When Israeli voters make their wishes known in snap elections Tuesday, it is a good bet many in the U.S. will be hoping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be thrown out of office, for a variety of reasons that have little to do with how or why Israelis vote.
That is why it would not be surprising if Netanyahu is retained again, as he was in April.
To understand how we, Israel and Netanyahu got here, look at another election: Israel’s in 1992. That was when Yitzhak Rabin, the liberal Labour Party candidate, was elected prime minister (he served a previous term in the 1970s). Rabin ran advocating an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and made good on it, signing the Oslo accords the next year.
Rabin was heavily criticized on the Israeli right for even talking with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, accused of coddling terrorists – but he shrugged it off, saying, “You don’t make peace with friends.” He signed another, interim agreement with the PLO in 1995.
Rabin planned to stand for reelection against Netanyahu, a rightist who argued that Arabs could not be trusted. It was Netanyahu’s first try for the office, although he was well known to Israelis, partly because his older brother, Yoni, died leading the raid to rescue Israeli hostages at Entebbe. The peace process involved swapping occupied land. Netanyahu ran saying to give up any part of the ancient land of Israel was treason.
In November, at an anti-violence rally in support of Oslo, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old, far-right law student. Rabin’s Labour successor, Shimon Peres, might have won the 1996 elections were it not for a wave of Palestinian suicide attacks in early 1996, including a bombing at a mall in Tel Aviv that killed 13, some of them children dressed in costumes for the Purim holiday. Netanyahu was narrowly elected.
While the peace process stalled, assailed by extremists on both sides, Israel built more settlements on the West Bank, and the violence increased, including what came to be known as the Second Intifada, beginning in 2000s.
“No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century,” Israeli author Matti Friedman wrote in a New York Times column last week, “The One Thing No Israeli Wants to Discuss.”
The attacks, Friedman wrote, “ended hopes for a negotiated peace and destroyed the left, which was in power when the wave began. Any sympathy that the Israeli majority had toward Palestinians evaporated.”
Netanyahu rode that antipathy and fear to a new term as prime minister in 2009 and has been in office ever since.
“In the decade before ... Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied us in public places,” Friedman writes. “There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case. Next to that fact, all other issues pale.”
And that is why it should not be a surprise if Netanyahu, beset by scandal, closely aligned with President Trump, nevertheless is returned to office now.
It does not have to be this way. There are fine minds on both sides of the Israel/Palestine divide who keep reaching for peace, for paths forward, for something more lasting than the calculus of security and fear.
It is just that finding a way out becomes harder with every passing day, with every new Jewish settlement and every Jewish child stabbed by a terrorist who is celebrated by Palestinians as a hero, a martyr or both.
It will take an Israeli leader willing to roll the dice again – and that is not Netanyahu.