Israelis are attributing Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s surprise election triumph to the fact that he ran a “gevalt” campaign.
The Yiddish word gevalt is the equivalent of “Help!” – a cry for rescue at a critical time. And facing a possible defeat as voting day neared, Netanyahu wooed disaffected voters back to his right-wing Likud party by fear-mongering to the max.
He raised the specter of an Arab horde (Israel’s Arab citizens) who were “voting in droves.” He warned that his main opposition, the Zionist Alliance, would create a terrorist state in Jerusalem and “do the bidding” of the international community on settlements or peace talks. He said no territory would be returned to the Palestinians and there would be no Palestinian state.
Only he, Netanyahu, could stand up to Israel’s enemies – who seem to include Israelis who didn’t vote for him – along with his Western allies. But what if his gevalt-ing has worsened the real threats to Israel? To win the election, Bibi has boxed himself into positions and political alliances that could threaten the security of his state.
As of last week, Likud was in danger of losing out to the Zionist Alliance led by Isaac “Bougie” Herzog. Many Likudniks were less concerned about security than about economic problems, which Netanyahu wasn’t addressing. Jewish settlers had left Likud and turned to radical right-wing parties that want to annex the West Bank.
To woo back the settler vote, Netanyahu reversed his previous acceptance of a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. In reality, he had placed so many caveats on the idea that it was clear he rejected the concept. But his tactical acceptance enabled peace talks to continue for years.
Talks have broken down for many reasons, a key one being the continued expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Yet an official end to the peace process – the logical result of the gevalt campaign – would be dangerous to Israel.
As part of that process, Palestinian security forces on the West Bank work in close cooperation with Israeli forces to keep a lid on Hamas activists and any other nascent terrorist groups. That cooperation has been extremely successful in preventing any major terrorist attacks.
If the peace process formally ends, that cooperation will also end, meaning Israel will have to return in force to the West Bank. If the slim prospect of two states vanishes for good, there is a much greater likelihood that some Palestinian youths will be drawn to the kind of jihadi terrorism seen elsewhere in the region. The prospects for another war in Gaza also will rise.
A formal end to the peace process will also isolate Israel internationally, estranging it further from European Union members. So will an intensified push to build more Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
For these reasons, there is much speculation that Netanyahu may try to backtrack on his campaign positions. But although Likud won more seats than the Zionist Alliance, it has only 30 seats of the 61 it needs to form a governing coalition, forcing it to align with radical right-wing parties. They seek major settlement expansion, which will soon rule out any contiguous Palestinian state.
“The settlers see his victory as their victory, and they want to secure the eternal occupation of the West Bank so he will face a lot of pressure in his own coalition for greater settlement,” says prominent Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea. There will be little support for Bibi to recalibrate his positions.
Under such circumstances, tension between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank is bound to rise. The status quo can’t last, but there’s no sign that Netanyahu has developed a Plan B.
The Zionist Alliance, had it won, also probably would have been reluctant to give up territory in the midst of the current Mideast turmoil. But it would have tried to rein in settlement building so as to keep open the slim chance of a two-state solution in the future. This would have enabled the security status quo to last longer and prevented the further international isolation of the Jewish state.
On Iran, Bougie would also have pursued a much more nuanced policy than Bibi’s.
While Israelis of all political stripes worry about Tehran getting a bomb, the many generals and former top intelligence officials aligned with Herzog disparage Netanyahu’s breathless alarmism; they are cautious about the idea of bombing Iranian sites lest this accelerate Iran’s march to a bomb and trigger a regional war.
Think of the Zionist Alliance’s security policies as more akin to those of former President George H.W. Bush’s team, while Likud’s are now to the right of Bush 43, with the brashness of the new breed of Republicans typified by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.
This raises the prospect of Israeli hawks and U.S. Republican hawks outbidding each other on Iran while fighting with President Obama – which could trigger a war that would boomerang on Israel. “Netanyahu now believes he alone holds the key to Israel’s future and can confront Obama with the help of the Republicans,” says Barnea.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.