The election was a referendum on Netanyahu and he nailed it. Israel now has a structural majority of the right.
Leftover campaign materials after Benjamin Netanyahu’s election night party.
TEL AVIV — It was a referendum on him and he nailed it. Nobody can take that away from Benjamin Netanyahu. This summer, in his fifth term, he will surpass David Ben-Gurion as the longest-serving Israeli prime minister. Enough said.
His victory contains a warning for any Democrat still imagining that the 2020 election will bring an easy victory over Donald Trump. The Netanyahu playbook will be President Trump’s next year. Gather nationalist and religious voters in your camp, add in a strong economy, dose with fear, sprinkle with strongman appeal, inject a dash of racism and victory is yours — whatever indictments are looming.
It’s not that this could happen. It will happen, absent some decisive factor to upend the logic of it. Netanyahu is savvier than Trump, but they share a shrewd assessment of how to control and manipulate the politics of spectacle, as well as a fierce determination to stay out of jail. They campaign ugly.
Exactly a century ago, Ben-Gurion said, “Everyone sees the difficulty of relations between Jews and Arabs, but not everyone sees there is no solution to that question.” Netanyahu’s solution is by now clear. He is a true believer in Greater Israel and will not give up one inch of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. There will be no Palestinian state on his watch. Period.
Many Israelis, weary of the chimera of a two-state peace, thank him for that — as they thank him for a strong economy, Trump’s support and a sense of stability. Netanyahu is a formidable politician adept in using hate and fear, the strongest currency in contemporary politics.
His victory was personal but it was also structural. Israel now has a structural majority of the right. This will almost certainly enable Netanyahu to form a right-wing government, even though his Likud party appeared tied with the Blue and White party of his upstart challenger, Benny Gantz, each winning 35 seats.
The Gantz performance was remarkable. It demonstrated the deep disquiet of liberal Israel over Netanyahu the King. But in the end Gantz took more votes from the left — the Labor Party and Meretz — than from the right. As Avi Scharf, editor of the English edition of the liberal daily Haaretz, put it to me, “Israel’s founding left is totally obliterated.”
The structural majority of the right is composed of the ultra-Orthodox, the settler movement, Mizrahi Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent, nationalists of various stripes and Russian immigrants like the one who recently told my friend Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist, “I don’t want to live under Putin, but I want my leader to be like Putin.”
Netanyahu never passes up a photo-op with Vladimir Putin, any more than he does with Trump. “A different league,” one of his campaign ads said. Netanyahu was able to project presence among the superpowers. His base loved it. Trump’s base loves him, unswervingly. The president is not structurally assured of victory in 2020, but he is structurally within sight of it.
That Netanyahu is facing indictment on bribery and other charges proved no obstacle to Likud increasing its seats to 35 from 30 in 2015. In the near term, Israeli politics — and its democracy — will hinge on Netanyahu’s attempts to secure immunity from prosecution while in office. He may make acquiescence to such legislation a condition for coalition partners joining the government. It will not be pretty.
“We could see a coup d’état against democracy, something very dangerous,” Tom Segev, a prominent historian, told me.
For now, Israelis seem prepared to shrug. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper conclusion to the Mueller report reinforced a feeling that the cloud of corruption that has hung around Netanyahu for years should not be taken as proof of it.
In the longer term, Israeli politics will turn to the question of annexation. At the last minute, to shore up the right, Netanyahu promised to start annexing the West Bank if he won another term. The United Right and other extreme parties will not let him forget it.
Still, there is no reason to take Netanyahu at his word. He made himself kosher with the Obama administration through his Bar Ilan speech of a decade ago supporting a Palestinian state, only to do nothing to favor one and everything to block one.
Annexation could see the same fate because it’s problematic. Netanyahu is happiest in the gray zone where Israel controls millions of Palestinians without having to confront the question of whether they vote or are granted Israeli citizenship. He does not want to jeopardize good relations with Egypt and the Saudis. He’s quite happy with a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that once saw itself in the role of leading the way to a Palestinian state but has become the feeble enabler of Israel’s gray-zone domination.
Netanyahu’s annexation decision may hinge in the end on the long-incubated Trump plan for Israel-Palestine. It’s said to exist. Maybe it really does. God knows. The fact that strong pushback from the United States on partial annexation is no longer assured says it all: The rightist nationalist wave has yet to crest.
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Roger Cohen has been a columnist for The Times since 2009. His columns appear Wednesday and Saturday. He joined The Times in 1990, and has served as a foreign correspondent and foreign editor. @NYTimesCohen
The New York Times · by Roger Cohen · April 10, 2019