Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who will soon become the longest-serving head of government in Israel’s 70-year history, has called early elections, scheduled for April 9. His paper-thin majority in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) made it difficult to govern – at least that was the pretext. Most Israelis believe that the real reason was to forestall the announcement by the attorney general of his intention to indict the prime minister in three cases of alleged corruption, believing the decision would not be announced until after the elections in order for the attorney general to avoid accusations of attempting to affect them.
If so, it didn’t work. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit went ahead and announced that it was his intention to indict Netanyahu on two counts of breach of trust and one count of bribery. Thus the campaign is evolving in an atmosphere of pervasive suspicion. Of course, the prime minister, as any other accused person, is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but the atmospherics have changed dramatically. It should be noted that Israeli prime ministers and presidents have in the past been accused, indicted and convicted of illegal conduct while in office and sentenced to prison.
The case of Netanyahu is different, however, in that he has refused to resign and is continuing to run for re-election. There can be no doubt that his likely indictment (he will now have the opportunity to testify and try to persuade the attorney general not to indict) will affect the results of the election in such a way as to make it difficult for his political coalition to form a new government.
In the meantime, a new party, called “Blue and White” (the colors of the Israeli flag), has been formed, led by three former chiefs of staff of the Israeli army and the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party. The head of the new party is retired General Benny Gantz, and polls show that Blue and White is likely to gain more seats in the elections than the current center-right coalition headed by the Likud party.
It will be extremely difficult for either Likud or Blue and White to form a governing coalition with any likely combination of minor parties. General Gantz has declared that he is open for a “national unity” government made up of Likud and Blue and White but not with Netanyahu as prime minister. Unless there are surprise developments between now and the election, it would appear that Netanyahu’s days are numbered and that he will have to give way to a new Likud leader. If he refuses to resign, President Reuven Rivlin will have no choice but to call a new election, which is unlikely to have a result substantially different.
On the assumption that a national-unity government is formed headed by Gantz, what would that mean for Israeli policy? On the domestic front, the fact that the ultra-orthodox parties would be excluded from the government means that a number of measures that have been blocked by those parties would have a chance of passage, thereby resolving various social issues that have been festering for many years. Other than that, foreign and security policies will continue to dominate public discourse.
On the security front, the Netanyahu government has taken a cautious approach. While building up the armed forces (now considered the eighth most powerful in the world by a respected rating), he has refused to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities, as Israel did previously in Iraq and Syria; he has stayed out of the Syrian conflict except for attacking Iranian arms shipments and bases in that country. Finally, he took a conciliatory approach to multiple provocations on the part of the terrorist organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. This, indeed, caused the exit of one of the coalition parties, which reduced the government majority to such an extent as to provide the pretext for early elections.
In foreign policy, the Netanyahu government has staged a diplomatic offensive, which has had great success in improving relations with numerous countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Gulf Arab states, while deftly managing relations with the three superpowers: the US, Russia and China.
It is unlikely that there would be any substantial change in either security or foreign policies under a national-unity government. Blue and White is a solidly centrist party, which in fact explains its meteoric rise in the polls, as Israelis are tired of disruptive and vituperative “left vs right” politics. The presence of so much military brass in the leadership would reassure the public that security will be maintained and indeed enhanced.
It can thus be assumed that a post-Netanyahu government would be “more of the same” when it comes to Israel’s posture in the region and the world. All this depends, of course, on the prime minister’s willingness to resign if indicted.As Hamlet noted, that is, indeed, “the question.”