Opinion: Don′t hold out hope for change in Israel | Opinion | DW | 09.04.2019
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Opinion: Don't hold out hope for change in Israel

Israel's election is slated to be a tight race between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. No matter who wins, there is little reason to believe that a new era is on the horizon, says DW's Peter Philipp.

Pundits in Israel agree: Never before has the outcome of an election been so difficult to predict.

In the final three days before voters go to the ballot boxes, it is forbidden to publish polling data. Uncertainty has been steadily growing for days over what Tuesday's elections will bring the country, the region and the world. The last poll released ahead of the vote put the two leading candidates, ex-military chief Benny Gantz and incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on relatively equal footing.

Finding coalition partners a must

Unpredictability has been the defining factor in this election campaign. Netanyahu's Likud party rules in a coalition with several small nationalist and Orthodox religious parties. They all have to achieve the 3.25 percent support threshold in order to qualify as coalition partners again for Likud.

Read more: Is Israel ready for fundamental political change?

The same applies to the other side: Gantz's new Blue and White party, which has been demonized by Netanyahu as a "left-wing danger," is also projected to fall short of an outright majority, but many of the smaller parties it will need as coalition partners could struggle to achieve 3.25 percent support.

Peter Philipp (DW)

Peter Philipp previously worked as a Middle East correspondent in Israel

It is the smaller parties that will likely determine the final balance of power in Israel's 120-seat Knesset. For those that fail to achieve 3.25 percent support, their mandates are divided among the other parties.

The Blue and White party has ruled out a coalition with either of the two Israeli-Arab parties that are represented in the Knesset. This is one of the clearest indications of just how little daylight there is between Gantz's party and Netanyahu's right-wing Likud.

The parties have not seriously addressed any real political or ideological differences during the campaign. Netanyahu mocked and insulted his opponents, labeling them as a danger to Israel. Gantz has not only been accused of adultery, but rumors also circulated that Iran hacked his mobile phone and obtained secret information.

As this was unfolding, Netanyahu used his office to project himself as a statesman who works with big players in Washington and Moscow and show that with him, the fate of the country is in good hands.

US President Donald Trump has been making this particularly easy for the prime minister. For some time, Trump was coordinating his policy on Iran with Netanyahu, he relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem and — just in time for the election campaign — Trump announced that Washington now recognized Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Syrian territory which Israel has occupied since 1967.

A campaign with support from Washington

Netanyahu's critics often call him the "Trump of Israel" — a title that evidently has gone to his head. Three days before the vote, "Bibi," as he is popularly called, casually announced that after the election he wanted to set about annexing at least part of the West Bank.

Like the annexation of the Golan Heights in 1981, this would also be a violation of international law. But why would that bother Netanyahu when he has such close friends in Washington?

On this topic, too, the Blue and White party did not particularly differentiate itself from Likud, saying that Jewish settlements in the West Bank would not be dismantled, but annexation was certainly not planned either. In other words, the political deadlock in which these areas have remained in since 1967 will continue; areas in which even the Oslo Agreement and three Nobel Prizes did not bring about change. 

What the annexation would spell is the end of the idea of the peace settlement that has been pursued by the international community to date. Indeed, Israeli newspaper Haaretz called Netanyahu "the undertaker of the two-state solution."

All this would have unforeseeable consequences that would stretch far beyond the Middle East.