The Unsinkable Bibi Netanyahu

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By:Eugene Girin | March 19, 2015

The recent Israeli Knesset elections surprised the world by returning Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party to power. The resounding win put Netanyahu on the path to becoming the longest serving PM in Israeli history and caused some consternation and disappointment both in the White House and Brussels.

There are two main reasons for Bibi's unexpected win. Demographics and plain old chutzpah. The most hawkish groups in Israel are the Sephardic Jews whose ancestors fled Muslim countries such as Morocco, Yemen, and Egypt, and Russian Jews. While some Sephardic Jews voted for the sectarian, ultra-Orthodox Shas party, notorious for its parasitic approach to Israel's welfare state and unprincipled position on nearly every issue, and some Russian Jews voted for Avigdor Liberman's Israel Beytenu (Our Home is Israel) rightwing Russian-dominated party, most Sephardic and Russian Jews voted for Likud. All of the relatives and friends that I spoke to Israel voted for Netanyahu, except for a combat veteran of the Lebanese security zone who now works as an engineer in Haifa. He voted for Naftali Bennett's small rightwing, settler-based Jewish Home, but still preferred to see Bibi as PM.

The second, perhaps more important reason for Bibi's win is his humiliation of Barack Obama achieved with the help of John Boehner and congressional Republicans. By coming to Washington uninvited and against the wishes of the White House and then roundly bashing Obama's approach to Iran and its nuclear program, Bibi put on a winning performance for his tough, rightwing settler-Sephardic-Russian base. A shrewd and ruthless political operator like Bibi knew that by smacking Barack Obama around, he would come across both as a indomitable strongman and a smart politician. A gamble that paid off enormously.

What kind of governing coalition can one expect after Netanyahu's triumph? There are several options. First, there is the more centrist, secular coalition. Likud (30 seats) would join with Liberman's (6 seats) and Bennett's (8 seats) parties on its right flank to cement the support of settlers and Russians. Then it would need the support of the two secular liberal parties, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid (11 seats) and Moshe Kahlon's dark horse, upstart Kulanu (10 seats). Altogether, this would give Netanyahu a comfortable 65/120 seats with which to govern. By keeping out the political forces of hidebound, parasitic ultra-Orthodoxy such as Shas and UTJ, Netanyahu would be able to address such issues as the introduction of non-religious marriage to Israel and the drafting of yeshiva students into the army. On the other hand, Lapid and Kahlon are to the left of Netanyahu on foreign policy and could be clamoring for at least, an unofficial understanding with the Palestinians, which could mean a settlement building freeze. This would greatly irk Netanyahu and his rightwing base, since he already promised not to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The second coalition option would be a government, which included both the rightwing Our Home is Israel and Jewish Home parties with the Likud for a total of 44 seats. Then, the two ultra-Orthodox party, Shas (7 seats) and United Torah Judaism (the less hawkish, Ashkenazi version of Shas) with its 6 seats would come into the government.  To these 57 seats, could be added the 10 seats of Kulanu, which is not aggressively secular like Yesh Atid and is more desperate for a place in the government. This coalition would cement the pro-ultra-Orthodox status quo of past decades and without Lapid's moderating presence, would allow Netanyahu to continue the policies of his past term.

In any case, one thing is just about certain. There will be no final settlement with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future, something that most Israelis are fine with. The conflict will be frozen, with occasional flareups here and there. As for Bibi's relationship with the White House, Obama got the message loud and clear and with his lame duck year fast approaching, he will not want to jeopardize the chances of the Democratic candidate by taking on Bibi.  



3/19/2015 03:24 PM

  Mr. Girin, your brief description of the political situation in Israel makes me wish that we Americans had options other than one party, Republikrat rule...

Dan Hayes
Rego Park
3/19/2015 07:05 PM

  As made clear in this blog, Bibi's win was partly made possible by his end run in America with the connivance of the majority of its congress. It has always amazed me of the resistance (little though it may have been in real terms) that Obama has put up to the American pro-Israeli juggernaut. Wasn't he aware of the power of the Israeli lobby in this country? (If he hasn't learned his lesson by now he never will!) Too bad there isn't such formidable and resourceful resistance by the American congress to some of Obama's other policies.

Harry Heller
San Francisco
3/20/2015 08:35 AM

  Mr. Girin should expand on his assertion of ultra-orthodox "parasitism". I believe they enjoy some tax advantages, and exemption from the draft, but is there anything else? Why "parasite"? Also, speaking of demographics, don't the ultra-orthodox have the largest families? In a glorious ethnostate like Israel (or perhaps someday, many European nations), those who have the most children might be called the biggest "contributors", the real "parasites" on the collective nation being those who fail in their reproductive duty. Mussolini awarded meritorious commendations to those women who produced the most future soldiers for the fascist state. In places where tribal thinking still prevails, such a view makes perfect sense.

Eugene Girin
3/20/2015 03:39 PM

  Mr. Heller, Great suggestion. The ultra-Orthodox refuse to serve in the army or perform non-military national service (i.e. volunteering in nursing homes, hospitals, etc) on behalf of their fellow Jewish Israelis. Many of them just want to take as many welfare state benefits from the Israeli government as they could yet demand to have exclusive control over religious questions such as conversion and marriage. The ultra-Orthodox politicians of Shas and UTJ are also notoriously unprincipled when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians - Shas supported the Oslo Process when Rabin promised them benefits and ministerial positions. Their "reproductive duty" is worthless to the national interest of Israel. Their children refuse to integrate into Israeli society, deny Israel's legitimacy, and contribute basically nothing. Having said all this, the healthiest ethno-nationalist segment of Israeli society are the religious Zionists.

Harry Heller
San Francisco
3/20/2015 11:03 PM

  Mr. Girin: Thank you for your response. But I find that I am even more confused. Could you perhaps write an entire post sometime analyzing the various groupings within Israeli society? I know very little, and would find it most interesting. For example, I did not know there was a distinction between the "ultra-orthodox" and the "religious Zionists" (until two minutes ago, I would have ignorantly assumed they were the same people!). What is Netanyahu? Are the "ultra-orthodox" like the Hasids in New York? And what do you mean by "deny Israel's legitimacy"? Please assume your readers are not knowledgeable about Israel.


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