in the new Knesset, giving him the clearest path to head the government. But each will try to exact a price for their loyalty.

For example, he will need support from Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, who bolted the last government due to Netanyahu’s perceived weakness towards Hamas in Gaza. Lieberman and his secular Russian immigrant party also do not relish sitting in a coalition with the religious factions Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Netanyahu also must rely on the staunchly pro-settlement Union of Right-Wing Parties, which could insist that he keep his promise, made in desperation late in the campaign, to annex parts of Judea/Samaria. Yet such a move could undermine the long-awaited Trump peace plan and Israel’s overall relations with a very friendly US president.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu must fend off the expected indictments for bribery and fraud now hanging over his head. The parties on the Right are reportedly prepared to stand by him as prime minister until he is actually convicted of a crime. But another alternative could eventually present itself by way of a national unity government with Blue & White, if they are willing to protect him from removal from office so long as he is pursuing a viable US-led peace process with the Palestinians.

So the 2019 elections may be over, but uncertainties abound as the legendary career of Bibi Netanyahu continues.


2019 Election Results
Likud: 35
Blue and White: 35
Shas: 8
United Torah Judaism: 8
Hadash-Ta’al: 6
Labour: 6
Union of Right-Wing Parties: 5
Yisrael Beiteinu: 5
Kulanu: 4
Meretz: 4
Ra’am Balad: 4


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