Binyamin Netanyahu lost the second round of elections big time, and yet his opponent could not manage to win. The imbroglio created in the first round only became more complicated following the second. Netanyahu lost not only because his number of supporters decreased, but because he failed both in his attempts to crush Avigdor Lieberman (a right-wing party leader who refuses to join a Likud coalition with the Ultraorthodox) and to minimize the Joint List of Arab parties. After failing to form a government in April, the Likud launched a campaign of “Lieberman is to blame and we’ll eliminate him”. As for the Joint List, toward the end of the last campaign the Likud incited wildly against it under the slogan “Arabs are stealing the elections”. The attacks on Benny Gantz were adorned with images of the Joint List’s Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi. The result? Lieberman gained three additional Knesset seats, and the percentage of Arab votes rose from 50% to 60%, thus giving the Joint List another three seats. The Likud dropped by three, even though this time its tally included four from Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which had merged with it. A delusional political agreement with right-winger Moshe Feiglin also failed to bear fruit.
Netanyahu’s failure is not only electoral. While he kept his “base”, those million voters who follow him through fire and water, he lost everything else along the way. Like his friend Trump, Netanyahu perceived social divisions and incitement as a recipe for maintaining his rule. It didn’t work the first time in April, and it failed this second time too. In addition, Netanyahu’s legal entanglement, his obsession with the judiciary and media, his connection to extremist settlers and the successors of Meir Kahane, the concessions to the ultra-Orthodox parties, have turned even members of the Likud’s liberal wing against him. This is the broadest possible front: It includes President Rubi Rivlin, Benny Begin and Limor Livnat, who did not support Netanyahu; former Likud members such as Moshe Ya’alon, Yoav Hendel and Zvi Hauser, who joined Benny Gantz; not to mention a wide electorate divided between Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the Labour Party. As soon as Lieberman abandoned Netanyahu and the Arab public turned out to vote, Netanyahu’s fate was decided.
Bibi’s failure marks the end of an era. The 23 years that he has acted in the political arena have drastically altered Israel’s character. The fact that his tenure as PM has endured for 13 of those years, longer than that of David Ben-Gurion, stems from the fact that, like Ben-Gurion, he adopted a political and economic agenda, albeit completely opposed to the latter’s. While Ben-Gurion established the public economy and gave power to the Histadrut labor union, Netanyahu privatized the economy and gave power to big capitalists at the expense of the workers. While Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party was anxious to safeguard the Jewish majority by expelling Palestinians in 1948, and after 1967 by seeking an arrangement in the territories Israel conquered, Netanyahu acted to undermine any peace agreement, to strengthen settlements and to impose Israeli sovereignty on the West Bank. While Ben-Gurion and his successors maintained the status quo on religion and state, Netanyahu strengthened the religious nationalists who persisted in all fields: judicial interference, religious imposition in schools, and censorship of critical thinking in art and culture; they pushed secular liberals into a corner, accusing them of being leftists, traitors and Arab lovers.
This is the country that Netanyahu leaves in his wake: a state that includes, in effect, 2.5 million Palestinians from the West Bank and another 2 million imprisoned in the Gaza Strip; an economy biased toward monopolies and large capital; a security budget that sustains a bloated military; and a deficit budget that cannot cover the growing needs for public service in health, education, transportation and housing.
The neoliberal economy that Netanyahu warmly adopted, trimming public services in favour of the private sector, has proven to be a major failure in the countries where it was implemented. In the United Kingdom and the United States, it created an economic crisis that has led to populist leaders Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, harming the democratic system while creating chaos. Taking into account that the situation in Gaza and the West Bank will explode under internal and external pressure, including the current diplomatic dead end, and that the existing financial system cannot support the standard of living desired by most Israelis, we will see that Netanyahu also leaves chaos in his wake, reflected in the fact that the second round of elections failed to produce a stable government.
Benny Gantz is portrayed as a saviour who will rescue Israel from the ongoing nightmare, but it is not at all clear that he can address the fundamental problems which Netanyahu leaves behind. The leaders of his Blue and White party, three former chiefs of staff and one treasury minister who worked with Netanyahu in a previous government, represent a change of form but not of substance. On a strategic question like Iran, they support Bibi’s rejection of the nuclear agreement; they welcome every Israeli air force bombing in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; they refuse to speak about any arrangement with the Palestinians; and they believe that Netanyahu is soft on Hamas.
At the economic level, Yair Lapid as finance minister under Netanyahu demonstrated that he is continuing in Bibi’s path. He advocates the same principles of fiscal restraint, preference of the private over the public sector, prevention of renewable energy, and refusal to expand budgets for education, health, welfare and transportation. The fact that Benny Gantz is distancing himself from the support of the Joint List shows that he too wants to continue in Netanyahu’s path, albeit in a more pleasant tone and without incitement, factional rhetoric, or religious extremism.
Two election campaigns have been wasted through mutual denigration and lack of substance. Not only did Gantz avoid such discussions but so did the Labour Party, which joined with the right-wing Gesher party of Orly Levy and thus jettisoned any pretence of an alternative political plan. Meretz did the same by joining forces with Ehud Barak. The post-Netanyahu Israel has lost its way, and no party with a true alternative has emerged. Yes, Israel has gone off course. Meanwhile, as the country quarrels over who will take the helm, Trump abandons Bibi. Instead of bombing Iran, he desperately seeks to meet with Hassan Rouhani and scolds Netanyahu for his electoral promise to annex the Jordan Valley, while the Pentagon worries about Israeli bombings in Iraq. Netanyahu’s “magic touch” is gone, despite his bragging about belonging to the league of world leaders.
That is why in these elections, like the previous ones and the ones to come, the Da’am Party will continue to provide a revolutionary political-economic alternative while refusing to take part in the current political game. It is a game that takes place off the field and has no clear rules or goals; its players wear jerseys that make it difficult to identify who belongs to which camp, and the result is that all parties lose while the problems remain. The electoral impasse reflects a broader political and social impasse that has accompanied us for many years. The old paradigms have collapsed, including Netanyahu’s neoliberal economy as well as solutions based on separation from the Palestinians, whether through the Oslo Accords or any other plan.
The continued insistence on a two-state solution, with no Palestinian partner or political conditions that allow for a truly sovereign Palestinian state, leaves the foundations of fascism in Israel unchanged. Da’am does not want Netanyahu but does not support Gantz either. The only way out of the current deadlock is to adopt a democratic and green political program that crosses national lines, connecting Jews and Palestinians on the basis of universal principles of civil, economic and social equality. The refusal of the existing oppositions to cross those lines, the Jewish opposition adhering to Zionism and the Arab to Arab nationalism, leaves the right wing unchallenged, whether it appears in the form of the Likud or Blue and White.