Second Israeli election in five months: “Bibi fatigue” against a “lackluster Gantz”

September 17, 2019

Stall owners in a street market in Jerusalem show their support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of today’s national elections. Working class Israelis tend to support Netanyahu for his notable achievements on the economy and on security, whereas upper income Israelis often despise him, sometimes for cultural or elitist reasons. Other Israelis vote for smaller parties, often for sectoral or ethnic reasons.

 

SECOND ISRAELI ELECTION IN FIVE MONTHS

[Note by Tom Gross]

Polls have opened in Israel for the country’s second election this year, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and newcomer challenger, the former army chief Benny Gantz, again running neck and neck according to opinion polls.

The Netanyahu-led Likud party, and Blue and White, headed by Gantz, finished tied with 35 seats each in the April 9 ballot and Netanyahu failed to cobble together a majority.

Results will be known within hours of close of polls at 10 pm Israel time tonight. But unless one of the parties wins decisively, it may be weeks before we actually know who will be able to form the next coalition government. This is because Israel’s electoral system is perhaps “too democratic” in that it allows so many different political parties representing all kinds of factional and ethnic interests to enter the 120 seat Knesset

Many Israelis hope for stability and to avoid a third election, and therefore would like a Netanyahu-Gantz national unity government to emerge.

I attach five recent articles on the Israeli elections, including one from today.

Among the writers, Jonathan Tobin, Isi Leibler and Matti Friedman are all longtime subscribers to this list.

Below are a few extracts first for those who don’t have time to read the pieces in full.

 

EXTRACTS

THE PALESTINIANS ARE ACTUALLY THE KEY TO PEACE

Jonathan Tobin (JNS):

What most Americans – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – still fail to understand is the broad consensus among Israelis (including Netanyahu and Gantz) on security issues and the peace process. That consensus holds that the Palestinians have no real interest in peace, and that in the absence of a peace partner, the kind of territorial concessions Israel’s liberal friends demand it make wouldn’t be so much unwise as insane.

That’s why all the talk in the New York Times and Washington Post about Israel’s latest election deciding the future of the peace process isn’t just wrong, but ignores the fact that this question was actually determined in an election held 14 years ago, as well as in one that didn’t happen four years later. I refer to the vote that took place on Jan. 9, 2005 when Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority.

There has never been another election for Palestinian president in either the West Bank or Hamas-controlled Gaza; Abbas is currently serving in the 15th year of the four-year term to which he had been elected.

Had the Palestinians elected a person willing or capable of making peace, they would have grabbed Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, as well a share of Jerusalem.

 

THE DANGERS OF THROWING OUT A WORLD-CLASS LEADER

Isi Leibler (Israel Hayom):

A major concern even among this who have “Bibi fatigue” and want a change is the lackluster pre-election performance of Gantz himself, who is devoid of charisma, contradicts himself, and seems to be a monotonously “nice guy” but hardly the leader Israel requires. This is highlighted with comparisons to Netanyahu who – despite a viciously hostile press, major diplomatic and military challenges, constant legal pressures, and an impending election – remains as cool as a cucumber.

Aside from the extent to which the powers of the Supreme Court to override government decisions are to be limited, there are no major political differences between Likud and Blue and White.

Both agree that an independent Palestinian state at this time would mean creating a terrorist state on our borders that Iran could employ as a launching pad to destroy us. Both parties oppose dividing Jerusalem or ceding further territories unless a final settlement is reached.

Even those who detest Netanyahu cannot deny that, whatever his personal weaknesses, he stands out today as a world-class leader enjoying excellent relations with US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders and now forging diplomatic channels with Arab former adversaries now inching closer to open relations with Israel.

Yet ironically, there is a possibility that the outcome could achieve stability and the new government to be formed may even reflect a national consensus if Gantz agrees to a unity government with Netanyahu …

 

NO MOOD FOR A THIRD ELECTION

Jonathan Kolatch (Wall St Journal):

With 65 of 120 Knesset members recommending him for a fifth term as prime minister, the April election should have provided Netanyahu a clear path to form a government.

Yet the ultimate cause of the breakdown following the April election was a miscalculated campaign by the breakaway New Right party, powered by former Education Minister Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Their new party ended up 0.03% of the vote short of the 3.25% minimum to qualify for the Knesset. With 1,400 more votes, they would have won four seats, giving Netanyahu a majority …

During this new current campaign, Netanyahu has missed no beat. He has restated his intention to apply Israeli sovereignty to Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria. Against advice from his attorney general, Netanyahu initiated a failed attempt to pass a law allowing cameras in election precincts. He announced discovery of a second Iranian nuclear site. Reinforcing his international luster, he met Prime Ministers Narendra Modi in New Delhi, Boris Johnson in London and Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. Blue and White mocked him as “Benjamin of Tudela” a medieval Jewish wanderer. The prime minister’s campaign strategy is to dominate the agenda and divert discussion from pending legal vulnerability and escalating hostilities in Gaza. …

President Reuven Rivlin, who has broad oversight over the coalition-formation process, has made clear that he will do everything in his power to move the process to conclusion. Almost everyone agrees Israel is in no mood for a third election.

 

GANTZ: NETANYAHU IS TOO WEAK ON GAZA

Felicia Schwartz (Wall St Journal):

Underpinning his pitch: Many Israelis say they have rarely, if ever, felt safer than they have during Netanyahu’s last decade in power. A wave of suicide bombings and street stabbings, known as the second Palestinian intifada, had largely subsided when Netanyahu took office in 2009. The violence has generally been kept at bay, though Israel and Gaza have fought three wars since then….

In particular, Gantz has highlighted the prime minister’s weak policies on Gaza, where Hamas, a group labeled as terrorist by Israel and the U.S., is in power. Hamas has periodically launched missiles into Israel for more than a year, often prompting Israeli airstrikes.

Gantz, a former general, says a dramatic military operation could be necessary to uproot Hamas once and for all. The former Israeli army chief of staff says Netanyahu has gone soft, essentially buying Hamas off by allowing Qatar to send tens of millions of dollars into Gaza.

“We will not accept any violation of our sovereignty. Not a missile, not a kite, not a rocket. We will re-establish deterrence,” Gantz said at an event in northern Israel.

The threat from Hamas was underlined last week when Netanyahu was forced to exit a campaign event and seek refuge in a bomb shelter in Ashdod after Gaza militants fired rockets toward the seaside city…

Some former officials say there are flaws in Netanyahu’s tough image. Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu who is now critical of him, said the premier hasn’t acted decisively to confront security challenges.

 

“BORN IN JERUSALEM AND STILL ALIVE”

Matti Friedman (New York Times):

When trying to understand Israel’s election, you can easily get lost in the details – corruption charges, coalition wrangling, bickering between left and right. But the best explainer might be a small film that you’re unlikely to see about something that people here prefer not to discuss: “Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive” …

No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. The attacks, which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians (and injured thousands), ended hopes for a negotiated peace and destroyed the left, which was in power when the wave began. Any sympathy that the Israeli majority had toward Palestinians evaporated.

More than any other single development, that period explains the durability of Benjamin Netanyahu, which outsiders sometimes struggle to understand. Simply put, in the decade before Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied us in public places. There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case.


ARTICLES

THE ELECTIONS THAT DECIDED THE FUTURE OF THE CONFLICT

The elections that decided the future of the conflict
Israeli voters won’t determine whether peace is possible. That happened when Abbas succeeded Arafat and subsequently refused to hold another vote.
By Jonathan S. Tobin
JNS
September 16, 2019

On the eve of the second Israeli election of 2019, there is no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric about the potential consequences of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election. From The New York Times editorial column to the Forward’s opinion pages, we’re once again hearing the same stale rhetoric about how another Likud-led government will mark the decline and fall of Israeli democracy, the end of the Israel-Diaspora relationship, torpedo U.S. support for the Jewish state and cause the final collapse of any hope for peace with the Palestinians. That last point of view was best articulated by Washington Post editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl, who, like many liberal pundits, believes that Netanyahu’s promise to apply Israeli law to West Bank settlements and to hold onto the Jordan Valley forever ensures that peace will never be possible with the Palestinians.

Let’s leave aside the likelihood that Netanyahu statements are just campaign rhetoric that won’t be turned into action. Israeli law already applies to the settlements, and annexation, even of the Area C territory where Jewish communities are located, is still unlikely. As for the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu’s chief rival – the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz – has said that his position on the issue are no different than that of the prime minister. What most Americans – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – still fail to understand is the broad consensus among Israelis on security issues and the peace process. That consensus holds that the Palestinians have no real interest in peace, and that in the absence of a peace partner, the kind of territorial concessions Israel’s liberal friends demand it make wouldn’t be so much unwise as insane.

That’s why all the talk about Israel’s latest election deciding the future of the peace process isn’t just wrong, but ignores the fact that this question was actually determined in an election held 14 years ago, as well as in one that didn’t happen four years later.

By that I refer to the vote that took place on Jan. 9, 2005 when Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, succeeding Yasser Arafat. Abbas, who was the leader of Arafat’s Fatah Party and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, won with 62 percent of the vote. That wasn’t very impressive when you consider that his Hamas rivals refused to run in an election they not unreasonably believed was fixed, and that, according to independent Palestinian researchers, 94 percent of the coverage of the election in the Palestinian media was devoted to laudatory coverage of Abbas.

The election was largely the result of American pressure on both the Palestinians and the Israeli government then led by Ariel Sharon. President George W. Bush and his foreign-policy team had become convinced that the establishment of Palestinian democracy was the necessary prerequisite to peace. Like the Bush administration’s similarly misguided attempt to convert an Iraq that had been liberated from the rule of Saddam Hussein into a democracy, the notion that Palestinian political culture was capable of sustaining political liberty, let alone choosing peace, was a fantasy.

Bush had rightly rejected Arafat – who had been foolishly embraced by President Bill Clinton and Israeli governments led by the Labor Party as a peacemaker – as an unreconstructed terrorist. But although Abbas wore a suit rather than Arafat’s combat fatigues, he was no more interested or capable of ending the conflict with Israel than his predecessor.

While his elevation to the post of president of the P.A. was heralded at the time as a step towards peace, all it really did was to further entrench the corrupt rule of Fatah. Though Hamas branded him as a weakling, Abbas had no intention of making peace. The Islamist terror group won a Palestinian legislative election in 2006 and then organized a blood coup in 2007 that enabled them to seize power in Gaza.

So it was little surprise that when it came time for another Palestinian election, Abbas merely stayed in office without holding another vote. As had been the case many times elsewhere in the Third World in the post-colonial era, Palestinian democracy was a case of one man, one vote, one time. There has never been another election for Palestinian president in either the West Bank or Hamas-controlled Gaza; Abbas is currently serving in the 15th year of the four-year term to which he had been elected.

Had the Palestinians elected a person willing or capable of making peace, they would have grabbed Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, as well a share of Jerusalem. Instead, as Arafat did in 2000 and 2001, Abbas said “no.” He continued to say no when the Obama administration revived negotiations and Netanyahu expressed a willingness to talk about the future of the West Bank. And he continues, to this day, to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn. That means that he won’t signal that the century-long Palestinian war on Zionism was a failure and finally over.

It was the Palestinian elections of 2005 and 2006, as well as the one that wasn’t held in 2009, which made it clear that peace with Israel was impossible until a sea change in their culture produced a leadership that would be serious about peace. Should such a leadership ever emerge, they will, no doubt, find willing Israeli partners.

But that’s something to wish for in the future. For now, Israelis understand that the Palestinians have already decided against peace – no matter what Netanyahu, Gantz or any other potential prime minister will or won’t do. And it is high time that Americans who claim to be experts about the Middle East reconciled themselves to this reality, rather than continue to spin fantasies about peace the Palestinians have already rejected.

 

AN ELECTION OUTCOME REFLECTING THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE

An election outcome reflecting the will of the people
By Isi Leibler
Israel Hayom
Sept 11, 2019

The decision to hold this election was disgraceful and should have been avoided. Indeed, one of the big questions that could be critical for the outcome are the voters who are fed up with our dysfunctional politics and will simply not bother casting their ballots.

Yet ironically, there is a possibility that the outcome could achieve stability and the new government to be formed may even reflect a national consensus.

Although recent opinion polls have proven to be utterly misleading, it would seem that Likud combined with the haredi and right-wing groups but without Yisrael Beytenu will again fail to win sufficient seats to obtain the majority required to form a right-wing government. As nothing Likud could offer would satisfy Avigdor Lieberman’s primary personal goal of politically destroying Benjamin Netanyahu, a repeated deadlock seems inevitable.

Yet, any suggestion of holding a third election is not an option. Besides, the fact is that, apart from supporters of the Joint Arab List and the haredim, most Israelis will vote holding their noses.

Likud supporters will be voting for a government that would include an eccentric like Moshe Feiglin and would support the legalization of marijuana.

Yamina, formerly the New Right, is headed by able and charismatic Ayelet Shaked but will have as one of its leading personalities the coarse, loud-mouthed Bezalel Smotrich, whose views radically contrast with those of religious Zionism’s founders, moderates like Haim-Moshe Shapira and Yosef Burg.

Those traditionally supporting Labor Zionist parties are forced to choose between Amir Peretz’s Labor-Gesher party and the Democratic Union, a merger of Meretz with failed former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party.

Blue and White supporters have two issues to contend with. Many shudder at the prospect of Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid – often referred to as “flapping gums” – becoming prime minister after a rotation of two years with Benny Gantz, unless, as is likely, the partnership is abruptly terminated after the elections.

The other concern is the lackluster pre-election performance of Gantz himself, who is devoid of charisma, contradicts himself, and seems to be a monotonously “nice guy” but hardly the leader Israel requires. This is highlighted with comparisons to Netanyahu who – despite a viciously hostile press, major diplomatic and military challenges, constant legal pressures, and an impending election – remains as cool as a cucumber.

Aside from the extent to which the powers of the Supreme Court to override government decisions are to be limited, there are no major political differences between Likud and Blue and White.

Setting aside the right and left extremes in both parties, there is a consensus that:

* Both major parties have identical security objectives.
* Both agree that an independent Palestinian state at this time would mean creating a terrorist state on our borders that Iran could employ as a launching pad to destroy us.
* There are various streams in both parties regarding applying Israeli law to settlements and, if the US does not resist, possibly annexing and applying sovereignty to Area C.
* This will come to a turning point after the elections when the Trump peace plan is finally revealed.
* Both parties oppose dividing Jerusalem or ceding further territories unless a final settlement is reached.
* Both agree that in the context of the status quo, all efforts should be made to improve the living conditions of Palestinians in the hope that they will ultimately have leaders willing to peacefully coexist.
* In actuality, there are only two issues motivating voters.

The principal issue is “Bibi fatigue.” Those who have it argue that after 13 years, Netanyahu has outlived his political life and it is time for change so he should go. Ten years is usually regarded as the optimal political life of a democratic leader.

The secondary factor is the chance for a government in which the haredim are denied the opportunity to exert even more power and intensify their narrow interests with the Chief Rabbinate imposing even more stringent interpretations of Halachah. Lieberman’s anti-haredi incitement has successfully touched a responsive chord and led to an apparent substantial increase of voters to his party.

But what will happen after the elections when no juggling of political musical chairs with the smaller parties enables a government to be formed?

There is a possibility that, despite all the obstacles facing him, Netanyahu may still lead Likud to achieve a majority. Aside from last-minute electoral gimmicks, which Bibi has often successfully pulled off, many who despise him, when in the ballot box, may think twice before supporting an inarticulate novice to head their government in these troubled times. Even those who detest Netanyahu cannot deny that, whatever his personal weaknesses, he stands out today as a world-class leader enjoying excellent relations with US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders and now forging diplomatic channels with Arab former adversaries now inching closer to open relations with Israel.

In the context of what we face, it would surely be counterproductive to divest ourselves of him at this time when existential threats challenge us and agreements with the Americans and Russians could either have good or disastrous implications for us in the long term.

If Netanyahu is unable to form a right-wing government, he may make a generous offer to Gantz, possibly resulting in a split with Lapid, who would become leader of the opposition.

A national unity government would then be achieved, to the satisfaction of most Israelis. The haredim could remain within the government but they would no longer hold the balance of power and thus would not be in a position to veto government initiatives.

Even if politically victorious, Netanyahu will still face legal charges, but allowing for the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, which has not been the case with the scurrilous media campaign against him, the court may face a tough and lengthy battle to convict him.

In the alternative scenario should Likud not top the polls, there will be pressure from all sides, including his own party, for Netanyahu to step down and for a national unity government, with or without the haredim, to be formed, headed in rotation by Gantz and a new Likud leader.

Although this election is somewhat like a lottery, voters should try to set aside their personal feelings and, even if it means holding their noses, support the party whose leader they feel will be best equipped to head our nation over the crucial year facing us. Our choice could have existential repercussions on the nation.

 

ISRAEL’S ELECTION IS FULL OF WILD CARDS

Israel’s Election Is Full of Wild Cards
The result could help bridge the religious-secular divide. Or it could end the Netanyahu era.
By Jonathan Kolatch
Wall Street Journal
Sept. 17, 2019

Israel’s repeat election Tuesday may reinforce the dominance of the right – and begin to bridge the divide between religious and secular Jews that has plagued Israel since the state was established. But polls are tight. If the vote swings left, it will likely spell the end of the Benjamin Netanyahu era.

With 65 of 120 Knesset members recommending him for a fifth term as prime minister, the April election should have provided Mr. Netanyahu a clear path to form a government. Snatching headlines for the negotiation’s breakdown was the refusal of Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party won five seats, to back Mr. Netanyahu unless a bill requiring ultra-Orthodox students to serve in the military was passed without revision.

Yet the ultimate cause of the breakdown was a miscalculated campaign by the breakaway New Right party, powered by former Education Minister Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Their new party ended up 0.03% of the vote short of the 3.25% minimum to qualify for the Knesset. With 1,400 more votes, they would have won four seats, giving Mr. Netanyahu a majority – without Mr. Lieberman – and a repeat election would have been unnecessary.

Instead of focusing on their achievements as ministers, Mr. Bennett and Ms. Shaked opted for Madison Avenue glitz. Ms. Shaked, 43, a secular Jewish woman with a respect for tradition, appeared in a sexy campaign ad in which she scented herself with a fragrance called “Fascism,” parodying critics of her judicial reforms. Her clincher: “Smells like democracy to me.” Mr. Bennett overplayed his security credentials and mounted a spot with a perched dove in hand, conveying the message that the road to peace is through strength.

Given a second chance, Mr. Bennett and Ms. Shaked realigned with their old nationalist-religious allies to form a hybrid party called Yamina (To the Right) that melds traditional Judaism with allowance for secularists. Yamina aims for 10 seats in the next Knesset, enough to demand choice cabinet portfolios. Polls have Yamina within striking distance.

Yamina will likely show new flexibility on matters of religion and state. Rabbi Rafi Peretz, now education minister and No. 2 on the Yamina slate, has backtracked from his stance encouraging “conversion therapy” to reverse homosexuality. Ms. Shaked, who tops the slate, would demand the justice ministry and push for reduced power for Israel’s left-leaning Supreme Court. Some see her as a future prime minister.

Counterintuitively, the major obstacle to Yamina’s ascent is Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud, which, as in April, is trying to sap as many votes from other right-wing parties as possible. With Likud as top vote-getter, Mr. Netanyahu would merit first crack at forming the next coalition. Former army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz ‘s centrist Blue and White Party, Likud’s principal rival, is likewise attempting to beat down potential partners on its left.

To the final campaign bell, Mr. Netanyahu has evinced a visceral coolness toward Ms. Shaked, instigated heavily by his wife, Sara. The prime minister’s message to Likud campaigners is that if Yamina gets 10 seats, Ms. Shaked won’t recommend Mr. Netanyahu to form the next government. In retort, Yamina reiterates its support for Mr. Netanyahu, and hints at favoring immunity from prosecution on corruption charges for the prime minister.

The wildest card in the revote is Mr. Lieberman, the slippery-tongued politician who pulled the rug from under Mr. Netanyahu’s victory in April. Flush with power and up in the polls, he has shifted left, demanding a unity government comprised of his own party, Likud and Blue and White. Such a configuration wouldn’t sit well with Likud’s hawks.

Maneuvering left and right at once, Mr. Netanyahu engineered a deal whereby the fringe ultranationalist Zehut (Identity) party dropped out of the election in return for a cabinet seat for its leader, Moshe Feiglin. Mr. Netanyahu’s hope is that Mr. Feiglin’s withdrawal will send otherwise wasted Zehut votes to the Likud. No guarantee, but if it works, those two or three extra Knesset seats would bring Mr. Netanyahu closer to the 61 seats he needs – without Mr. Lieberman.

But complexity begets complexity. Mr. Feiglin’s withdrawal lifted the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Might) party, steeped in the extremist philosophy of American émigré Meir Kahane (1932-90). Otzma may now reach the 3.25% threshold to enter the Knesset – more potential votes for the right, fewer for Likud. On election eve, Mr. Netanyahu insisted in a Facebook broadcast that Otzma will fall short of the threshold, begging the votes for Likud.

During this campaign, Mr. Netanyahu has missed no beat. He has restated his intention to apply Israeli sovereignty to Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria. Against advice from his attorney general, Mr. Netanyahu initiated a failed attempt to pass a law allowing cameras in election precincts. He announced discovery of a second Iranian nuclear site. Reinforcing his international luster, he met Prime Ministers Narendra Modi in New Delhi, Boris Johnson in London and Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. Blue and White mocked him as “Benjamin of Tudela,” a medieval Jewish wanderer. The prime minister’s campaign strategy is to dominate the agenda and divert discussion from pending legal vulnerability and escalating hostilities in Gaza. But a post on his personal Facebook page warning that “The Arabs want to annihilate us all” was withdrawn as going too far.

This isn’t a betting man’s election. Only Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud has the potential to cobble together a 61-seat coalition with like-thinking partners. If Likud fails, an unstable minority government could emerge with tacit support of anti-Zionist Arab Joint List. Mr. Lieberman could zigzag back to Likud. Knesset members on the left could defect. Likud and Blue and White could form a unity government. Blue and White could drop its policy of having only secular partners and court the ultrareligious parties. Or a Likud majority could decide to end the Netanyahu era by appointing another Likud member to form a government.

President Reuven Rivlin, who has broad oversight over the coalition-formation process, has made clear that he will do everything in his power to move the process to conclusion. Almost everyone agrees Israel is in no mood for a third election.

 

ISRAELI LEADER PINS ELECTION BID ON SECURITY RECORD

Israeli Leader Pins Election Bid on Security Record
Netanyahu heads into an election Tuesday with his record of protecting Israel under fire
By Felicia Schwartz
The Wall Street Journal
Sept. 16, 2019

Underpinning his pitch: Many Israelis say they have rarely, if ever, felt safer than they have during Mr. Netanyahu’s last decade in power. A wave of suicide bombings and street stabbings, known as the second Palestinian intifada, had largely subsided when Mr. Netanyahu took office in 2009. The violence has generally been kept at bay, though Israel and Gaza have fought three wars since then.

“Security is his strong suit,” said Shalom Lipner, who worked for several Israeli prime ministers including Mr. Netanyahu and is now with the nonpartisan Atlantic Council. “His luck may have run out now, but that’s what kept him ticking along.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, is running neck and neck in opinion polls with Blue and White, a new centrist party led by three former heads of the Israeli military. Blue and White’s leader, Benny Gantz, has sought to neutralize Mr. Netanyahu’s advantage on security matters and point to voter fatigue with the country’s longest-serving premier.

In particular, Mr. Gantz has highlighted the prime minister’s policies on Gaza, where Hamas, a group labeled as terrorist by Israel and the U.S., is in power. Hamas has periodically launched missiles into Israel for more than a year, often prompting Israeli airstrikes.

Mr. Gantz, a former general, says a dramatic military operation could be necessary to uproot Hamas once and for all. The former Israeli army chief of staff says Mr. Netanyahu has gone soft, essentially buying Hamas off by allowing Qatar to send tens of millions of dollars into Gaza.

“We will not accept any violation of our sovereignty. Not a missile, not a kite, not a rocket. We will re-establish deterrence,” Mr. Gantz said Tuesday at an event in northern Israel.

The threat from Hamas was underlined last week when Mr. Netanyahu was forced to exit a campaign event and seek refuge in a bomb shelter in Ashdod after Gaza militants fired rockets toward the seaside city.

Mr. Gantz and the other Blue and White ex-generals, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, used similar arguments against Mr. Netanyahu in a failed election bid in April. They got another shot with the help of another security-minded politician, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who defected from Mr. Netanyahu’s camp and forced another election.

Mr. Lieberman’s motivation was to force out of power religious parties that are allied with Mr. Netanyahu, but he, too, has slammed the prime minister’s security record.

“What’s happening here is the capitulation of the prime minister to terror from the Gaza Strip,” Mr. Lieberman said Thursday on Israel’s Army Radio.

Mr. Netanyahu allowed the Qatari aid to Gaza as part of efforts to seek a cease-fire with Hamas mediated by Egypt and the United Nations. He says he has taken a measured approach with Hamas, repeatedly launching strikes on Gaza and preparing for a fourth war with the group while working to prolong a fragile calm since 2014.

Mr. Netanyahu said Friday that Israel could launch an operation in Gaza “at any moment, including four days before the elections.”

“Israeli citizens know well that I operate responsibly and with consideration and we’ll start an operation when the moment is most right,” he told Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster.

Analysts say Mr. Netanyahu is trying to burnish his security credentials not only to thwart Mr. Gantz, a centrist, but also to prevent voters from choosing parties to the right of Likud.

Right-wing voters see Mr. Netanyahu’s security record as a strength. “It’s not just an image. It is his record,” said Jason Pearlman, a former aide to several right-wing politicians and now an independent consultant. He noted Mr. Gantz headed the army during the last war in Gaza while Mr. Netanyahu was in power and “doesn’t have much to offer as an alternative.”

The broadsides from Blue and White and other parties to Mr. Netanyahu’s right have helped make his position more tenuous with voters, who rank security as the most important issue in the election. While Mr. Netanyahu faces a hearing for possible corruption charges in October, security issues have been central in this do-over election.

The leader has filled his schedule with security-focused events. He traveled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to discuss avoiding accidents as Israel steps up its military activities in the Mideast. Last week, he made a last-minute visit to London to discuss Iran with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

He described his pledge to annex the Jordan Valley earlier this week as an effort to give Israel a permanent secure Eastern border. It was widely viewed as an 11th-hour bid to draw right-wing voters, though outside Israel it drew rebukes from the Arab world and even Russia.

In one campaign ad, Mr. Netanyahu played the part of lifeguard, protecting Israelis on the beach from security threats and urging swimmers from a lifeguard tower to “stay to the right, it’s much safer.”

Some former officials say there are flaws in Mr. Netanyahu’s tough image. Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser to Mr. Netanyahu who is now critical of him, said the premier hasn’t acted decisively to confront security challenges.

“This is an attitude that is clearly not in character with the tough hard-nosed Netanyahu that would never negotiate with terrorists or deal with Hamas,” Mr. Arad said. “The ultimate is the results, and in the results, he’s also failed to act and lost certain battles.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to confront Iran have won him widespread support. But that record also faced a setback after Mr. Trump fired national security adviser John Bolton, who favored a tough line on Iran.

Mr. Netanyahu says he is working closely with the Trump administration, saying in a radio interview that voters must decide: “Who will manage the negotiations and contacts with Trump on [Iran]?”

 

THE ONE THING NO ISRAELI WANTS TO DISCUSS

The One Thing No Israeli Wants to Discuss
By Matti Friedman
The New York Times
Sept. 10, 2019

JERUSALEM – When trying to understand Israel’s election on Sept. 17, the second in the space of six months, you can easily get lost in the details – corruption charges, coalition wrangling, bickering between left and right. But the best explainer might be a small film that you’re unlikely to see about something that people here prefer not to discuss.

The opening scene of “Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive,” which just won the prize for best first feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival, catches the main character grimacing as he overhears a glib tour guide. When she describes downtown Jerusalem to her group as “beautiful,” the “center of night life and food for the young generation,” Ronen, an earnest man in his late 30s, interrupts.

“Don’t believe her,” he tells the tourists in Hebrew-accented English. “You see this market? Fifteen years ago it was a war zone. Next to my high school there was a terror attack. Next to the university there was a terror attack. First time I made sex – terror attack.” One of the tourists sidles over, interested. “Yes,” Ronen tells her, “we had to stop.”

No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. Much of what you see here in 2019 is the aftermath of that time, and every election since has been held in its shadow. The attacks, which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, ended hopes for a negotiated peace and destroyed the left, which was in power when the wave began. Any sympathy that the Israeli majority had toward Palestinians evaporated.

More than any other single development, that period explains the durability of Benjamin Netanyahu, which outsiders sometimes struggle to understand. Simply put, in the decade before Mr. Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied us in public places. There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case. Next to that fact, all other issues pale. Whatever credit the prime minister really deserves for the change, for many voters it’s a good enough reason to keep him in power on Sept. 17.

Given the centrality of those years, it’s striking how seldom they actually come up in conversation. Along Jaffa Road, the hardest-hit street (and the setting for “Born in Jerusalem”), the traces have become nearly invisible. The Sbarro pizzeria where in 2001 a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 people, including seven children and a pregnant woman, is now a bakery with a different name. It’s a few paces from where I’m writing these lines, and it’s full of customers, many of whom probably don’t know what happened there.

That’s what “Born in Jerusalem” is about. Not politics, but the repression of personal memory that has allowed us to move on while leaving an unsettling sense of missing time.

In another scene in the film, Ronen and his love interest, a Jerusalemite named Asia, discuss those years, which she can call only “the time of the attacks.” It allows him to point out the period’s strangest feature, which is that it doesn’t have a name. The Palestinians called it the “second intifada,” and Israelis euphemized it as “the situation.”

It isn’t officially considered a war, even though it killed more Israelis than the Six-Day War of 1967. And no one can say exactly when it began or ended. The attacks picked up in the mid-1990s, as Israel pursued a peace deal and ceded land, but the worst came between 2000 and 2004. Though other forms of violence persist, the last Israeli fatality in a Palestinian suicide bombing was in 2008.

This repression of memory has helped the Palestinian leadership pretend that none of it ever happened, and few of the foreign journalists covering the country right now were here at the time. Why are moderate Israelis afraid to pull out of the West Bank? Why has the once-dominant left become a meager parliamentary remnant? Why is there a separation barrier? Why is the word “peace” pronounced with sarcasm while the word “security” carries a kind of supernatural weight? If you weren’t in Israel then and can’t access the national subconscious now, the answer will be elusive.

The film’s Ronen is the alter ego of Yossi Atia, 39, who plays him and wrote and co-directed the film. Mr. Atia, like me, lived through those years in Jerusalem as a college student. His character can’t bear the silence, or the feeling that he’s crazy for remembering, so he starts leading sightseeing tours of his ownin the heart of the city: the Sbarro pizzeria, the place where two bombers exploded together near Zion Square, the vegetable market that got hit again and again.

He hands tourists old Nokia cellphones and has them simulate one of the period’s key rituals: the calls we used to make after attacks to tell our families we were O.K. It’s unclear if this is meant as education for the people he’s showing around, or therapy for him. He explains the odd social calculations that would follow an attack: If eight people, say, had just been killed on a bus, could you go out with a friend for a drink that evening? (Yes.) What if it was 12 people in a cafe? Could you go on a date? (No.) Ronen has an actual chart.

I remember those quandaries of terror etiquette, just as I remember standing at a bus stop when I heard a suicide bomber blow himself up and murder 11 people one street over, at Café Moment. My mother passed through the Nahariya train station right before a suicide bomber struck there, and my sister was in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University campus when Palestinians blew up a different cafeteria. I’ve got many more memories like that, all of them standard for the time.

When I spoke to Mr. Atia, he said he thought Israelis avoid the subject for an obvious reason: It’s too awful. Because the carnage wasn’t on a distant battlefield or limited to soldiers, the experience encompassed the whole society, and you don’t forget images or fear like that even if you’ve forced it all down to the murkiest layers of your brain. “It wasn’t a military war, it was a civil war, and the victims were civilians,” he said. His character, Ronen, wants to talk about it, and that makes him strange: “No one wants to listen.”

Mr. Atia’s movie doesn’t trade in any discernible anger at the Palestinians or anyone else, even when Ronen demonstrates how the Sbarro bomber rigged his explosives inside a guitar case. The approach is a kind of light surrealism. The closest thing to political comment comes when he points out that the memorial plaques from the bombings of the 1990s, the years of the peace process, followed the victims’ names with the traditional Jewish phrase “May their memories be blessed.” By the early aughts it had changed to a different phrase drawn from tradition: “May God avenge their blood.”

For a viewer who remembers that time, much of the movie’s resonance comes from the contrast between what Ronen describes on his tours and the oblivious city around him today. Jaffa Road, which was bleak and deserted at the worst moments, was given a face-lift and a new light-rail line, and is now crowded with pedestrians, lively and unrecognizable. The events Ronen describes to his tourists seem hard to believe.

But he knows they happened, and so does the Israeli electorate. As a psychiatrist might tell us, the deeper something is repressed, the more power it exerts. So when Mr. Netanyahu declares in an election ad that “in the stormy Mideastern sea we’ve proven that we can keep Israel an island of stability and safety,” we all know what he means, even if we don’t vote for him. That’s his strongest card, and if he wins, that will be why. The scenario we’re afraid of is clear even if it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one.

 

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Annabelle Weidenfeld

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