Binyamin Netanyahu celebrates his re-election. Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
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Might Binyamin Netanyahu surprise us all - again?

Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu defied the polls to win re-election last week. Uri Dromes offers his quiet wish for statesmanship from the leader.

The outcome of the Israeli elections on 17 March was a great personal victory for Binyamin Netanyahu, who had been dismissed by pundits a few days earlier as a relic of the past. Indeed, it was a double victory: not only will Netanyahu be able to form a stable right-wing government, he’ll be able to address grievances of little interest to those outside Israel.

Ever since the Six Day War in 1967, there has existed a tension between maintaining state security and addressing socio-economic concerns. Common wisdom dictated that security would always prevail. However, the social unrest of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the street to protest about the rising cost of living, seemed to change that. A new political party, Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, was created to funnel the protesters’ frustrations into mainstream politics. Lapid’s tenure as finance minister, however, produced a mixed response.

His dismissal paved the way for Moshe Kahlon, a rising star who as minister of communications had succeeded in sharply reducing the cost of mobile-phone calls – and now promises to repeat the miracle with housing costs. By giving Kahlon the finance brief and making him the housing tsar, Netanyahu is reassuring Israelis that he is attuned to their real-life aspirations.

If this stroke of political mastery were not enough, by single-handedly running a campaign of fear in the days before the election – warning that the left was about to take over – Netanyahu managed to snatch many voters from the parties that had outflanked him on the right: Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), led by Naftali Bennett, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (Our Israel). The result was that, unlike in the previous government – where it was held hostage by medium-sized parties – Netanyahu’s Likud today towers over its potential coalition partners, allowing Bibi much greater control and stability.

And yet, with all due respect for domestic matters and the stability of the coalition, Netanyahu’s new government will still need to address the strategic challenges particular to Israel: the volatile Middle East, the immediate threats of Hamas and Hezbollah, nuclear Iran and the so-called peace process with the Palestinians.

Many Israelis, myself included, feel that Netanyahu has failed in dealing with each and every one of these issues. But the result of the election clearly showed that we are in a minority. That’s the beauty of democracy. It appears, then, that on all these fronts Israel will carry on as before.

The problem is that if the worst comes to the worst, on three out of the four issues there are certain military responses available. Not so with the question of Palestine. Without a bold move in this arena, Israel will eventually become one binational state, losing its Jewish identity, or its democracy, or both. Netanyahu, who during the campaign renounced his 2009 acceptance of a Palestinian state, will not have the luxury of ignoring the matter. Either he embraces the 2002 Arab League proposal for a comprehensive regional peace, or he will face growing pressure from the world community, encouraged by a frustrated President Barack Obama.

As someone who did not vote for Netanyahu, I pray that he surprises me. Not with strokes of political expertise, but with a show of statesmanship. This is what Israel desperately needs. Doing nothing, ignoring the issue, is no longer an option.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.