Hard Questions, Tough Answers (June 3, 2019) - Elections again: what happened and why?

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Why is Israel having another Knesset election on September 17?

A. Ostensibly, we can blame tactical issues, even trivial ones. Prime Minister Netanyahu set out confidently to form a coalition based on a clear right-religious Knesset majority of 65 members of Knesset (MKs). He only needed 61 out of 120.

In the course of the usual deal-making, Netanyahu was unable to persuade Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beitenu, five mandates) to compromise with the 16 ultra-Orthodox MKs (from three parties, all known in Israel as Haredim) on the issue of compulsory military service for a minimum quota of Yeshiva students. Netanyahu ran out of time. The Haredi faction was numerically too strong to consider compromising. He had banked on Liberman caving at the last minute or on finding a replacement for him by poaching MKs from Blue White or Labor. He could still at the last minute field a minority government of 60 MKs and build from there, or he could return his mandate to President Rivlin who would select an alternative prime ministerial candidate.

But these options would, Netanyahu feared, expose him to indictment on multiple corruption charges. So he opted instead to dissolve the Knesset, a move for which he was able to recruit a majority, and set new elections for September 17.

Q. Weren’t some heavier strategic issues at work here?

A. Definitely. First and foremost, this entire dismaying episode was among right-wingers. Netanyahu, Liberman and the Haredim were squabbling among themselves. Even the MKs Netanyahu tried to poach are right-wingers to one extent or another. Thus, at the eleventh hour Netanyahu reached out to Labor (six MKs) and offered them a mind-boggling host of portfolios and even abandonment of his quest for new legislation to grant himself immunity and weaken the High Court if they would just join and rescue his coalition. Whom did he approach? Labor head Avi Gabai, a former right-winger. (In the event, Gabai’s fellow Labor MKs were too suspicious of Netanyahu’s promises, knowing he would either embarrass or dump them at the first opportunity.)

The point is--for anyone who did not grasp this until now--that this fiasco demonstrated that most of the Israeli public is either right wing, ultra-nationalist right wing, or Haredi right wing. Even Blue-White, the only sizeable opposition, is primarily right of center. The smaller parties of the right, some of which did not make the four-mandate threshold last time, calculate correctly that in addition to the 65 mandates of the right and religious who were candidates for Netanyahu’s failed coalition, another six to eight mandates had been lost in the last election to right-wing infighting.

Beyond the religious-secular squabbling that ostensibly brought down Netanyahu’s coalition effort, he was subject to political blackmail by every party he negotiated with. In the end, he did not sign a single coalition agreement. His legal vulnerability to indictment on multiple corruption charges radically weakened his political profile. Yet, paradoxically, when push came to shove he was able to muster an easy majority of the new and short-lived twenty-first Knesset to vote for going out of business and holding another election.

It is these contradictions in his personal and political image that he brings to the September 17 elections. One indication of the outgoing Knesset’s hidden balance of power is Monday’s secret vote for a new state comptroller: will Netanyahu’s mediocre candidate win, or the experienced retired general and senior government official proposed by Blue White?

Meanwhile, there is economic damage: the cost of new elections, the absence of a new budget for at least six months. And there is potential security damage with regional ramifications: see below.

Q. With over three months to go until elections, who has been strengthened politically? Whose electoral chances have improved, and whose chances worsened? Who emerged looking ridiculous? Are there any dark horses to keep an eye on?

A. For the moment, Liberman looks like a winner: snap polls give him eight mandates, an increase of three, and position him, with his “secular right” platform, as future kingmaker if once again Likud and Blue White draw at around 35 mandates each. Liberman is a bully and a racist who himself barely escaped indictment on corruption charges in the past, but he is an astute political tactician. He recognizes that Yisrael Beitenu can no longer rely on the votes of Russian immigrants--they have been absorbed too effectively into mainstream Israel. So now he presents himself as the knight in shining armor of embattled secular Israel.

Labor’s Gabai emerged from his flirt with Netanyahu looking ridiculous; Labor will replace him. But will Labor merge with Meretz in order to give the shrinking political left a little more political clout? Blue White successfully rebuffed the blandishments of Netanyahu’s emissaries as they tried to poach one or two new and naïve MKs to replace the stubborn Liberman in Netanyahu’s failed coalition. Not so Moshe Kachlon, who at the last minute merged Kulanu’s four mandates with the Likud; he had just scraped across the threshold this time around, and decided not to take any more chances.

But can Blue White, which is made up of three not totally compatible parties, hang together for another election? Will it be willing to join the next coalition, if only to break what may again emerge as an electoral impasse? Will Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid component of Blue White and whose championing of the anti-Haredi cause renders him anathema to the ultra-Orthodox, agree to forgo rotation with Blue White prime ministerial candidate Benny Gantz in order to enable Gantz--if Blue White wins the next round--to form a coalition with the Haredim?

Will a total of five fragmentary right-wing parties that wasted all those votes because of the four-mandate threshold last time around, now agree to merge? Or, with Netanyahu trying desperately to poach their votes and enlarge Likud vis-à-vis Blue White, will they once again dissolve into in-fighting over issues like imposing Jewish Halakhic law, annexing the entire West Bank, and disenfranchising Arabs?

Apropos, will the two Arab lists now re-merge in order not to waste their limited reserve of votes, even though as a separate list the more moderate of the two, led by Aiman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi, seemed potentially capable of working politically with the Jewish left and center? Indeed, could the inconceivable happen, pointing the way to a different future: Labor, Meretz and the Odeh/Tibi Arab list merging to form a genuine Jewish-Arab alternative?

Then there are the “freelancers” who are not in the outgoing short-lived Knesset but might be available to lists in search of a leader. On the center left, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni come to mind. On the right, Ayelet Shaked is considered attractive as a vote-getter for a right-religious party that needs a token secular woman whose sleeves and skirts aren’t too short and who has charisma.

Right now, no one has answers to these many questions. They emerged, or re-emerged, overnight last week. Wait for the long hot summer to find out what, if anything, has changed in Israeli politics.

Q. What does this do to Netanyahu’s legal situation?

A. Amidst the shambles of Netanyahu’s failed coalition effort, he also lost out on his attempt to ensure legislation that would award him immunity from prosecution and give a Knesset majority the capacity to reverse a potential High Court dismissal of a post-facto immunity law. Now Netanyahu faces a hearing on the charges against him on October 2-3, barely two weeks after elections, then possible indictment by December, probably before he can form a new coalition and legislate immunity for himself.

This looks like good news for the rule of law. Unless, of course, Netanyahu and his loyal followers, who clearly put his personal political survival above the rule of law, are able to engineer an instant coalition within weeks after the elections, and then engineer instant legislation to protect him from prosecution. It’s not impossible.

Q. How does this delay in stabilizing governance in Israel affect the region?

A. Most immediately, it looks like the much-promoted Trump “deal of the century” offering “economic peace” but not two states for Israelis and Palestinians will now once again be postponed. Perhaps indefinitely: by November, when presumably there is a new Israeli government, the US will be entering an election year that might, in Trump’s thinking, dictate further postponement lest Middle East politics become a particularly provocative factor in American elections. One indicator of Trump team thinking on this issue could be the fate of a conference devoted to economic aspects of the US peace plan scheduled by the administration for Bahrain later this month.

Then too, and of more immediate concern for Israelis, the absence of a stable Israeli government could negatively affect the security situation. Extreme instability and intermittent violence on both the Gaza and Syria fronts could escalate at any time. Both situations are to one degree or another hostage to Iran’s response to President Trump’s fluctuating and unpredictable policies toward that country.

Against this disturbing backdrop, Israel will by November have had no effective Security Cabinet or Knesset Security and Foreign Affairs Committee for close to a year. All relevant political office holders are now “acting”, led by Acting Minister of Defense Netanyahu who in his legally beleaguered state will be principal decision maker and budgetary regulator on security affairs for the next half year.

This is the very same Netanyahu who, even when he had an orderly Security Cabinet and was not minister of defense, enabled corrupt elements to order up a hugely expensive German submarine that the Israel Navy did not need, then flaunted intelligence warnings to approve German sale of an identical submarine to the Egyptian Navy. That is the crux of File 4000, one of three for which Netanyahu may be indicted.

And that, if you like, is the essence of the mess Israel finds itself in. Neither Liberman nor the Haredim bear the primary blame. That falls unequivocally on Netanyahu and his blind followers in the Likud.

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