Israel: Stable Government Remains a Chimera
There has been continuing speculation about the outcome of the September 27 polls.
Israel votes again on September 27 2019. The two main lead contenders -Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz Blue and White party- had emerged with 35 seats each in the 120 member Knesset with Likud a little ahead in the number of votes secured. The fresh polls were necessitated by the failure of Benjamin Netanyahu, the victor of the April 2019 Knesset elections to cobble together a working coalition, despite having been given time till May 29-which included a two week extension- by President Reuven Rivlin.
Netanyahu had needed both the Russian speaking Avidor Liberman led Yisrael Beitenu and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Haredi parties to have enough seats to form a majority. His efforts floundered over a feud over military conscription between his presumed allies—with the Jewish parties wanting young religious scholars to be exempted, en masse from mandatory national service and Lieberman and many other Israelis wanting them to share the burden of protecting the country. Netanyahu’s overtures to the Labour party also failed and Gantz refused to join any coalition with Netanyahu given his legal troubles and possible indictment for corruption. The Knesset, faced with the prospect of Benny Gantz being called upon by the President to try and form a government, took the unprecedented step of voting to dissolve itself before any government could be formed.
The Knesset vote came on May 30 with 74 in favour to 45 against a snap election. The 45 votes against the resolution came from the entire membership of three parties: the Blue and White alliance (35 votes), Labor party (6 votes), and the Meretz party (4 votes). All other Knesset members voted for the resolution.
For the past months there has been continuing speculation about the outcome of the September 27 polls. New party lists have been formed and new players have emerged on the scene. The most prominent, though not necessarily a shape changing, development has been the return of former PM Ehud Barak to active politics declaring his determination now to allow a Netanyahu victory. His “Democratic Israel” faction had joined others from the left namely the Meretz party, senior Labor Party official Stav Shaffir and the extra-parliamentary Green Movement to form the “Democratic Union”. The joint list will be headed by Nitzan Horowitz, the newly elected, openly gay leader of Meretz. Meretz depends a great deal on the Arab vote and the coming together with Barak was possibly facilitated by the latter’s apology for the killing of 13 Arab protesters by Israeli police in 2000 while he was prime minister. But Barak’s credibility had also been tarnished by his publicized links with the late Jefferey Epstein, charged with sex trafficking. Barak had received $2 million in grants in the last decade from the Wexner Foundation, of which Epstein had been a trustee, and Epstein had also invested in a start-up company founded by Barak. But now Barak had denounced Epstein and refuted the charge that he had any links with the dead financier.
The other main contender - the Blue and White Party of Benny Gantz and its allies had decided to maintain its earlier structure. Despite suggestions that the alliance should make changes due to their failure to achieve a majority in the April election, the alliance had confirmed in June that it would keep the same rotating premiership of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid as in the previous election and also was reported to have decided to run with the almost exact same list as they did in the April elections.
Meanwhile after the failure to entice allies after the April elections, the Likud had managed to get the Kulanu coalition to officially dissolve itself with its remaining members joined the Likud on 31 July, lifting the Likud’s Knesset representation up to 39 seats from the 32 it won in the April elections. Reports suggest that Netanyahu has been putting intense pressure on several small right-wing factions to pull out of the election in September so that their votes don’t get “wasted” if they fail to clear the 3.25-percent threshold for entering the Knesset.
In August, Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin announced an agreement with Netanyahu under which Zehut would withdraw from the election in return for Feiglin serving as a minister in the next government, and a promise that Likud would implement some of Zehut's economic and cannabis reforms.
But Channel 12 TV discounted that the move would have any meaningful impact on the elections. A Channel 12 Survey had found that Netanyahu remained the most popular candidate to lead the country ahead of Gantz. A recent survey by The Israel Democracy Institute’s Israel Voice however said that while 60 of respondents in its recent survey, gave Netanyahu a high score for “improving Israel’s international standing,” “strengthening [Israel’s] military power,” and “handling the Iranian challenge” a majority gave him a black card for personal integrity. Israelis believe that Netanyahu has failed to reduce economic and social gaps and remains tarred by corruption suspicions. Center-left parties had taken out advertisements that Mr. Netanyahu’s desperation to avoid prison was driving him to hand over key ministries, including education and transportation, to ultra-religious leaders seen as extremists by many secular Israelis.
Netanyahu’s own actions speak of a degree of panic. There were reports that Netanyahu was in fact trying to prevent the elections taking place after himself having been a party to the Knesset’s dissolution. He had given a statement that he was considering an initiative by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, No. 2 in his Likud party, to draw back from the second election. Edelstein said the apparent U-turn was prompted by a growing number of parliamentarians from various political factions who had called the decision to hold another election a “foolish move.” He told Israel’s Army Radio the majority of the people did not want another election so soon and it was necessary to find a way within the current Knesset to form the widest coalition. He said he was working, with Netanyahu’s backing, to cancel the September 2019election
Netanyahu has been trying to get Likud lawmakers to sign a loyalty oath vowing that he would remain the party’s only candidate, “regardless of the election results.” There are also reports that he is seeking support for an immunity law that would help him escape the indictment that hangs over his head with the Attorney General Mandelblit turning down a request from his lawyers to delay an indictment hearing set for Oct. 2. If formal charges are filed, Netanyahu could be forced to step aside even if he wins the 27 September vote. Reports said that Gilad Erdan, the 48-year-old Minister Of Strategic Affairs, turned down an appointment as ambassador to the United Nations. He had told people privately that he did not want to be stuck in New York during a possible battle to succeed Mr. Netanyahu as party leader.
Netanyahu’s successes on the international front have also not been unsullied. He has been embarrassed by President Trump who forced him to reverse his decision to bar two Democratic Members of Congress from visiting Israel and also jarred the Israeli leader by suggesting that there could be talks between the USA and Iran. There is speculation that Netanyahu is banking on President Trump bailing him out possibly by attending a trilateral meeting on Syria and Iran that Netanyahu is seeking to organize with the Russians and the Americans and possibly acceding to Bibi’s request to send back Jonathan Pollard, the convicted Israeli spy who has been seeking to move to Israel.
Netanyahu’s opposition has been going hammer and tongs at him. Blue and White’s Benny Gantz has vowed not to sit in a government led by Netanyahu, while Liberman has called for Netanyahu to be replaced as Likud chairman by another figure in the ruling party so as to enable a national unity coalition. In fact Liberman has said on record that he had met with senior Likud officials about dumping Mr. Netanyahu as the party’s standard-bearer if he failed to emerge from the election with a viable governing coalition of 61 seats in the 120-seat Parliament.
The real question is what will the new elections throw up. A poll by Kan News , similar to other polls released over the past weeks, shows the right-wing bloc, together with the ultra-Orthodox parties, would receive only 56 seats. The center-left bloc is projected 44 seats, or 55 together with the Joint List. Yisrael Beiteinu is seen maintaining the opportunity to deny Netanyahu the ability to form a coalition, as he did after April's election.
A recent survey by iPanel, carried by Channel 12, indicated that more Israeli voters would prefer a unity government made up of the ruling Likud party and centrist Blue and White parties rather than one that would include Yisrael Beytenu headed by Avigdor Liberman. In fact for the past month there has been increasing speculation that the Likud with just right-wing and Haredi parties would not be able to secure a majority and Benny Gantz would need to get the support of mutually antagonistic secularists and Haredi factions which is unlikely to happen. A unity government would appear to be the most likely outcome.
This scenario has forced some of the players to shift their strategies. After repeatedly saying he would have no truck with the Likud unless it changed its leadership, Benny Gantz had told a campaign rally in Beersheba that he would seek a coalition with Likud and Yisrael Beytenu and – at least initially – without Shas and United Torah Judaism. Reports said that American consultant Joel Benenson was involved in shaping the Blue and White strategy change. Gantz had been criticised relentlessly by Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu Party for his reticence to underline his commitment to liberal, pluralistic values. Leaders of Shas and UTJ had denounced Gantz for saying he would form a “liberal unity government,” without “extremists or extortionists,” comments that were seen as referring to the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing religious-Zionist parties.
The Palestinian question remains prominent in Israeli politics. Before the polls in April 2019 an electoral alliance comprising the Ra'am, Hadash, and Ta'al and Balad factions had split into two competing pair-ups. They did not do well with the Hadash-Taal alliance getting six seats, while the United Arab List-Balad bloc won four. Legislators from the four parties had now re-formed the Joint List alliance in a bid to boost voter turnout in the Palestinian community and secure more seats in the Knesset in the September 2019 polls. The list would be led by Hadash Chairman Ayman Odeh who also led the alliance in the 2015 . When the parties combined on a single slate for the 2015 election, the alliance secured 13 seats, making it the third biggest bloc in the Knesset at the time. The Joint List, according to a Kan News poll would be able to secure 11 seats potentially making it the third biggest party in Israel's parliament.
The Joint List leader Ayman Odeh had earlier said that he would be willing to join a Center Left coalition. But, possibly because he had made the statement without consulting other leaders, Odeh changed his position within a couple of weeks. He said he would never be party to a government with the Palestinian people under military rule and Israeli Arabs treated as second-class citizens. The Joint List had criticized Gantz’s Blue and White Party of being racist.
So far there is no indication that Netanyahu will be successful in preventing the elections on 27 September 2019. But would the well known selfishness, ideological mindsets, and sharp differences among political parties and between leaders in Israel actually be set aside in the interests of a unity government? The odds are stacked against such a scenario becoming a reality leaving open the question—will there be another election after 27 September 2019 ? The impasse would be detrimental to the polity and economy as well as security of the country and the neighbourhood where Israel has always claimed to be the most successful democracy.