September 11, 2019 | News | No Comments
The do-over campaign for Israel’s do-over election is reaching its end; voters go back to the polls on September 17th. Last time around, in the April 9th election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumed that he had won—or at least that a bloc of loyal-enough rightist parties had won. But, in the last hours of May 29th, just before the Presidential mandate to form a coalition government expired, he failed to muster, by a single vote, the required majority of the hundred and twenty seats in the Knesset. Rather than see the mandate pass to someone else, Netanyahu engineered a new election. It was a desperate gambit that, if the polls hold, will prove a futile one.
Over the summer, unprecedented alliances across the political spectrum have made Netanyahu seem more vulnerable than he has since the first time he lost office, in 1999. Should he lose, Israelis concerned about the fate of their democracy will sense an immediate relief. They are tired, most immediately, of his attacks on the judiciary and the police, his attempts to suborn the media, his willingness to tolerate soldiers violating Israel Defense Forces norms in occupation raids, his racist incitement against minorities, and his populist incitement against élites. In May, Benny Gantz, the leader of the new centrist Blue and White Party, which won as many seats as the Likud in April, claimed in his inaugural speech to the Knesset that his battle was “against the new threat to the democratic system’s functioning.” Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone in the opposition who does not see the election as a referendum on democracy.
Yet Netanyahu’s real nemesis has turned out to be not a coalition of progressive democrats but a former ally and a political tough, Avigdor Lieberman, whose secular-right Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home”) Party won five seats in April. Lieberman refused to join a new Netanyahu government without assurances that ultra-Orthodox youth would be conscripted into the I.D.F., as the Supreme Court had ruled that they should—assurances that Netanyahu could not give without losing the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which had won sixteen seats. Lieberman’s recalcitrance can be explained on purely tactical grounds. His base is largely made up of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are drawn to his (and Netanyahu’s) hard-nationalist and anti-Arab rhetoric. But the majority of Israelis who speak Russian at home say that “they never go to synagogue,” and they don’t want the rabbis meddling in their affairs.
In fact, seventy per cent of Jewish Israelis say that religious practice is not, or is only “somewhat,” important in their lives. Many abhor the separation of genders in public schools and universities and are dismayed that Jewish Israelis still can’t have civil marriages—and that the Chief Rabbinate has begun asking for genetic tests before allowing couples to marry. (According to the Law of Return, passed in 1950 and amended in 1970, in order to be granted citizenship rights a person must demonstrably have at least one Jewish grandparent.) Two-thirds of Jewish Israelis say that they want a “broad, civil coalition” government that excludes the ultra-Orthodox parties. Moreover, a slim but persistent majority identify as “right-wing.” Lieberman apparently grasped that the spectre of creeping theocracy could prove a wedge issue even among those voters, and so reverse his sinking popularity. (His party once got more than twice as many seats as it won in April.)
Yet Lieberman’s motives are personal, too. He previously served as the director-general of the Likud Party, and later as a minister in Likud-dominated coalitions, and made common cause with theocrats when it suited him. But Netanyahu thwarted and even humiliated Lieberman when it suited him. In 2014, he had Likud renege on an electoral alliance with Lieberman’s party. A new election portends revenge at its sweetest, particularly now.
That’s because Netanyahu is facing three possible indictments—one for bribery, two for breach of trust—and hearings are scheduled for early October. According to precedent and to Supreme Court rulings, if he is charged he will be expected, if not forced, to resign. And the timing of the campaign has made the case against him seem only stronger. Israel’s most widely watched news program, on Channel 12, aired a leaked transcript of testimony by the former director of the Communications Ministry (a Netanyahu appointee), confirming that Netanyahu had ordered him to issue regulations benefitting a media mogul from whom Netanyahu was aiming to extract political favors. (Netanyahu has urged Likud supporters to boycott Channel 12, calling its news “fake,” and accusing it of being “anti-Semitic” for co-producing a series with HBO—airing here as “Our Boys”—which shows Israeli extremists committing a hate crime against a Palestinian boy.)
Netanyahu hoped that, with a new election, he could secure a Likud coalition without Lieberman and with the ultra-Orthodox and national-Orthodox, pro-settler parties. The former will almost certainly hold their number of Knesset seats. The latter have no affection for Netanyahu, but they want to keep control of the ministries—Justice and Education—that give them the upper hand in Israel’s culture wars. They’ve indicated that they would pass whatever laws might be necessary to diminish the power of the Supreme Court and keep Netanyahu in office—and to win those wars.
Indeed, over the summer, a consolidated national-Orthodox party, Yemina (“To the Right”), led by the former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, formed, in order to end the factionalism that had cost Netanyahu’s coalition crucial seats in April. Shaked, who is known for a kind of glamorous ruthlessness—her campaign put out a mock-commercial for a perfume called “Fascism,” purportedly exposing the left’s hyperbole—folded her party into Yemina. She had tried to join Likud, after the April defeat, but Netanyahu, always nervous about rivals, blocked her. She has signalled, however, that, should Likud and the religious parties get a majority, Yemina would join them to try to protect Netanyahu from prosecution. Another party, Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Strength”), led by extremist followers of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, now looks as if it might win four seats, and it would also protect Netanyahu in order to advance itself. Those seats could bring Netanyahu’s potential coalition to just two short of a majority.
Still, Lieberman will likely prove the wiliest figure in the campaign. Blue and White is currently polling at around thirty-two seats, essentially tied with the Likud once more. Though the total number of center-left seats—including Arab members, whom Blue and White has not exactly embraced—falls at least five short of a majority, Lieberman can still plausibly believe that Netanyahu and the ultra-right parties will also fall short, and that his own party will hold the balance of power. In that case, he can drag out the process of forming a new government through October, forcing Netanyahu to face indictments before any legislation to save him can be passed.
In addition, Netanyahu’s forced resignation would facilitate Lieberman’s larger plan to keep the secular right in power: he has been hinting that he will recommend to the President that Benny Gantz be given the mandate. He has also made it clear that he will not support a Blue and White coalition that includes the progressive and Arab parties. Instead, he intends to prompt Gantz to organize a national-unity government, whose core would be Blue and White, Lieberman’s party, and a Likud without Netanyahu. This last element presumes that, if Netanyahu is charged, Likud leaders who are not simply Netanyahu sycophants— the former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, for example—will abandon him. Last month, Netanyahu, showing signs of panic, extracted a public pledge from the top forty Likud candidates that they won’t try to replace him. But Lieberman has openly encouraged Party leaders to dump the Prime Minister.
This plan relies on a number of uncertainties, but it’s not fanciful. Lieberman’s party signed a vote-sharing agreement with Gantz’s. Knesset seats are apportioned according to the total number of votes a party wins—often with some votes, short of the amount required for another seat, remaining. Vote-sharing awards all the remainder votes to the party that has the most of them, and perhaps entitles that party—presumably Blue and White—to another seat.
Not surprisingly, Gantz and Yair Lapid, Blue and White’s No. 2, appear content to go along with Lieberman’s machinations. The Party is top-heavy with former commanders of the defense establishment who, like many of the Likud rank and file, instinctively favor a national-unity government and tend toward a secular-nationalist rhetoric. Like Lieberman, they also tend to see the Palestinian issue as a military challenge—controlling the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and deterring Hamas in Gaza—rather than as a sacred right to the Land of Israel.
Gantz himself has given few interviews in recent months; he’s apparently been content to rely on Lieberman’s scheming, the charisma and the authority of his team of generals, and on Netanyahu fatigue, which is rising across the country. The governor of the Bank of Israel is warning of a disruptive budget deficit—as high as four per cent of the G.D.P.—so Netanyahu’s lavish public grants to religious institutions increasingly seem of a piece with fiscal mismanagement. The Gaza border remains violent, and there have been exchanges with Hezbollah and Iranian forces in the north. In the past, Netanyahu benefitted from such tension, posturing as the nation’s indispensable leader; now he’s increasingly suspected of manipulating it. Gantz, in a rare interview, for the Yediot Ahronot Web site, bluntly accused Netanyahu of exploiting the military situation to advance his campaign. On Tuesday, Netanyahu announced that he will, if elected, annex the strategic Jordan Valley, in the West Bank. Blue and White spokespeople accused him of trying to use Jordan Valley residents “as extras in a campaign video.”
Gantz and Lapid have seemed at odds over a strategy to carry the secularist vote. Lapid projects himself as its authentic champion and plays the bad cop to Gantz’s good cop in challenging the ultra-Orthodox parties’ venality. He made a satiric video accusing ultra-Orthodox leaders of selling their support of Netanyahu for more state subsidies. Gantz repudiated it. Yet he also told Yediot Ahronot that he would work to set up a secular government first, so that any religious parties that joined would have to accept its principles.
On the whole, then, the Gantz-Lapid partnership seems to be holding—and Netanyahu’s panic seems to be deepening. His closeness to Donald Trump is not doing Netanyahu the kind of good that it did in April, after Trump suddenly recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan. The American President has appeared increasingly erratic about confronting Iran—the Israeli press is buzzing with stories of Trump side-stepping Netanyahu and secretly angling to meet with the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani—and increasingly reckless in demanding American Jewish “loyalty.”
Moreover, the opposition to the left of Blue and White is consolidating, much as rightist parties are doing in Yemina. A new party, calling itself the Israel Democratic Party, formed in July, as a coalition that includes the left-wing Meretz Party, some defecting Labor leaders, and the former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The Arab Knesset leader Ayman Odeh, who is the head of the Hadash Party, has, for his part, reconstituted the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties, in an attempt to bring out the Arab vote, which dropped to under fifty per cent in April. The Joint List is currently polling at ten seats, but it could pick up more. (In April, the Likud, in a naked effort to suppress the Arab vote, sent operatives with cameras to Arab polling places, which the Attorney General deemed illegal. This week, Netanyahu’s government tried, and failed, to ram through a law to permit the cameras.)
Last month, Odeh took the extraordinary step of announcing that his party would offer parliamentary support to, and even join, a government that worked to end the occupation; repeal the controversial nation-state law, passed last year, which privileges Jews over other citizens; and redouble efforts to bring police, educational, and social-welfare services to Arab communities. Some Blue and White leaders responded with skepticism. Yoaz Hendel dismissed the offer out of hand, insisting that the Joint List includes “Arab parties which fundamentally reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish state”—nor did he feel it was incumbent upon him to explain just what he meant by “Jewish state.” (Some in the Party were strong proponents of the nation-state law.)
Nevertheless, Odeh told me that the priority is to constitute a “democratic front” with all parties with shared values, including progressive members of Blue and White. Stav Shaffir, a former leader of Labor, and now a leader of the Democratic Party, told me that her goal was to advance just such an alliance. As a gesture toward the Arab community, Barak issued a public apology for his government’s role in opening fire on Israeli Arab protesters in the early days of the al-Aqsa Intifada, in 2000. Odeh, knowing how deeply Barak is still resented in Arab towns, rejected it. (He said the Joint List would refuse to sign a vote-sharing agreement with the Democratic Party as long as Barak is on its list, but the point seems negotiable.)
The Democratic Party has been polling uncertainly at between four to seven seats, about the same as Labor, which is now led by Amir Peretz. Labor has merged with the economic populist Gesher (Bridge) Party, led by Orly Levy-Abekasis; both politicians are from North-African-immigrant communities and are particularly eager to topple Netanyahu in order to fund social services, “a hundred and twenty billion shekels from which Netanyahu has cut,” Peretz claims. Given the precarious state of the economy, he may attract Jewish voters of North-African descent.
But any democratic front, whatever its eventual appeal, is too late for this election. If Netanyahu loses, Blue and White will almost certainly get the mandate. Gantz and Lapid will push to recommit the country to norms of electoral democracy (though they will fall short of what Odeh is requesting). They will cut back on support for religious-party institutions, and increase funding for education, housing, and health care, including for the Arab sector. They will implicitly project “Israeliness” over Netanyahu’s pretension to represent diaspora Jews as a whole, and they say that they will seek to repair relations with the Democratic Party in this country. Though Gantz has acknowledged the strategic value of the Jordan Valley, and Lapid has criticized boycotts of the settlements, they would likely scotch talk of annexing outright any parts of the West Bank. When Gantz speaks of saving the “democratic system’s functioning,” this is what he means.
Needless to say, with Palestinians under occupation, and a state apparatus increasingly structured to discriminate against non-Jewish citizens, the democratic system’s functioning will require more than that. But, if Netanyahu loses, the potential effect should not be underestimated. Land of Israel zealots will no longer be in control of the education ministry; the prerogatives of the Supreme Court will be preserved. Neighboring Arab states are exerting pressure for a regional plan, and would prefer to work with moderates like Gantz. Next year, Trump may be voted out of office, and pressure from Washington to deal creatively on Palestine would increase. To move forward, a car does not need a foot on the accelerator. It inches forward when you take your foot off the brake. For now, it will be enough to get Netanyahu out of the driver’s seat.
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