Despite dismaying campaign rhetoric, we can be cautiously optimistic about Israel's choiceby Oliver Kamm / March 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Benjamin Netanyahu is the great survivor of Israeli politics. Whereas David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the Jewish state, served eight years as prime minister, Netanyahu has served consecutively for the last six years and for nine years in total. Against expectations, he has just defeated a formidable electoral challenge from the centre-left Zionist Union. It’s an open question whether Netanyahu can form a stable coalition but he and his Likud party have emerged strengthened.
How did it happen and what does it entail? His rhetoric late in the campaign rejecting the principle of a Palestinian state was deeply dismaying—and appears to have won him a late shift in support. Israeli voters want peace with a sovereign Palestine but see the prerequisite of that as security. They do not believe that Western governments and commentators quite understand Israel’s security dilemmas.
I talked to Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2006 shortly after Israel, under Ariel Sharon, had unilaterally withdrawn from Gaza. The case for disengagement was compelling, to advance an eventual political settlement and relieve the strain of Israeli forces defending a small number of settlers. Yet Netanyahu emphasised that Gaza would become a base for Hamas to continually fire missiles into Israel. And he was right; that’s just what happened. If you visit the Israeli town of Sderot just over the border from Gaza, you find rows and rows of spent rockets piled up at the local police station. They’ve been fired from Gaza. Local children play in a vast reinforced warehouse rather than outside in the street where they are in constant danger.
That is a powerful reason why Israel has stuck with Netanyahu. It is a tragedy and an injustice that there is no Palestinian state, and Netanyahu’s conviction that the facts of demography can be overturned is hard to credit. Israel’s future health depends on divesting itself of an occupation that has lasted now for 48 years. More widely, the security threat that Netanyahu rightly warns against—Iran’s nuclear programme, which is plainly not intended purely to generate electricity—would be easier to neutralise in concert with Arab states. That is going to be more difficult now.