Israelis go to the polls tomorrow for the second time in six months. It's going to be brutal:
Benjamin Netanyahu was the silver-tongued, M.I.T.-educated sophisticate. Avigdor Liberman was a penniless former bar bouncer from Moldova, happy to be the hatchet man.
Now they are barreling toward a climactic denouement, as Israel votes in a national election on Tuesday that could reshape the country’s political landscape and determine whether Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, will be sent into retirement, and whether Mr. Liberman, his former deputy, is launched on a path to one day replace him or into political oblivion.
Mr. Liberman is not popular enough to replace Mr. Netanyahu himself but his party is expected to win enough seats to make him a kingmaker, capable of throwing the premiership to someone else.
While there is a rough consensus in Israel on the vital issues of national security and relations with the Palestinians, Mr. Liberman has exposed a fault line on the role of religion, appealing to secular Israelis fed up with the special benefits and subsidies accorded the ultra-Orthodox.
The high stakes and extraordinarily personal rivalry have turned what might have been a tedious midsummer campaign into a thrilling cage match.
The stakes couldn't be higher. Writing for the Washington Post last week, Robert Kagan calls tomorrow's election a referendum on liberalism in Israel:
[T]here is broad agreement among Israeli conservatives that the central institutions of the liberal world order created since the end of World War II — the European Union and the United Nations, and perhaps even the transatlantic alliance NATO — are hostile toward Israel and should be taken down a peg. A united Europe, regarded by many on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the great accomplishments of the post-Cold War era, “hasn’t been a blessing for this country,” Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, has argued. “The less united Europe is, the better.” The emerging nationalist forces in Europe have provided Israel new allies in its struggle with liberal Europe. “Major changes are happening in Europe,” one senior Israeli diplomat told Haaretz a year ago. “It is becoming less liberal and more nationalist.” Hungary’s Orban is “leading this change,” and that is why “Netanyahu has identified him as a key ally.”
What makes Israelis think if the United States were to cease supporting the liberal world order and began shedding the alliances it created after World War II, that the only ally it would not shed would be Israel? (Amusingly, many Poles these days also seem to believe that if the United States pulled out of NATO, it would still maintain the security relationship with Poland.) And how would Israel fare in the kind of world that would emerge if the United States stopped trying to uphold the liberal order? Such a world would once again be a multipolar struggle for power and advantage, pitting Russia, China, India, Japan, Iran, the stronger European powers and the United States against one another — all with large populations, significant territories and vast economies. What would be the fate of tiny nations such as Israel in such a world, no matter how well they might be armed and no matter how advanced their economies?
Could Israel, with its few million citizens, surrounded by enemies on all sides, and no longer living under the umbrella of the United States’ global hegemony, rely on the support of European nations ruled by right-wing nationalists? Is a divided, renationalized Europe good for Israel, or for anyone else? Would Israelis look to Hungary and Poland, to Britain, or to Russia and China for support?
There is a certain shortsighted selfishness to the current Israeli approach to the world. The price Israel paid for being born into the liberal world order was that it would have to suffer liberal criticisms and be held to liberal standards. This might have been difficult and even, from Israelis’ perspective, unfair, but Israeli leaders have borne this burden for 70 years because they knew Israel had no choice, that there was no home for Israel except within the liberal world order. That many Israelis now believe they have a choice is a reflection of our times, but it is a dangerous illusion. Those Netanyahu campaign posters showing him shaking hands with Putin, Modi and Trump carry the tagline “A Different League.” Indeed, it is. Good luck.
Good luck indeed. Polls open in just a few hours.