A victory for Netanyahu, a loss for peace

The rightwing leader is set to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. But if he makes good on his plans to annex Palestinian territory, Israel’s international reputation will slide only further. Colter Louwerse writes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara react as they stand on stage following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

A dead-heat electoral race in Israel resulted in widespread confusion after contradictory exit polls led rightwing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Kahol Lavan co-leader Benny Gantz to simultaneously declare victory.

As it stands, a rightwing coalition looks likely, with Netanyahu becoming the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history. At the same time, the Israeli Left has been virtually wiped off the map, with the Labour, Meretz and Hadash taking less than 20 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Netanyahu’s past success derived from his ability to reflect Israeli society back upon itself, exploiting on the electorate’s fears and prejudices. His 2019 campaign hit the same notes as it did during the election four years ago: anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Arab, and brazenly opposed to any form of the two-state settlement.

What distinguished Netanyahu’s 2019 campaign, however, was his attempt to galvanize the rightwing by promising to unilaterally annex sections of the occupied West Bank. This strategy appears to have pulled Netanyahu through by the skin of his teeth.

Assuming that Netanyahu manages to cobble together a coalition, it will likely comprise the most messianic, ethnonationalist government in Israeli history. The prospect does not bode well for Palestinians already living a tenuous existence in the occupied territories.

Time will tell if Netanyahu will be willing or able to carry out his election promise. In the past,  he has, citing pragmatic grounds, thwarted bills proposing annexation. What is significant this time around is that the United States, once a major political barrier to annexation, now appears ready to acquiesce to such a move. Just last month the Trump administration recognized Israel’s 1981 illegal annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria.

If Netanyahu does pursue annexation in the West Bank, it will not be a total seizure of the territory. Seeking to maximize Israeli territory while minimizing the problem of extending citizenship to a numerous and unwanted Palestinian population, a likely scenario is one in which Israel symbolically annexes only the settlement blocs already under de facto Israeli sovereignty, or else the territories east of the separation wall (less than 10 per cent of the West Bank).

Such a move would realize former Justice Minister Tsipi Livni’s 2005 projection of Israel’s ‘future border’, formally incorporating the main settlement blocks and the bulk of the settler population into Israeli proper.

Delivering on his annexation promises may additionally benefit Netanyahu by shielding him from the three charges of fraud and breach of trust currently hedged against him. According to Israeli and American sources cited by The Times of Israel, Netanyahu considers offering annexation of the settlement blocks to rightwing parliamentarians as a quid pro quo for the passing of legislation protecting him from future prosecution.

Annexation would also, of course, put the final nail in the coffin of the flimsy pretense that Israel is pursuing anything other than the irreversible destruction of a viable Palestinian state and the politicide of the Palestinian national movement.

Assuming that Netanyahu manages to cobble together a coalition, it will likely comprise the most messianic, ethnonationalist government in Israeli history.

There are two important factors to consider now vis-à-vis the Palestinian people: the first is for the people living in ghetto-like conditions in Gaza, beleaguered by a decade-long brutal and illegal Israeli siege. While Israeli snipers have inflicted massive death and injury to unarmed Palestinian demonstrators along the fence over the course of the past year, Netanyahu’s continued reluctance to authorize a full-fledged military operation has spared the tiny besieged territory even more violent punishment.

Rather than stemming from Netanyahu’s moral scruples, the decision to withhold military action in Gaza has been cynically driven by the IDF’s calculation that the territory’s dire humanitarian crisis ‘would make it difficult for the Israeli army to fight in the Strip for long and could lead to intense international intervention’.

It was this decision, combined with Netanyahu’s willingness to allow a trickle of Qatari fuel and other essential aid into the besieged enclave, that led the Hamas leadership in Gaza to quietly pray for a Likud victory. Netanyahu’s hesitance to unleash the full force of the Israeli military against Gaza was not shared by his electoral opponent. Gantz had pledged to pursue more militaristic solutions against the Strip, including renewing the once common Israeli policy of targeted assassinations and possibly even the authorization of a ground invasion.

Secondly, the current trajectory of international opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict favours the Palestinians. Netanyahu and his allies’ espousal of an ethno-supremacist vision of Israel, not a state for its non-Jewish citizens, and open rejection of the two-state settlement has tarnished Israel’s carefully cultivated international image as a model liberal democracy.

In the United States in particular, Israel’s stock has fallen among the grassroots progressive wing of the Democratic Party, a trend reflected in the recent harsh criticism of Netanyahu by 2020 electoral candidates Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg.

Gantz’s proposed policies toward the Palestinians were on the whole substantively indistinguishable or, in some cases, worse than Likud’s. Nevertheless, Gantz’s stated commitment to Israel as a state for all of its citizens (putting aside the scorn he heaped upon the possibility of including Arab parties in his coalition) and his platitudinal support for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, would likely have gone a long way towards rehabilitating Israel’s reputation among Western politicians.

By contrast, a continuation of Netanyahu’s rule – especially if accompanied by annexation – will increasingly compel the international community to recognize and deal with Israel as it is: an apartheid state intent on permanently ruling over millions of Palestinians while denying them basic civil and human rights.

Colter Louwerse is a PhD researcher in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.