In what is being called a “decisive victory,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party appear to have won re-election with 30 seats in the 120-member 20th Knesset, with opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union winning just 24.
“He did it by saying that if you do not vote for me, all these terrible things will happen,” observed Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “These tactics — you could call them scare tactics — worked.”
Abrams made the comment in a conference call with reporters organized by the CFR. Also on the call was Robert Danin, another CFR senior fellow, who said those on the political left had the “sense that the true Bibi came out [during the final days of the campaign], and that he finally said what he had been hiding. But if you see him as a politician, he did what it takes to get elected. He won and it worked.”
He was referring to Netanyahu’s pledge that if re-elected there would not be a Palestinian state — a disavowal of his support for Palestinian independence made in a 2009 speech. He pledged also to keep building in east Jerusalem, an area the Palestinians have claimed as their future capital.
Netanyahu also warned Israelis that his defeat would have dire consequences for the country’s security, and warned of a conspiracy by the left and foreign governments to oust him.
On his Facebook page yesterday, he posted a video that accused opposition supporters of bussing in Israeli-Arab voters, a message many considered racist.
“The rule of the right wing is in danger,” the message read. “Arab voters are going to the polls in droves! Go to the polling stations! Vote Likud!”
Danin said there is a “sense that Bibi was fear-mongering, and yet there was the sense that the Zionist [Union] camp had as its campaign platform, it is us or him. And that played into a narrative that helped him. … It looked like the country was ganging up on Netanyahu. He lashed out and it worked.”
Speaking from Tel Aviv, Danin pointed out that Israel “is a polarized country, and he [Netanyahu] came out with a lot of ugly rhetoric. The center-left saw it as dangerous. There is a fear here now that because he will be able to put together a strong government there will not be a strong opposition — that is the hangover response.”
The four small Israeli Arab parties that banded together to form the Joint List to ensure election to the Knesset won an impressive 14 seats in the Knesset. But Danin predicted their elected representatives will quickly break up and go their separate ways.
“They are not unified in any way and represent a plethora of views,” he said. “We will see them now scatter and their political power will not be that great as a bloc except on some national security issues.”
Netanyahu’s victory came as a surprise because opinion polls last week had given Herzog a four-seat lead, and exit polls taken by Israel’s television stations as Israelis left the voting booths put the race at a virtual tie. Some 72 percent of Israelis voted — the most in more than a decade.
“Friday’s polls seemed to have unleashed Netanyahu,” said Danin. “He saw he was losing and he tacked very hard to the right” and succeeded in taking votes from other rightwing parties.
“It looked like he would lose because he was not addressing socio-economic issues,” he added. “But at the end [of the campaign] he said you are right and I will do better. That is why he offered [Moshe] Kahlon [leader of the Kulanu Party] the finance ministry.”
Kahlon had campaign on a pledge to improve the economy.
“The conventional wisdom here today is that Netanyahu will be able to form a right-wing government of 67 seats with the religious parties,” Danin observed. “Netanyahu is the clear victor.”
After congratulating Netanyahu, Herzog said the only realistic option for his party is to remain in the opposition rather than consider joining a coalition government.
Asked about the strained relations between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, Abrams said: “I would hope the White House would internalize that the attacks on Netanyahu in the end strengthened and did not weaken him. Traditionally, bad relations with Washington have hurt [a prime minister], but it did not happen this time. Maybe it is possible to turn down the heat.”
Danin pointed out that although the U.S. is “beloved” by Israelis, “President Obama is not.”
Asked if Netanyahu may now have to “walk back” his pledge that there will not be a Palestinian state on his watch, Abrams replied: “He does not have much to walk back. No Israelis believe there will be a Palestinian state, and they are not negotiating. It was not an issue in the campaign, and they do not believe they have a partner with [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas. But he didn’t say never.”
The problem for Israel, Abrams noted, is that the “lack of negotiations is harmful to Israel, particularly in Europe — and it is hard to see how negotiations could get started even if you do not believe they will go anywhere. … [But talks] would lower the temperature between Israel and Europe.”
Regarding settlements, Danin noted that recently released government data revealed that Netanyahu “has slowed down settlement construction, particularly in smaller settlements beyond the security barrier. Overall expansion of settlements is really down. It dropped last year by half. So what Netanyahu is doing is constraining settlement growth beyond the fence. He never talks about it and neither does the left, but the numbers are there.”
Netanyahu’s re-election “increases the likelihood” that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are “headed for a confrontation” in the International Criminal Court, Danin said in response to another question.
The Palestinians have said they will file war crimes charges against Israel for its actions during last summer’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But Danin noted that “legal challenges are not a one-way street — and the Palestinians know it.”
He was referring to the recent jury verdict in New York that held the Palestinian Authority responsible for the deaths of 10 Americans whose members were killed or injured in terrorist attacks in Israel about a dozen years ago. The jury awarded the victims and their families $655.5 million under provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act.
“Both sides could wind up getting hurt in this fight,” Danin said.
Danin said also that he had “received a call from someone in an Arab capital who was over the moon” with joy from the election results.
“There was a sense that Netanyahu had stood up to the U.S. and had prevailed — and this was impressive,” he said. “My Arab friend said this [feeling] was representative of the Sunni world. I was flabbergasted, but truth is stranger than fiction.”
Arab capitals are pleased also because they believe Netanyahu will take a stronger stance than Herzog would have regarding negotiations by the U.S. and five other countries designed to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Abrams said the “size of the Netanyahu victory seems to strengthen critics of the potential deal. I think you will see in the Arab world, in Israel and in the U.S. no lessening of criticism of the terms that appear likely to be in a deal that may be reached.”
He was referring to the fact that the deal would apparently allow Iran to continue enriching uranium needed to make a bomb and will have a sunset clause, after which the Iranians would be free to develop nuclear weapons.