Alon Ben-Meir: Time to dump Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to call for an early election, scheduled to take place on April 9, was really nothing short of another political stunt that Netanyahu has masterfully learned to employ when the time is right and he is reasonably assured of another victory. One would think, however, that after 10 continuous years in power he would relinquish his role as the leader of the Likud party and leave the political scene with some dignity, especially now that he may well be indicted on at least three counts.
What has allowed Netanyahu to navigate through the Israeli political morass is the very political system that encourages division, intense personal rivalry, and self-interest, which often is placed above the party or national interests.
Although Israel is a democracy, its democratic political system has been steadily eroding. At any point in time, there are at least 10 political parties in the Knesset. Currently the Netanyahu coalition is composed of five parties, there are six in the opposition, and five more parties have just been formed in advance of the April elections.
Every leader of these parties believes that he or she is the most qualified to become the prime minister and can lead the country to peace and prosperity. The fact, however, is that no current nor newly-established party has yet to produce a framework for a peace agreement with the Palestinians in the context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, which is fundamental to Israel’s future prosperity and security.
Obviously, diverse political and ideological views are and should be welcome under any circumstances. Despite the similarities in the political/ideological views of the Israeli political parties from the left, and similarly among the parties from the center, right, and the religious parties, each party within these political groupings insists on maintaining their “unique social and political agendas” and thereby their independence. Thus, the plethora of parties made it impossible for any single party to garner an outright majority, ending with the establishment of a coalition government led by the leader of the largest party.
As a result, all coalition governments over the years have had to compromise on many critical issues. Following intense negotiations about the terms of the coalition, they eventually and frequently settle on the lowest common denominator. This has ill-served even the most critical issues facing the nation, especially the conflict with the Palestinians.
In a similar vein, the number of civil society organizations dedicated to promoting Israel’s well-being and peace has mushroomed to over 120. Each of these organizations adopted a worthy cause, largely related to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict along with socio-political issues of concerns. They have never, however, appreciated the importance of uniting and creating a powerful movement that could impact the national political discourse.
I had an opportunity to meet with several heads of these groups, and without fail, even though they share very similar goals, every single representative strongly suggested that their own specific angle and emphasis on what ought to be done is the only way.
I emerged from these meetings convinced that these organizations differ only in nuance and, just like the political parties, each founder of these organizations wants to be the leader and is unwilling to share his/her leadership role with others. The failure of these civil organizations to coalesce around one political movement deprived them of the power that a united front can project as a national movement to be reckoned with.
Regardless of what party wins the relative majority in the upcoming election, little is likely to change in the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the years, successive Israeli governments were engaged in a deliberate public narrative that denounced the Palestinians and proclaimed that they cannot be trusted because they are committed to Israel’s destruction.
The Palestinians themselves have also been engaged in an adversarial narrative against Israel and justify it because of the occupation. And while there is a strong element within the Palestinian community that seeks the destruction of Israel, there is no doubt that the vast majority want to end the conflict and live in a state of their own, side-by-side Israel in peace and security.
Nevertheless, a growing number of Israelis who have been persuaded by this constant adversarial narrative championed by Netanyahu, who stated that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch, believe there is little or no prospect for real peace with the Palestinians. Moreover, Netanyahu’s fear mongering and skillful amplification of the Iranian threat pushed the Palestinian conflict to the back burner.
Thus, the lack of urgency by the government to make peace produced public complacency and disillusionment with the political parties. What made matters worse is that a steadily growing number of Israelis are moving to the right-of-center. Even the opposition parties, who have been advocating Israeli-Palestinian peace, are now reluctant to speak vociferously about the need to end the occupation, fearful of being branded as traitors.
Recent polls taken in Israel suggest that Netanyahu may still win a relative majority and form the next Israeli government. Such an outcome will be disastrous for Israel because it would simply mean that there will not be peace with the Palestinians. Israel will face a growing danger because the status quo is unsustainable and potentially explosive, and the continuing conflict only encourages Iran to continue to instigate extremist Palestinians, including some elements of Hamas, to harass Israel and deprive it from living in peace and stability.
Although it is unlikely that the old and new parties from the left and left-of-center will coalesce around one leader who can seriously challenge Netanyahu and his party, at minimum they should agree on a joint platform that offers a road map for peace with the Palestinians. Indeed, Israel is in desperate need of a new, visionary, courageous, articulate, and honest leader who would commit to and remain relentless in the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The former chief of the Israel Defense Forces, Benny Gantz, who has just formed his own party—Resilience for Israel—may well succeed in giving Netanyahu a run for his money, provided that other left and centrist parties support him. The question is, will the leaders of these parties for once put the national interest above their party and their lust for power?
Perhaps they should remember that despite Israel’s miraculous achievements in science, technology, medicine, economic development, agronomy, military prowess, and even space exploration, its destiny rests on peace.
The upcoming parliamentary election offers Israelis a historic opportunity to rid themselves of the revisionist, nationalist, and blindly zealous leaders like Netanyahu who have steered Israel astray and subjected it to the ominous danger of losing its democratic principles and its Jewish national identity.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Online at www.alonben-meir.com.