If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues in office through July, he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, outlasting the original, David Ben-Gurion. Mr. Netanyahu already has logged the longest consecutive term in office.
But Herb Keinon has been around even longer.
Originally from Denver, he started at the Jerusalem Post in 1985. He is now its chief diplomatic correspondent. And on Sunday, he will share his perspective on Israel’s upcoming elections, set for April 9, less than two weeks from now. (See below.)
Mr. Keinon said there are three major factors at play in the election.
First is security. Who can best provide security for a country under constant threat of missile barrages?
Second is Bibi. Does he continue to be the man of the hour? Or is he past his sell-by date?
And finally, there is the hard-to-explain, harder-to-predict calculus of Israel’s multiparty system, which makes predictions near impossible.
“Security is the main issue,” Mr. Keinon said. “That’s been the case in most of the country’s history and this election is no exception. Netanyahu is going to the elections under the cloud of corruption allegations against him. Yet polls are showing that he’s most likely to be the guy setting up the next government. You have to ask why. It goes to security — the country’s main preoccupation. Netanyahu has been able to radiate a sense of ‘Hey, I’m Mr. Security.’ That’s why he’s been so successful until now.
“It’s no coincidence that the party running against him, Blue and White, has three former IDF chiefs of staff. It says that they’ll out-security Mr. Security. One of the lines they use is that they have 117 years of experience between them,” Mr. Keinon said.
Blue and White is an alliance between journalist and former finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, former Chief of Staff Benjamin Gantz, and former defense minister and chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon. Former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi also is on board.
Why are the generals of Blue and White unhappy with the incumbent prime minister?
“They think it’s time for a change,” Mr. Keinon said. “They think he’s leading the country in the wrong direction. There are all the allegations of corruption against him.
“There’s not that much of an ideological gap between Blue and White and Likud,” Netanyahu’s party, he said. “It’s more about personality. It’s just a matter of those who like Bibi and those who don’t like Bibi.
“It’s a change from 20 or 30 years ago, when the debates were more ideological. These debates are not about a two-state solution, not about how to make peace with the Palestinians, because very few people in the country see that as a realistic option at the moment. We’re not there, the Palestinians aren’t there, the region’s not there, nobody’s talking about it.”
For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has plenty to show for his time in office — particularly in Mr. Keinon’s specialty, diplomacy. “There’s no question that Netanyahu has brought about a dramatic change in Israel’s diplomatic standing,” he said. “He’s focused on areas other prime ministers neglected in the past, such as Africa and Latin America. He was helped by having his counterparts in certain key countries be leaders who see the world through similar right-of-center lenses. Modi in India, Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro in Brazil. Could another prime minister have done the same thing?
“His campaign argument is that nobody else can sit there, eye to eye with Putin and Trump and the president of China. Only he can do it, because he has the experience. That’s a message that resonates.
“In the final run-up to the election, there’s a flurry of diplomatic activity. Bibi met with Trump in Washington, Pompeo in Jerusalem, and Bolsonaro is scheduled to visit Jerusalem before the election. Netanyahu wants that to drive the discussion.
“The fascinating thing about Israel’s diplomatic stature right now is that in the past, there was a certain conventional wisdom that if you don’t make peace with the Palestinians, you won’t make any diplomatic inroads. Under Netanyahu, Israel has made significant diplomatic inroads even though there’s no peace process going on with the Palestinians. A lot has to do with Netanyahu. You can’t take that away from him. He’s been able to leverage Israel’s advantages to a degree previous prime ministers haven’t.
“It’s changed the country. Israel’s relationship with the world has changed fundamentally because of this change in diplomatic relations. Israel has positioned itself where it has expertise in what other countries need. Countries that might not agree with the policies of the government want what Israel has to offer. There’s been a slow incremental change in how countries vote in big important votes in the United Nations. Countries like India and Brazil, which used to reflexively vote against us, now don’t. It’s more difficult for the Palestinians to get the resolutions they want. Israel is saying to these countries, we’re friends and we have certain expectations about how friends act toward one another, and voting against us in the UN isn’t how it’s done.
“Bibi has chipped away at the European Union, which was seen as a very pro-Palestinian organization. He’s created sub-alliances within the EU. When Brussels wants to condemn Israel, countries like Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria will stand up and say you can’t do that. After Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem, there were voices in Brussels that wanted to condemn it. They couldn’t get a consensus,” he said.
“Our relationship with India is huge — that’s something we didn’t have 15 years ago. China is more of an economic relationship than diplomatic — they still haven’t changed their voting patterns.”
And then there’s Russia.
“Israel has a very good relationship with Russia, and that’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s very important and difficult, given Russia’s involvement with Syria. Israel needs to have good ties with Putin, because Syria is Israel’s next-door neighbor. Israel continues to maintain a degree of maneuverability over Syrian skies even though the Russians are there because Netanyahu and Putin have agreed that the Russians have their interests and Israel has our interests.
“Russia’s interest is Assad, who they want to remain in power. Israel makes clear it’s not going after Assad. Israel’s goal is to keep the Iranians from entrenching themselves there. As long as Israel hits Iranian targets rather than Russian, they have a working relationship. That’s no small feat.”
The final election outcome, though, may come down to a question of numbers. Specifically, the number of votes Israel’s smallest parties get.
To enter the Knesset, a party must reach the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent, which is about 125,000 voters. “Right now, we have a number of small right-wing parties polling just at the level of the electoral threshold,” he said. “If they don’t pass the threshold, those votes aren’t counted. That could tip the balance.
“The wild card is a party called Zehut, headed by Moshe Feiglin. There’s always been a kind of wild card party that attracted the protest vote, saying a plague on both your houses. In the 2000s it was the Pensioneer’s Party, whose whole platform was better rights for the senior citizens. Rafi Eitan headed it, and he got a whole bunch of young people to vote for him.
“This time that party is the Zehut party, one of whose main issues is the legalization of marijuana. We may have a guy whose main issue is legalization be the kingmaker in the next government. Feiglin is a very right-wing guy. The contest here is who can move votes from one bloc to the other. On the left, they’re just moving the furniture. People will vote Blue and White rather than Labor. Blue and White thought they could attract voters from the right to go to the left because of their heavy security credentials, but polls say that hasn’t panned out.
“The only person who seems to be able to move votes from one bloc to the other is Feiglin and his marijuana legalization.”
Who: Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent
What: Breakfast and discussion, “Israel’s elections: Bibi’s last stand?”
When: Sunday, March 31, 9:45 a.m.
Where: Jewish Community Center of Paramus / Congregation Beth Tikvah,
E. 304 Midland Avenue, Paramus
How much: Free