Four years later, Netanyahu has hardly changed his tune. In the buildup to Tuesday’s parliamentary elections, Netanyahu and his allies repeatedly declared that a vote for the opposition would be a vote for Israel’s minority Arab population. And on Saturday, in a bid to outmaneuver parties to his right, Netanyahu said that a future government under his control would “move to the next stage” and consider “imposing Israeli sovereignty” on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Critics immediately decried the prospect of the Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands — an act that would be condemned by the vast majority of the international community, which views the settlements themselves as illegal. It would shovel more dirt into the grave of the “two-state solution,” the now-moribund quest for an independent Palestinian state that yet remains an article of faith for successive U.S. administrations. And it could finally shift the global focus away from the absence of a Palestinian state to the absence of democratic rights for millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.
These are outcomes that some of Israel’s boosters in Washington’s foreign policy establishment desperately want to avoid. But for Netanyahu, it’s good domestic politics.
Few in his ruling Likud party nor anyone in the parties further to its right want to see a Palestinian state emerge on lands currently occupied by Israel. Election ads put out by right-wing parties underscored their hard-line politics: In one instance, a leading politician lectured an actual dove about how might makes right; in another, a prominent minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet spritzed herself with a perfume labeled “fascism” — a supposedly ironic nod to her opponents’ attacks — and argued it “smells like democracy.”
Opinion polls this weekend showed a right-wing bloc, anchored by Likud, ahead of an alliance of centrist and center-left parties. If Likud does well, or if enough other right-wing parties are able to cross the 3.5 percent vote threshold to enter parliament, Netanyahu could secure a mandate that would make him the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history.
Victory would be testament to Netanyahu’s political savvy. “Netanyahu’s greatest achievement is keeping his base disgruntled and dissatisfied and angry despite Likud having been in power for three-quarters of the last four decades,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of a critically acclaimed recent biography of the prime minister, to my colleagues. “Netanyahu’s biggest political asset is that he knows how to latch onto his voters’ phobias and keep them alive.”
Moreover, Netanyahu would have done so while staring down the looming possibility of indictment on allegations of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Even as the evidence of his and his family’s wrongdoings has piled up in the media and the courts, the Israeli prime minister has snarled defiance, declaiming enemies within the state and in the “leftist” media. Restored to power, my colleagues reported, Netanyahu would be in “a stronger position to influence the time frame of the corruption investigations and could even push for legislation to prevent charges being pursued against a sitting prime minister.”
But Netanyahu would also owe thanks to President Trump. Since he took office, Israel has extracted a series of concessions from Trump that were unthinkable in previous administrations: He unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, shifted the U.S. Embassy there while closing an office that catered to Palestinians, cut vital aid to Palestinian programs and last month brushed aside the outrage of U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere as he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights.
Ahead of Tuesday’s election, Netanyahu claimed these decisions as part of his political legacy. “They cannot really stand up to the tremendous achievements I have made over the last decade,” Netanyahu said of his opponents Sunday on Israeli radio. “I turned the state of Israel into a global power.”
There’s the possibility that Netanyahu’s talk of annexation is merely a political stunt that he will backtrack from after the election. “The only reason it’s even credible now is because of what he’s been able to coordinate with Trump,” Shalom Lipner, a former Israeli official now at the Atlantic Council in Washington, told the New York Times. “Maybe he can actually get Trump to sign off on that as well. But if it became clear it’s not in the cards right now, then he can just say, ‘Sorry, I can’t swing it. Conditions change.’”
But others point to Netanyahu’s long history of sabotaging the two-state solution as a sign of a broader agenda that has both undermined hope for an independent Palestine while doing nothing to politically enfranchise millions of Palestinians living as second-class citizens under Israeli occupation. “Anyone inclined to think that this is just electioneering should note that this is the actual policy that Netanyahu has been pursuing on the ground for the past ten years,” wrote Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in a tweet.
Palestinian officials warned that Israel would have to reckon with what comes next after its annexations. “If Netanyahu wants to declare Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, then you know he has to face a real problem, the presence of 4.5 million Palestinians, what to do with them,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told the Associated Press, referring to the combined Palestinian population of the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
In a column last month for The Washington Post, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued that “any annexations in the West Bank would doom” the Trump administration’s already much-maligned Middle East peace plan, making it politically impossible for Arab leaders to accept any further concessions to the Israelis. The authors added that it also would endanger “Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state,” since the Palestinians “are sure to make ‘one person, one vote’ their mantra, and sooner or later, that will resonate here and elsewhere.”
Some would say that reckoning is long overdue. “Together with the systemic overtaking of lands and the imposition of restrictions on freedom of movement, the denial of political rights was one of the cornerstones of apartheid South Africa,” wrote Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem, a leftist Israeli human rights organization. “That country, too, considered itself a democracy.”
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