JERUSALEM – Israel is going through the tail end of a miserable political year full of insults and indecisiveness. There is every sign this might go on for a quite a while, even as military dangers build up on Israel’s borders.
There are many questions with no clear answers:
Will Benjamin Netanyahu be re-elected, cop a plea deal on corruption charges, or go to trial, maybe to jail?
Will a rival inside Likud, like Gideon Sa’ar, rise to unseat Netanyahu, presenting a more hawkish policy on defense but also a reputation less stained by accusations of sticky fingers? Will a Left-Center alliance gain more votes and eke out a workable political coalition?
Israelis know polls are not to be trusted, but part of the problem is that even a small discrepancy makes a big difference. Several parties just missed or barely passed the 4-seat (3.25 percent of popular vote) cut-off in the recent election, and opinion polls are even narrower regarding the upcoming election.
The difference between being defense minister or not even getting into the Knesset is razor thin. It is the difference between a winning or losing bloc: between the Right or Left having 60 or 61 seats or 50-52 seats.
Israel’s Labor Party, Israel’s Democrats (formerly Meretz), the religious parties Yamina (Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked) as well Bayit Yehudi (the former National Religious Party) are all in this category, on thin ice.
Israel has struck out on getting a new government in two elections this year, and the third election may be another strikeout, leaving us in constitutional limbo, political paralysis. A caretaker government cannot really make budgetary decisions that affect the army or hospital care, and it cannot make major appointments.
The great comfort is that we are not alone: We are ripping ourselves apart and do not know where we are going, but America and Britain have been ripping themselves apart, too.
Yes, misery loves company, and Israel’s chattering political classes love to dwell on how America cannot seem to govern itself or how Britain cannot seem to decide if it is or is not part of Europe.
“Trump’s Objective: Dictatorship” screamed the lead op-ed article in the Sabbath edition of Ha’aretz, the journal that opposed Israeli independence in 1948 and has been wrong about almost everything ever since.
Trump’s putative march towards dictatorship was trumpeted by Professor Shlomo Avineri of Hebrew University who failed to provide a single piece of factual evidence or scholarly to back his words.
On the eve of the British election, Channel 10’s senior analyst Nadav Eyal and two of his colleagues waxed on and on about how Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was closing the gap on Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The next day the Conservatives destroyed Labor in its worst defeat in almost 100 years.
A day later, Channel 10 published a poll predicting the left would win the Israeli election on March 2, 2020, and that poll is likely to be as off the mark as the intimation Jeremy Corbyn would become Britain’s leader.
Israel’s right loves to draw parallels between all these failed predictions and, just for fun, some of the similarities between Netanyahu, Trump and Johnson – three political outsiders with bad hair but perhaps with some good ideas in their head.
All three have challenged the political establishments in their countries – Trump and Johnson with economic nationalism and Netanyahu with moderate unapologetic capitalism. Trump and Netanyahu have strong economic records, but both face unremitting opposition that has crystallized into a legal or quasi-legal opposition or resistance.
Johnson is as yet largely untried economically and politically, but like Netanyahu and Trump, he has managed to tap a groundswell of populist feeling opposed to the “we-know-we-are-smarter-than-you” types who fill the desks and chairs at media outlets and university departments.
Johnson, Trump and Netanyahu seem to be preaching common sense to the common man and woman, often with an in-your-face sense of humor that seems to have disappeared on the left everywhere.
But the three men and their cases are also quite different:
Trump has been delivering good economic tidings, and he seems to be bringing more good news on deals with China, Mexico and Canada, while the Democrats’ impeachment campaign only seems to be making him more popular.
Johnson is likely to achieve some kind of British exit from Europe whose Continental leaders – France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel – are beset by their own deep problems.
While the Israeli State Prosecutor’s three cases against Netanyahu seem less than ironclad, the one case of gift-taking has enough substance that it has begun to undermine some of Netanyahu’s personal popularity. His margins have slipped badly.
Only a few weeks ago, Mrs. Sara Netanyahu accepted a plea deal on charges of misuse of public funds, paying a fine. Some press reports say Mr. Netanyahu might do something similar: leave office in return for a dropping of all charges. Not likely.
A seasoned campaigner, Netanyahu thinks he can win again by making the upcoming election about how a successful prime minister is being hounded from office. He may be right, but the opposition inside Netanyahu’s Likud party shows he may hold fewer trump cards than he thinks.
Michael Widlanski is a Jerusalem-based journalist.