Israel doesn’t really want Netanyahu?

The excellent “Peace Index” has just been sent to us from Israel. After a lot on the grip that the covid-19 plague is having on the country, there are two key and interesting other observations:

  1. Most of the general Israeli public support the proposed law to prevent those accused of criminal activity from serving as prime minister, and the proposal to limit the number of terms that a prime minister can serve to two.
  2. The possibility of a national unity government is the one preferred by most of the public, and that was before Ganz expressed willingness to join a unity government with Netanyahu.

For the full peace index report click on this link

 

Did Gantz turncoat to support Netanyahu?

Netanyahu rides again – with Benny’s help

The word is that Netanyahu of Israel has suspected coronavirus. But nothing stops Netanyahu. Such extraordinary news from Israel: In an astonishing betrayal of everything he once stood for, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is set to partner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a unity government, serving initially as Foreign Minister but then taking over from Netanyahu as prime minister in September 2021. Gantz’s unexpected decision to join forces with Netanyahu obviously and immediately led to the collapse of Blue and White, with the party’s second in command Yair Lapid rejecting the move and at heading into opposition with others from his Yesh Atid component of Blue and White. Gantz says he’s doing it for the sake of the nation because of the coronavirus crisis. Who knows. Perhaps he is. For NCF Secretary General, William Morris’ take on the latest developments see the podcast on this link.

Blue and Whites Collapse as Gantz backs Netanyahu

The Conservative Friends of Israel have just sent us this extraordinary statement:

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is set to partner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a unity government, serving initially as Foreign Minister but then taking over from Netanyahu as prime minister in September 2021, according to a reported deal taking shape this afternoon.

Reports say that Gantz’s unexpected decision to join forces with Netanyahu immediately led to the collapse of Blue and White, with the party’s second in command Yair Lapid rejecting the move and at heading into opposition with others from his Yesh Atid component of Blue and White.

Lapid had reportedly told Gantz he preferred that Israel go to fourth elections rather than see Blue and White partner Netanyahu in power.

The coalition is said likely to constitute 78-79 Knesset Members — Likud, Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Labor, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism — according to Channel 12. That would leave Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Ya’alon’s Telem, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and the mainly Arab Joint List in opposition.

The unity deal was taking shape as the Knesset met to vote for a new speaker, following Likud speaker Yuli Edelstein’s resignation on Wednesday. Gantz offered himself as the sole candidate for the Knesset speaker’s job, which he is set to hold only for a brief period while the terms of the unity coalition are finalised.

He will then serve as Foreign Minister for the first 18 months of the emergency unity government, under the terms of the reported deal, before succeeding Netanyahu as Prime Minister.

Gantz was tasked by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin on 16th March with forming a government after 61 lawmakers backed him as prime minister, and given 28 days to do so.

 

Political crisis in Israel: COVID-19 and democracy

Israel’s third elections in a row have brought little fundamental political change, despite a slightly reinvigorated Likud: a Knesset majority for the right wing block, which seemed so close on election day, is now decisively out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s reach. In the recent elections Israeli Arab voter turnout has increased significantly: the Joint List has obtained 15 seats in the Knesset. An interesting dynamic was the upsurge of the left-wing Jewish vote in favour of the Joint List, some deserting the Jewish left in a likely bid to protest anti-Arab demagoguery in Israel’s politics. Despite their increased turnout, the Arab Israelis are still, just like Russian-Israelis, ‘punching below their weight’ in proportion to their demographics. 

One of the main focuses of the repeated elections has been Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictments on the basis of breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud. Israel’s society remains largely split between the ‘only Bibi’ and ‘anyone but Bibi’ camps in a struggle around Prime Ministerial immunity. 

Just like the United Kingdom, Israel doesn’t have a Constitution: it relies on an ‘Uncodified Constitution’, made of a patchwork of Basic Laws and rights, not devoid of paradoxes. One of the most glaring ones is the fact that unlike a government minister, an indicted Prime Minister can remain in office until the verdict becomes final. Unless Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White party manages to sideline Netanyahu, potentially by pushing a law through the Knesset that would prevent an indicted Knesset member from forming a government, Netanyahu will likely remain a strong and divisive presence in Israel’s politics. Benny Gantz was nominated by the President to form a government after getting the backing of a majority of Knesset members, yet as things stand today it is more unclear than ever who will come out on top. Various rumours during the week have insinuated that Gantz would be willing to join a unity government with Netanyahu, which Benny Gantz has actively denied. In a characteristic exchange of blows, Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu have accused each other of undermining democracy.

The situation was further complicated by the onset of the COVID-19 preventive measures. The rise in COVID-19 infections is allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to cast himself as a strong leader that the country needs in times of struggle. It would seem that the pandemic couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Prime Minister, since Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial was finally postponed until May, buying him more time. A government plan to use big data and digital surveillance to control the spread of COVID-19 has also raised concerns on the grounds of invasion of privacy. The High Court has however demanded that any such operation would have to take place under Knesset oversight, defusing some of the anxiety. 

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was also for now able to prevent the opposition from replacing the current Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who intended to block any opposition efforts to weaken Netanyahu’s hold on power. By resorting to ‘health concern’ measures, the speaker managed to shut down the Knesset until Monday the 23rd of March, which has sparked heated discussions on Israel’s social media. The influential liberal newspaper Haaretz has dubbed the crisis ‘Netanyahu’s coronavirus coup’ and deplored a situation where a minority is keeping a hold on power in spite of a majority that wants it to go.

If somehow Netanyahu manages to escape prosecution and cling on to power, his actions could potentially undermine Israel’s democracy.  This would likely materialise in Netanyahu’s ‘vendetta’ against the Supreme Court, which he accuses of a ‘leftist conspiracy’ despite having appointed the Attorney General himself.  

The crisis seems to have underlined multiple problems in Israel’s democracy, such as a crisis of government illustrated by repeated elections, a constitutional crisis allowing an indicted Prime Minister to stay in power, and significant strain on the system of checks and balances. One could argue that the situation was compounded by a gradual accumulation of power within the executive branch, and by the subservience of Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the legislative branch, to the Prime Minister’s will. 

Elections in Israel leave things as muddled as ever

To quote Peace Now, “Another election in Israel, another round of inconclusive results. While the parties struggle to form a coalition for a third time in a year”. The Conservative Friends of Israel have just sent us this statement:

As the results are now almost all in from Monday’s election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as having won the most Knesset seats, but his right-wing bloc fell short of an overall majority, leaving no clear winner and raising the prospect of a fourth election.

This week’s election was the country’s third in less than a year – unprecedented in Israeli history.

With over 99% of the votes counted, Likud won 36, Blue and White 33 seats, Joint (Arab) List 15 seats, Shas 9 seats, United Torah Judaism 7 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu 7 seats, Labour-Gesher-Meretz 7 seats, Yamina 6 seats.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties has a total of 58 seats, three short of the 61 majority needed to form a government. In a late night speech, Netanyahu called the results “a huge victory” and “massive achievement against all the odds”.

Defying coronavirus fears, turnout was an impressive 71%, the highest in 21 years.

A look at the breakdown of the total votes shows strong divisions between geographical areas, with some parts of the country giving a big lead to Likud and others strongly backing Blue and White. This polarisation can be clearly seen in the results for Tel Aviv (predominantly backing Blue and White) compared to Jerusalem, where Likud came first.

Significantly, the Joint (Arab) List won an historic 15 seats, due to a marked increase in support based on higher turnout in Arab communities and a possible surge in support from left wing Jewish Israelis. Leader Ayman Odeh hailed the “crazy achievement” and thanked Arab and Jewish voters.

Benny Gantz’s Blue and White have maintained they will not serve in a government led by Netanyahu due to his impending corruption trial commencing on 17th March. The Joint List and Labour-Gesher-Meretz also confirmed they would not join a Netanyahu government. Secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Liberman continues to insist he will also not serve in a government with what he calls the “ultra-Orthodox-messianic bloc”. However, he also underlined he would do all he could to prevent a fourth election.

At this moment, the top priority of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc is to find enough defectors from political parties outside the bloc to build a majority of 61 Knesset Members. For now, all suspected candidates appear to be staying loyal to their parties.

Among those considered to potentially defect include MKs Tzvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel of the centrist Blue and White, who have both worked for Netanyahu and are considered on the right of the party. Likud are thought to be targeting Blue and White’s Omer Yankelevich, as she has allegedly criticised Benny Gantz’s leadership. The leader of Gesher, Orly Levy-Abekasis is also seen as a prime target, but she dismissed the speculation today as “absurd”. Blue and White MK Meirav Cohen confirmed yesterday that she had been approached by Likud with an offer of the pensioners or welfare portfolio, and turned down the offer.

Meanwhile, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said that his party would seek legislation to bar Benjamin Netanyahu from serving as Prime Minister due to the upcoming corruption trial. Netanyahu accused his rival of seeking to undermine democracy: “Gantz lost and now he’s trying to steal the election… The people’s will is clear. The national Zionist camp includes 58 seats. The leftist Zionist camp includes 47 seats”. Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman said today that his party will back legislation barring Netanyahu from being Prime Minister.

Netanyahu, who will go on trial in two weeks for bribery, fraud and breach of trust is thought to be seeking support for a legislative mechanism to grant him immunity.

What happens next?

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has confirmed that he will begin consultations with party leaders next week to determine which candidate he will task with forming the next coalition government.

The candidate has 28 days to form a coalition but is able to request a 14-day extension from the President if negotiations are proving lengthy and challenging. If the candidate fails to win the support of at least 61/120 MKs in that time, the President can task another candidate with forming a coalition. The second candidate has 28 days to form a coalition, with no possibility of extension.

The next few days are set to be some of the most dramatic in Israel’s political history. Make sure to follow along with CFI on social media to keep up to date with the latest drama.

Who’s Who?

Among the main parties who will be in Israel’s next Knesset are:

Likud – Headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud stands for national and economic liberalism and has been the traditional home of the mainstream right-wing since the 1970s when it was founded by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. Likud have merged with the economically focused Kulanu Party post the April 2019 election.
March 2020: 36 seats September 2019: 31 seats April 2019: 35 seats Kulanu 4

Blue and White – Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz joined forces with Yair Lapid in February under a new centrist ticket named Blue & White. The centrist alliance has emerged as the principle challenger to Likud. Having previously decided on a rotation deal for Prime Minister should they win, Blue and White have dropped this policy in order to gain greater party support. Gantz will take the position of Prime Minister for a full 5-year term, should Blue and White succeed, and Lapid will serve as Foreign Minister.
March 2020: 33 seats September 2019: 33 seats  April 2019: 35 seats

Yamina (The Right Bloc) – A bloc of pro-settler and far-right parties running on a joint ticket; Jewish Home, The New Right and The National Union. Ayelet Shaked, former Justice Minister and popular among the secular-right who has taken over the leadership of the bloc. Voters were disappointed that 2 hours following September 2019’s final results were announced, the parties decided to split from their bloc. They have vowed this will not happen again.
March 2020: 6 seats September 2019: 7 seats April 2019: United Right 5 New Right 0

Labor-Meretz-Gesher (The Left Bloc) – Having varied success in different pairings in previous elections, the left bloc have decided to run on a joint ticket led by Labor leader Amir Peretz. Labor support pragmatic foreign affairs policies, social democratic economic policies and a two-state solution. Meretz led by Nitzan Horowitz is seen as the leftist party emphasising social justice, human rights, religious freedom, environmentalism. Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher Party is considerably smaller and less known primarily focusing on economic and  cost-of-living issues and aiming to reduce inequality.
March 2020: 7 seats September 2019: Labor Gesher 6 Meretz 5 seats April 2019: Labour 6 Gesher 0 Meretz 4

Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) – Led by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing secular nationalist party traditionally held a base for secular, Russian-speaking Israelis. Having been branded election seasons kingmaker, Lieberman’s unwillingness to sit with the Ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs or an indicted Prime Minister have labelled him the reason for Israel’s multitude of elections.
March 2020: 7 seats September 2019: 8 seats  April 2019: 5 seats

The Joint (Arab) List – Four-strong Arab alliance comprising of: Ta’al (Arab Renewal), Hadash (Jewish/Arab Communist), Ra’am (Islamist) and Balad (Arab-Palestinian nationalists). The Joint List ran together in 2015 but dissolved into Ta’al-Hadash and Ra’am-Balad pairings for the April elections receiving six and four seats respectively. To prevent falling below the threshold, the parties have reformed The Joint List led by Ayman Odeh and have been soaring in recent elections due to higher Arab-Israeli turnout.
March 2020: 15 seats September 2019: 13 seats  April 2019: 4/6seats

Shas – Led by Aryeh Deri, an ultra-Orthodox party which primarily represents the interests of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews. Since its founding 1984, Shas has always formed part of the governing coalition regardless of who the ruling party is.
March 2020: 9 seats September 2019: 9 seats  April 2019: 8 seats

United Torah Judaism – An alliance of Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, two small Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties. The two parties have not always agreed with each other about policy matters; however, they have cooperated in order to win the maximum number of seats since 1992.
March 2020: 7 seats September 2019: 8 seats April 2019: 8 seats

 

 

 

What do Israelis Think of President Trump’s “Deal of the Century”?

The excellent “Peace Index” is back again but its name has now changed to the “Israeli Voice Index” which is perhaps of itself a sign of the times. In this incarnation it is now published by the Israel Democracy Institute rather than Tel Aviv University. The original can be accessed on this link.  Below, edited slightly for clarity, are their conclusions about the view of Israelis on the Trump Plan:

A Palestinian state – yes or no? Just before the full plan was published the Israeli Voice Index asked: “The peace plan that President Trump will soon present will apparently include recognition of a Palestinian state. In your opinion, should Israel agree to any plan that includes such recognition?” The rates who approve of such recognition in the context of the Trump plan among the Jews and the Arabs were very similar (45.5% and 44% respectively). The finding about the Jewish sample conforms to previous studies about support for the two-state idea. However, the rate of support among Arabs is much lower than in previous surveys. The reason is apparently the mention of President Trump in the body of the question, given the widespread perception that the U.S. president is not a fair arbitrator on the issue of the conflict and is biased toward the Israeli side.

Does the publication of the “deal of the century” constitute American interference in the Israeli elections?

Among the Arabs a clear majority (68%) sees the publication of the “deal of the century” as interference in the Israeli electoral process, while among the Jews slightly less than half (46%) view it that way. Israel is to have yet another general election in April.

Who would better manage negotiations with the Palestinians? If negotiations with the Palestinians were to begin, who, in the Israeli public’s opinion, would manage them better – Netanyahu? Gantz? Both equally well? In Israel’s public as a whole, the largest proportion (44.5%) think Netanyahu would be a better negotiator.

 

Is everything about Netanyahu?

The assassination of General Qassim Soleimani may or may not have been a risky strategy on the part of the US President intended to boost his chances in forthcoming US elections; however, it certainly distracted Iraqis from the anger they were feeling against Tehran’s perceived culpability for encouraging the shooting of young Shiite demonstrators in Iraq. And it also helps Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu strengthen his position in Israel. 

Regardless of Trump’s eloquent claim that Iran “was looking to blow up our [US] embassy”, there is no evidence to prove that was the case. Nor was the killing of Soleimani motivated by the need to retaliate for events directly preceding the strike – the demonstrations at the US embassy in Baghdad and the death of Iraq born American contractor Nawres Hamid in a rocket attack on 27 December 2019. Information shared with the Next Century Foundation makes it clear that the assassination was actually planned prior to 24th December.

Whether or not the US had any long-term interest in killing Soleimani, the Quds Force leader was certainly previously targeted for assassination by Israel’s forces at least once, in 2015. Prior to that Soleimani barely escaped an Israeli air-strike while in Lebanon in 2006. In any case Netanyahu considered him responsible for many of the actions of Iranian proxies taken against Israel in recent years. As leader of the Quds Force (the Iranian military presence outside Iran) Soleimani was said to be in charge of the missile strikes on Israel fired from Iranian positions in Syria in 2018. Even more importantly, Soleimani had enormous influence over Hezbollah (whose salaries are subsidised by Tehran) and was a powerful figure in Beirut. He is now publicly mourned by many Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon.

Netanyahu was one of a small number of Mid East political leaders informed in advance by the US about the plan for Soleimani’s assassination. Claims that Israel provided intelligence necessary to carry out the strike are less credible, and if they did so they have much to answer for since the US had such flawed intelligence that it knew nothing of the presence of key Iraq Militia Leader Mohandis in the kill zone. In any case, Israel had one of its arch-enemies effortlessly eliminated. Had Soleimani been assassinated by Israeli forces, it would have been dangerous for Israel, with direct retaliation from Hezbollah likely to take place. While Israel, as an American ally, might theoretically be targeted by Iran in revenge, the risk involved is now much lower. 

Even though, Iran has “concluded” its retaliation, the airstrikes on American bases in Iraq hardly seem to be an adequate response. Regardless of which, it is still possible that elements in Iraq have not finished their retaliation for the killing of Mohandis. But any such retaliation will be directed against the USA and will not target Israel.

There are those in Hezbollah who  – given the current economic and political crisis in Lebanon – would like the distraction of being engaged in a conflict with Israel or even a full-scale war. After all, in 2008 after the punishingly harsh (for both countries) 2006 Israel / Lebanon war, Hezbollah had just 2,000 rockets left – whereas currently Hezbollah has amassed a stockpile of some 40,000 missiles. However the humiliation Iran suffered in the international arena after mistakenly downing a Ukrainian civilian airplane, means that de-escalation is more likely to follow. 

All the recent developments shift the focus in Israel away from the indictments filed against Netanyahu. The assassination of Soleimani seems to be a confirmation that the PM was effective in forming an even more robust alliance with the US. A growing military threat at the hands of Tehran only strengthens the position of Netanyahu before the upcoming election. 

Trump’s assassination of Soleimani did not make the Middle East a safer place, but at least it allowed Bibi to change the topic of the public debate from an unfortunate one – his corruption charges – to what the PM deals with best: a potential war. 

 

Netanyahu as a symbol – personality politics in Israel

The message of Netanyahu’s critics is clear: because of the indictments filed against him, he should step down as prime minister – his failure to do so is a betrayal of public trust and Israeli democracy. However, the current situation is not that of an unpopular politician avoiding elections, and using his position and lack of clear procedures in order to stay in power. While a majority of Israelis (52% according to a recent poll by Channel 13) do believe that he should resign from office, it does not affect Likud’s polling results. Netanyahu, instead of being shown a red card, continues to call the shots in Israel. This is made possible not by his cynicism and relaxed morals, but by means of the stable support offered by his electorate.

Despite the political deadlock and the indictments being announced, most Israelis declare they would vote in the upcoming elections for the same candidate they did in the previous one. While it is true that the majority of voters favour a national unity government, most of them want to see Netanyahu in it. Polls show that Likud would even gain one or two more seats in the Knesset than the current number – however, only if it is still led by Netanyahu himself. Even though the most natural response of the party to the latest developments would be a change of leadership, this would lead to a complete electoral defeat of Likud. Channel 12 News survey from 26 November says Likud would win only 26 seats if led by Netanyahu’s competitor Gideon Sa’ar. Netanyahu, and not the policies he proposes, is what attracts voters to his party.

With his continuous support for the creation of new settlements in the West Bank, introduction of the Nation-State Law, and the electoral promise to annex the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu holds a symbolic significance for Israeli nationalists. Paradoxically, the ultra-nationalist, conflict-loving politician indicted for serious offences serves to represent the promise of stability. Even though the two-state solution is still most popular with Israelis, support for a continuation of the present situation as a permanent solution is growing, and suffices to produce ongoing deadlock both in the political arena and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Netanyahu has managed to shift the political scene so much that he is now standing in its centre. A vote for Netanyahu is a vote for the preservation of status-quo – this status-quo, however, is of a uniquely Israeli type: it is constantly moving to the right, both in a metaphorical, and in a geographical sense.

Israel, the plot thickens

With Gantz’s declaration that he is unable to form a government, another election is the most probable outcome – but there are still other options on the table. Although a national-unity government seems utterly unlikely, a military tension could persuade Kahol Lavan to compromise with Likud. More importantly, a lot depends on the decision of the Attorney General whether to file indictments against Netanyahu. Charges being brought could incapacitate him to form a government – and in this scenario much more can happen.

When Lieberman announced on Wednesday afternoon that he will not be supporting any minority government, it became almost certain that the nomination would pass to the Knesset floor. His decision was not surprising. If Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu were to enter Gantz’s government, it would have to be either with the Joint List’s Arab lawmakers or the Haredi part of the right-wing block, two groups that Lieberman opposed in order to build his political capital.

There is no apparent reason why either the right-wing block or Kahol Lavan would now make concessions to form a national-unity government they rejected before; Netanyahu does not want to resign from a central position in the new government, nor to form a coalition without the religious-Messianic members of his block. This, on the other hand, is not acceptable, even if not to Gantz himself, then certainly to Yair Lapid.

There could be another game-changer in the current circumstances, however. The Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, should soon decide on whether to file indictments against Netanyahu. Even if this does not necessarily mean that a Netanyahu-led government cannot be formally established, it could cause all actors to reconsider their positions. Lieberman would then be able to enter a minority government with Gantz and still save his face, claiming that it is a necessary evil to keep a politician facing corruption charges from coming to power again. This would be extremely likely, especially if Netanyahu is indicted of bribery, in addition to fraud and breach of trust. Gantz and Lieberman could then avoid a coalition with the Joint List’s lawmakers, since Netanyahu indictments would probably persuade several MKs to defect from Likud.

Even if Netanyahu is indicted and a minority government with Lieberman is formed, it will probably only mean a change of personnel, and not of policy. The vision of a governing coalition with Kahol Lavan and Arabs in it, however brief and unlikely, sparked hope for change. Now, no matter what happens next, things will most likely stay the same in Israel. At least until the next election.

Tlaib and Omer / Trump and Bibi

Paul Scham submits the following to the NCF. Paul Scham is a scholar at MEI and the executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, where he teaches courses on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The views expressed in this article are his own:

The current Rashida Tlaib/Ilhan Omar debacle has received more attention from every quarter than virtually anything other than a war. All the usual suspects have weighed in with (mostly) predictable comments, generally in the context of the long-running “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S. The two domestic political contexts are often mentioned only in passing.

With all respect to those who have tried to take a longer or strategic view, I would suggest that it really boils down to the political calculations of just two men, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, each of whom is adored by the other’s base voters, and the desperate (yes, desperate) attempts by each to use the other to burnish their right-wing credentials. The resulting media storm was likely welcomed by both, as neither has much interest in what the writers of The New York Times or Haaretz — and all their ilk — have to say.

Bibi Netanyahu is the most desperate, and his actions can only be understood with reference to the current Israeli political scene and the Knesset election coming up on Sept. 17. His Likud Party has been running virtually neck-and neck in the polls with Kahol Lavon (the hastily-organized Blue-White Party) at about 30 Knesset seats each, out of a total of 120. The party with the most seats — no party has ever won a majority — is normally invited by the president to have first crack at forming a government, and Bibi needs that to be the Likud. His calculation is that the only place to get more voters is from those to the right of Likud, who may currently be planning to vote for one of several ultra-nationalist parties. He needs to burnish his nationalist credentials to attract them, and he is doing everything he can to get them to take notice. Allowing Tlaib and Omar to visit — something he would probably have routinely approved at any other time — would be seen by them, exactly as President Trump tweeted, as a show of “weakness.”

The fact that Trump clearly advocated that they be barred also represented a further chance for Bibi to identify himself with the American president his potential voters regard as the best friend Israel has ever had. By contrast, there would be no political gain where it counted to turn down the president’s advice, and every reason to tie himself to Trump’s coattails. It was a no-brainer.

AIPAC — very unusually — criticized Bibi’s act, because it undercuts the bipartisanship it has attempted to maintain since its founding. But Bibi has no use for bipartisanship when it may chip away at his electoral prospects. Just as important is the fact that he — at least if he wins — will have to help energize Trump’s base for 2020, since he is a hero to most of it. Trump also has no use for bipartisanship, something he has made clear time and again.

This is not a political “mistake” as many have termed it; rather, it is the result of cold political calculation. Bibi’s desperation is largely based on the fact that he not only wants to hold onto his office, but also that he has every expectation that he will be indicted on corruption charges shortly after the election. As prime minister, he can ram through a bill giving himself immunity, and then neutralize the Israeli Supreme Court when it declares the immunity unconstitutional. As leader of the opposition, he is powerless.

Trump likewise needs Bibi to be prime minister, though not so desperately. As prime minister, Bibi can energize Trump’s evangelical base, likely unconstrained by any of the usual non-interference norms of international relations. That would be a lot harder to do if he is fighting to stay out of jail. He will owe Trump big time — and will be more than happy to pay off.

Nor is Bibi truly afraid of what Tlaib and Omar might publicize, as Peter Beinart suggests. I have no doubt that Bibi genuinely believes in the righteousness of his cause. Moreover, the situation of West Bank Palestinians has been publicized innumerable times, so that there is little new that they could say. In any case, Tlaib and Omar have been so tarred with anti-Israel and alleged anti-Semitic prejudice that no one except their existing supporters will regard them as impartial.

This event is not a watershed and will likely only rate a footnote — if that — in any history of Israeli-U.S. relations. It is a sign of the times and the current trends, including diminishing Democratic rank-and-file support for the close relationship with Israel, will continue. But this affair is at base a tawdry political drama in which Tlaib and Omar are pawns, orchestrated by two men whose own political goals trump any considerations of statesmanship or national interest.