Bibi could win with risky gamble, but US and Israel could lose

Bibi could win with risky gamble, but US and Israel could lose
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For months, Israel’s pundits predicted that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu once again would emerge the victor in the country’s parliamentary elections, to be held April 9. Then, just as the period for parties to sign coalition agreements was about to end, Netanyahu’s two leading challengers, Benny Gantz, former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, and former television broadcaster Yair Lapid, signed an agreement to merge Gantz’s newly-formed Israel Resilience Party with Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) Party into a new party called Blue and White. Joining the two party leaders were two other former IDF chiefs of staff, Bogie Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi.

The arrangement thrust the new party ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud in pre-election polling and left the prime minister fearful that his party would not win the largest number of seats in the next Knesset, or parliament. Were that the case, he would not be asked to lead a coalition to form the next government. As a result, and spurred on by hard-right political activists and media pundits, Netanyahu convinced two small, right-wing parties — both in danger of failing to reach the 3.25 percent threshold for eligibility to sit in the Knesset — to join forces with each other. Moreover, once the election was over, he promised, they would combine with his own party to help form a new parliamentary majority, with himself once again as prime minister.

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Netanyahu also promised one of the parties — the ultra-nationalist, settler-backed Jewish Home — seats in the next government and a place for one of its members on Likud’s own list.

None of this would seem out of the ordinary in the hurly-burly of Israeli politics were it not for the fact that the other of those small parties is the far-right extremist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). Otzma is a direct offshoot of the late Meir Kahane’s radical, racist Kach party, which Israel banned from political activity and branded a terrorist organization; the European Union and the United States quickly followed suit. Kahane’s Kach advocated revoking the citizenship of Israel’s Arab population, expelling all Arabs from the country and having them resettled in other Arab lands. His acolytes continue to revere both him and his policies. One of their leaders has called for separate beaches for Arabs and Israelis, a sign of apartheid if ever there was one, until the relocation process is complete.

For years, Netanyahu successfully has convinced the Israeli public that he is the only political leader who could be trusted to guarantee Israel’s security. Having to face a coalition that includes three respected former generals so fundamentally changed the prime minister’s

calculus that he had to reach out to a group that hitherto was politically untouchable. Ironically, should he return as prime minister once again, Netanyahu’s political desperation likely will undermine that very Israeli security that he has boasted of assuring.

Netanyahu repeatedly has pointed to his success in working with the Gulf Arabs in the face of a common Iranian threat. He also has pinned his hopes on an American Middle East peace

plan that will involve those states yet avoid granting the Palestinians a state of their own. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has made it clear that, absent a peace agreement with the Palestinians, there could be no formal relations between his country and Israel. A Netanyahu government that has the backing, if not the participation, of the extremists of Otzma is certain to further alienate the Saudis and the other Gulf states that currently maintain informal relations with Jerusalem.

Renewed friction between Israel and the Arabs is the last thing Washington needs. The Trump administration’s as yet unreleased peace plan would not be the only casualty of an Israeli rupture with the Gulf States. Far worse would be the likely collapse of the Israeli-Gulf Arab coalition against Iran, which Tehran no doubt would exploit with a new charm offensive aimed especially at Riyadh. With Saudi Arabia already the subject of intense criticism in Congress, a rapprochement between the two states is not out of the question. And that would undermine one of the only coherent elements of American Middle East policy.

Bibi Netanyahu has long been viewed as a clever politician. This time, however, by aligning himself with unreconstructed racists, should he once again lead a new governing coalition, the implications for Israeli security — and American interests — may prove that he acted too clever by half.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.