Benjamin Netanyahu, arguably the most rightwing prime minister Israel has had, looks set to win a record-breaking fifth term. He is in a photo-finish between his Likud party and a centrist coalition built around three generals and a TV presenter, which have so far won 35 seats each in the 120-strong Knesset, with overseas and soldiers’ votes still to come. But Mr Netanyahu has the clearest path to power through the tortuous weeks of coalition-building ahead, in alliance with the religious and ultra-right parties that have made it into parliament.
The implosion of the traditional left, including the once-mighty Labour party that dominated Israel’s early decades, and the poor showing of the centre means that his main challenger, the Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff, looks unable to put together a majority.
The election was fiercely contested. Ultimately, though, it was a referendum on the polarising “Bibi” Netanyahu, who first held power in 1996-99 and has served three consecutive terms since 2009. The past decade has been good to Israel and enough of its citizens seem to have bought his message — that his ever more rightwing coalitions have made them prosperous and kept them safe — to keep him on as premier.
For Mr Netanyahu, and for Israel, however, the problems may just be beginning. He faces indictment on corruption charges. His plan to stay out of jail seems to rest on persuading public opinion he is the victim of a witch-hunt by leftwing elites and that forcing him to step down would leave Israel vulnerable to regional enemies, such as Iran. A full airing of these alleged transgressions has done Mr Netanyahu little harm at the polls. But whether he wins immunity will be decided by Israel’s supreme court, which his former justice minister pledged to neuter.
His troubles may also encourage Mr Netanyahu to forge ahead with his election-eve pledge to annex all Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. That would kill any lingering hope of an independent Palestinian state, and slice up the uncolonised bits of Arab land into disconnected cantons.
Some observers dismiss this pledge as electioneering and an attempt to outflank his rivals on the right. They note that in his previous term he resisted a range of annexationist draft laws from within his coalition, and indeed Likud. But US president Donald Trump has changed that equation.
Last year Mr Trump recognised Jerusalem — including the Israeli-occupied Arab east of the holy city annexed after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 — as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy there. Last month he called for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the same war and annexed in 1981. Both decisions were declared legally null and void by the UN Security Council. But Mr Trump has retroactively legitimised them, opening the way to Israel’s biggest land-grab of all. His “deal of the century”, which he boasted would solve at a stroke the Palestinian conflict, has given way to the wishlist of the Israeli right.
Annexing the West Bank and imposing a solution on the Palestinians would endanger Israel’s future, accelerating the slide towards a single state in which Arabs become the majority but without the same rights as Jews. This would be a devastating loss of legitimacy that Israelis seem only dimly to discern. The vigorous emergence of Mr Gantz and a sort of hard and pragmatic centre party comes not a moment too soon. It will be their job to convince Israelis to take this threat seriously, before they sleepwalk into disaster.
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