Bibi is back, and Israel faces a dilemma over democracy

As Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyanhu has once again proved himself a masterful campaigner, a wily creator of electoral alliances, and a national leader in whom a solid slice of Israeli society is still happy to put its trust. Following a general election on November 1st, his right-wing Likud party gained only a little ground. But thanks to his tactical acumen, Mr Netanyahu looks destined to build a coalition that will command a majority of several seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament. On the face of things, the irrepressible Bibi is once again riding high. Yet there are reasons to bemoan his return to power.

Under his aegis, Israel will remain safe and prosperous, at least in the short run. It faces no looming threat to its existence. Iran, long suspected of trying to build a nuclear weapon that would menace Israel, is preoccupied with its own internal turmoil. Israel’s peace treaties with two immediate neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, are secure. Threats from Syria and Lebanon have faded as those countries wallow in their own distress. The Abraham accords, which were achieved during Mr Netanyahu’s previous administration in 2020, have normalised Israel’s relations with another four Arab states, including Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Even Saudi Arabia, the beating heart of Islam, seems ready for tacit relations with the Jewish state.

So Mr Netanyahu may reckon he can continue, even more comfortably than before, to ignore the Arabs under Israel’s own occupation, even though their lives in the West Bank and Gaza remain wretched. Divided as ever, the Palestinians have a leader in Mahmoud Abbas, now 86, who lacks energy and legitimacy, with no credible successor in the offing. The Gaza Strip, the other chunk of a would-be Palestinian state, run by the blinkered Islamists of Hamas, is still blockaded by both Egypt and Israel. Periodic outbreaks of revolt in both territories are ruthlessly squashed. Mr Netanyahu in the past has paid lukewarm lip service to the notion of the two areas becoming the basis of a Palestinian state, though Likud as a party has never endorsed it.

The recent election to the Knesset has highlighted the admirable vigour of Israeli democracy within its own internationally recognised borders in a region where freedom of political choice is limited. But so long as the Israelis control the territories they occupy without the Palestinians having a proper say over their own destiny, Israel cannot itself claim to be a true democracy. Mr Netanyahu has yet to grapple with that dilemma. He may not need to do so in the short term. But it will not go away.

Worse, his recent electoral success—and his ability to create a ruling coalition—has depended on a lamentable alliance with the Religious Zionism list, a horrible right-wing bloc which includes the Jewish Power party, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, now its co-leader. Mr Ben-Gvir is ferociously hostile to Arabs and has suggested that those who have Israeli citizenship—about a fifth of the total population—should be expelled if deemed “disloyal” to the Jewish state. Religious Zionism also wants to curb the powers of the supreme court. It may also make it easier for Mr Netanyahu to fend off the charges of corruption which he has been facing for the past two years.

It is a pity that Yair Lapid, who has been prime minister for the past half-year and will remain in office until Mr Netanyahu is voted in by the new Knesset, failed to renew his mandate. He performed well on several fronts, among other things achieving a deal to demarcate a maritime border with Lebanon that should let Israel exploit and sell gas from under the sea. His unwieldy eight-party coalition included for the first time an independent Arab Israeli one. It was the failure of the Arabs this time to unite in a single list that weakened Mr Lapid’s chance of returning to power.

It was also a shame that, for the first time since 1992, Meretz, a left-liberal party that has striven to make peace with Palestinians, narrowly failed to cross the threshold of 3.25% of the total vote, which is the minimum requirement for winning a seat in the Knesset under Israel’s system of proportional representation. The Labour party, which has reigned for longer than any other, has shrunk to only four seats. There is still a chance, albeit slim, that the centrist parties, such as Mr Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which came second, could agree to join Mr Netanyahu in a broader coalition—provided that Mr Ben-Gvir and his firebrands are kept out.

The pragmatic and peace-minded centre and left of Israeli politics are not dead. But they have once again done themselves harm by failing to unite. Mr Netanyahu is plainly the beneficiary. But at what cost? If Religious Zionism gains ground under Mr Netanyahu’s umbrella, Israel’s claim to be a liberal democracy, irrespective of the plight of the Palestinians, may be grievously undermined.

It would also make it harder for Israel to build on the Abraham accords. Those Arab countries which have shown an admirable willingness to coexist peacefully with Israel should press Mr Netanyahu to let Israel’s own Arabs have a proper voice, either in a state of their own or in a wider entity encompassing the Palestinian territories and Israel. With the Religious Zionists leaning on Mr Netanyahu’s shoulder, this seems miserably unlikely to happen. But one day one of those options will have to be tried.

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