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Netanyahu's foes offers Bibiism without Bibi

Netanyahu's foes offers Bibiism without Bibi

March 14th, 2019 by Eli Lake in Opinion Columns

There is a good chance that after Israel's elections next month, we won't have Benjamin Netanyahu to kick around anymore.

His party, Likud, is projected to win 30 of the Knesset's 120 seats, with the more centrist Blue and White party projected to win 36. The election is still more than a month away, and anything can happen in the process of forming a ruling coalition. But for the first time in a decade, Bibi is vulnerable.

Many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment will embrace this development. Netanyahu has alienated American progressives, who see him as an opponent of Palestinian statehood. His relationship with former President Barack Obama was toxic. When the Republican speaker of the House invited Netanyahu to the floor of the chamber in 2015 to make his case against the Iran nuclear deal, many Democrats boycotted. His recent political deal with a fascist party drew near universal condemnation from American Jewish groups.

So you might think the next Israeli government would be a return to normal, or at least what the establishment considers normal. You would be wrong. If Netanyahu loses power next month, the government that replaces him is likely to continue most of his national-security policies. Call it Bibiism without Bibi.

To understand why, look at the platform released last Wednesday by the Blue and White party. Without mentioning a two state solution, it pledges separation from the Palestinians and a unified Jerusalem. Its only criticism of Netanyahu's policies of bombing Iranian targets in Syria is that the government should no longer publicly acknowledge the practice, returning to a posture of "strategic ambiguity." The party even seems to be to the right of Netanyahu when it comes to negotiations with Hamas, the terrorist militia that controls Gaza. The new platform opposes what it calls "protection payments" to the group.

Shalom Lipner, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has served seven Israeli prime ministers, told me the Blue and White coalition is "preserving the most popular elements of what a Likud government looks like."

The big differences between Likud and Blue and White revolve around social issues. The coalition separates "security Bibiism" from other aspects of Israeli policy and from Netanyahu himself, who faces pending corruption charges. Blue and White supports gay and civil marriages, carving out a space for non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the remains of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and modifying a nation-state law that drew scorn from many in the Jewish diaspora.

The continuation of Netanyahu's security approach makes sense for a few reasons. To start, all four of Blue and White's founding members—Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya'alon—served as either top generals or cabinet ministers in Netanyahu governments. They carried out the national security policy of the prime minister they now oppose.

And following withdrawals from Gaza and southern Lebanon, most Israelis worry that any land the Jewish state relinquishes will become a base for terrorists.

Finally, the probable continuation of Netanyahu's policies says something about the man himself. Despite Netanyahu's reputation as a hawk, he has managed to govern Israel for a decade without getting into a major war. That may seem like a low bar. But in a region beset by revolutions, failed states and an emboldened Iran, it's the kind of success that even Netanyahu's opposition seeks to emulate.

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