For the better part of a year, the main opposition to Netanyahu’s leadership hasn’t focused on new policies or ideas for the country’s challenges. Rather, the debate has been all about Bibi, his legacy as the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, and the myriad corruption charges against him.
With the dust settling on another election this week, it looks like Netanyahu’s time in office is firmly under threat. It’s unclear at the time of this writing if the prime minister’s last-ditch efforts to form a unity government with the opposition will be enough to save him from prosecution but it’s clear he has had his wings clipped. Israel will soon have new leaders and start to untangle itself from the web of Netanyahu’s Likud party. If this situation holds, it will be a harsh wake-up call for Israeli liberals. They will have to face the reality that the opposition has put forward few concrete ideas for leading the country forward other than removing Netanyahu from power.
Benny Gantz, the head of the opposition Blue and White Party and a major contender for Israel’s next prime minister, is simply not much different to Netanyahu when it comes to policy. A former military general, Gantz has promised to continue Israel’s consolidation of its status quo in the West Bank and further entrench the one-state reality that governs life between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. The vast matrix of Israeli control over Palestinian life through new settlement infrastructure will hardly miss a beat. In the short term, Israel’s economy will continue to grow, led by its outsized technology sector.
Indeed, most exit polls confirmed that this election was all about Bibi. The vast majority of Israelis expressed satisfaction with the state of their country. Bear in mind that Israeli leftists have been all but eradicated from the political map. So don’t expect to hear much talk of the peace process from mainstream Israeli society. Rather, some voters felt Netanyahu was corrupt and couldn’t be trusted while others noted he has raised Israel’s profile internationally. Israel is deeply undecided about Netanyahu but not his policies.
This kind of cognitive dissonance reveals how Israelis have internalised the status quo as something permanent and not temporary. In the absence of a peace accord, the current situation is the best Israelis feel they can achieve and it’s not even that bad in their eyes. Relations with the Sunni Arab world are great, the United States is supportive of the most extreme Israeli positions vis-a-vie the Palestinians, and there are plenty of jobs. Any sort of misgivings about the ills of dominating other people and maintaining a military occupation have been foisted onto the persona of one politician: Netanyahu. Instead of coming up with a long-term solution for this unsustainable situation, Israelis are content to debate Netanyahu.
By focusing so intently on one politician as the locus of debate about Israel’s future, the majority of Israelis have been able to simply ignore the endemic challenges their country faces. Netanyahu is actually a scapegoat or stand-in for much more complicated issues. Now that he is on the way out or at the very least defanged, Israelis and their supporters will have to again face the cold facts of their situation.
This is not without parallels in other countries. Consider Jacob Zuma’s term as president of South Africa. Years of swirling corruption claims gave opposition parties ammunition against Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC). Despite rising unemployment and a lagging economy, the opposition waged an anti-Zuma war for years until the president was finally removed from office. Once out of power, opposition platforms were shown to be listless or little different from the ANC. Just as Netanyahu is one of many ills in Israel, Zuma was only the tip of the corruption spear in South Africa. His removal has changed the prospects for the country. If anything, South Africa is more directionless than before.
If and when Netanyahu is removed from office, Israel’s supporters will herald the strength of the country’s democratic institutions. Whether or not, he will face prosecution for his crimes will have little importance. But for those who are truly concerned for Israel’s wellbeing and the ultimate end to the Palestinian conflict, this election should come as an ominous sign. The Israeli government has spent incredible resources to entrench its position on Palestinian land and by doing so has made the two-state solution impossible.
Figures such as Benny Gantz have helped create and maintain this untenable position. By casting him as the opposition to Netanyahu’s devilish ways, Israelis (and their supporters) are merely deluding themselves about the strength of the country. Yes, the economy is good. Yes, the occupation is manageable today. But this is only temporary and Israelis need to construct a viable vision for the future that moves beyond the status quo. They don’t appear any closer to this reality.