On April 9, 2019, the citizens of the state of Israel cast their votes to elect a new legislature, the 21st Knesset, and, more notably, to determine the fate of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. Three months ago, his reelection seemed inevitable.
However, Netanyahu’s political fortunes started to collapse quickly after he helped negotiate an ill-advised partnership between Jewish Home (an Orthodox Jewish political party) and Otzma Yehudit (widely considered to be a fascist, far-right wing political force) (Haaretz, “Netanyahu Now Endorses Jewish Fascism. U.S. Jews, Cut Your Ties With Him Now,” 02.21.2019). This, alongside an increasingly strong opposition and a pending indictment, led him to the brink of defeat; a day before the election, polls showed Bibi neck and neck with Yair Lapid and General Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party (The Jerusalem Post, “Final Polls: Netanyahu and Gantz Neck and Neck,” 04.07.2019).
However, Gantz and Lapid did not prevail. On April 9, 2019, Netanyahu and Likud, his political party, won reelection, forming a coalition with other right-of-center parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism. With this, Netanyahu will become the longest serving prime minister in the history of the country, surpassing David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel and a personal hero of mine (The New American, “Netanyahu Wins Israeli Snap Election,” 04.10.2009).
There are very few people on this campus who have been as actively and as publicly pro-Israel as I have been. I have written countless articles on the subject and spoken in opposition to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement before the Vassar Student Association. I hope, therefore, that it will weigh greatly on my readership to know that this election is a profound disappointment for me. Benjamin Netanyahu is not only a terrible Prime Minister, but he actively hinders the peace process between Israel and Palestine.
Netanyahu is, as far as I am concerned, a traitor to the Jewish people. For one, Bibi has allied himself closely with far-right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In 2018, Orban engaged in an anti-Semitic campaign against billionaire investor George Soros, has publicly praised known anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy and has downplayed Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. Yet, this February, Netanyahu hosted Orban in his official residence (Haaretz, “Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak Officials Announce Diplomatic Offices in Jerusalem,” 02.19.2019).
But perhaps more important than siding with anti-Semites for his own political convenience, Netanyahu continues to be a hindrance to the peace process. He has a history of making obscene, radical promises to win elections and then reneging on those promises after being elected. Prior to the 2015 parliamentary election, Netanyahu stated in an interview that a Palestinian nation would never be formed as long as he was prime minister. He declared, “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to the radical Islam against Israel” (CNN, “Israel’s PM Netanyahu: No Palestinian state on my watch,” 03.16.2015). A few days later, after he won a fourth term, Netanyahu backtracked. The newly re-elected Prime Minister told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution” (CNN Politics, “Obama to reassess Israel relationship,” 03.20.2015).
In 2019, Netanyahu tried to appeal to right-wing Israelis by announcing that he would annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank during his next term. He said, “I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements. From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have responsibility, as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians” (NPR, “Ahead of Israeli Election, Netanyahu Pledges to Annex West Bank Settlements,” 04.07.2019). I suspect that he will once again backtrack now that he has won his election; this reality cannot, however, mitigate the serious harm he has done to the peace process by these statements alone.
The greatest concern I have, however, is the threat that Netanyahu poses to Israel’s long-held democratic norms. On election day, Likud placed hidden cameras in Arab polling spaces in order to intentionally drive down voter turnout. This isn’t a secret, and it’s not disputed: The public relations company that spearheaded the campaign boasted its successes online (Haaretz, “PR Firm Behind Likud’s Hidden Cameras in Arab Polling Sites Boasts of Lowering Voter Turnout,” 04.10.2019).
Bibi’s past few years have been characterized by attacks on the media and the police forces that are investigating him for corruption in an attempt to lower public trust in democratic institutions and bolster his own career. And he’s been successful: He’s convinced 42 percent of Israelis that the Attorney General he appointed is caving in to pressure from the left in his investigation (The Times of Israel, “Is Netanyahu a crook? Allegedly. A threat to democracy? That verdict is sadly in,” 03.03.2019).
Netanyahu is a danger to democratic norms in Israel. It is unfortunate that he was not voted out. Yet, I am not defeatist about this election, and I do not buy the claims that Israeli democracy is dying, though I do believe it is under threat. Despite the cries of victory, Likud barely won this election—just as many people voted for the oppositional party Blue and White as voted for Likud. As Anshel Pfeffer points out, though Netanyahu’s fear-mongering certainly played a role in the election, his opposition also contributed to their own electoral defeat. As Pfeffer observes, “They ran disjointed, weak campaigns. Very few of the opposition’s Jewish politicians made even a token gesture towards Israeli Arab voters, without whom any meaningful democratic change is all but impossible” (Haaretz, “Yes, Netanyahu Won. And No, Israel’s Democracy Didn’t Just Die,” 04.11.2019).
Netanyahu is not a good prime minister, but he may not be one for long. An investigation is looming, and clearly the Israeli populace is not as interested in buying his lies as they once were. Yes, he won the election. Yes, I am upset about this. But I believe that the very democratic norms that Netanyahu attacks can be the solution to his regime. I sincerely hope that, if he has done anything illegal, he will be brought to justice: either by the courts or the ballot box. I remain optimistic that a new age is dawning in Israel, and that the left will soon rise again to remove Netanyahu and his cronies. Hopefully, it won’t be too late.