Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (January 21, 2020) - Thoughts and Insights on the Emerging Israeli Election Alignment


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. The party electoral lists for the March 2 Knesset elections are now final. The elections are a month and a half away. What have we learned from this experience about Israeli politics, society and values?

A. Let’s start with the polls. They are unanimous in pronouncing that these elections, the third round within a year, will again end in a deadlock that more or less resembles the present untenable situation. We can assume fairly safely that there will be no dramatic defections from right to center or from center to right and that the possible indictment of PM Netanyahu prior to March 2 polling day will not radically reduce loyalty to the Likud. Accordingly, we are looking with fairly high probability at another inconclusive election and a fourth round sometime in 2020.

Q. The indictment could finally be delivered within weeks, if and when the current transition Knesset votes not to award Netanyahu immunity from prosecution as long as he is prime minister. What is at stake here?

A. Netanyahu cannot command a majority in this Knesset as long as Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beteinu right-secular party refuse to support a Likud-led coalition. The prime minister requested immunity from the Knesset not because he expects to be awarded immunity but because, legally, the very fact of his pending request prevents the attorney general from delivering the promised three indictments and starting the judicial process rolling.

But the Blue-White-led opposition does command a majority to reject immunity in a Knesset vote. That majority includes rivals like Liberman and the Joint Arab List that refuse to join together in a coalition but agree to reject immunity. And Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Likudnik on whom Netanyahu had depended to prevent such a Knesset vote, has undertaken to follow both the letter and the spirit of the law and allow the vote.

If Edelstein courageously continues to hold up against pressures from the Likud, this may be the end of his career. He reportedly had hopes that Likud would elect him president following Reuven Rivlin. Now he will be punished politically for his integrity.

But the bigger issue is Netanyahu’s seemingly endless drive to flout the law and survive politically, at the cost of repeated elections and, worse, at the risk of badly wounding Israeli democracy. His current tactic appears to be to delay the Knesset vote on immunity as near as possible to March 2, then withdraw his hopeless immunity request before the vote but late enough that Israeli voters will not be affected by news of his indictment prior to elections.

If, against most expectations, Netanyahu wins the elections, he will finally have an immunity coalition. If there is a fourth round, the entire unsavory process of maneuvering between the Knesset, immunity and elections will start again while the country continues treading water and fighting exhaustion.

Yedioth Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea summed up what’s at stake last Friday: “Honoring the rules of the game rather than the letter of the law is the foundation of the existence of Israeli democracy. Is our democracy in danger? Definitely. The struggle over immunity is tunneling under the walls.”

Q. The Zionist left (Labor-Gesher-Meretz) and nearly all the far religious-right (Jewish Home, National Union and New Right) have united into single lists. What picture emerges overall? What are the strategic trends in Israeli politics?

A. The most dangerous trend is the ongoing legitimization of Kahanist-fascist political actors on the far right. Some, like former IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz, were coopted into the new-old far-right coalition. Others, like Itamar Ben-Gvir of the openly Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, were left to run on their own and almost certainly will fall below the four-mandate threshold--but not before having been treated like darlings of the media and clawing their way to greater acceptance.

A second dangerous trend is the ongoing shrinking of the Zionist left. The newly created Labor-Meretz-Gesher list will score well above the four-mandate threshold. But it is an artificial creation: Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abakasis and Labor-leader Amir Peretz do not have Israeli-Palestinian issues on their election agenda and are liable to dissolve the union once elected.

Worse, Blue-White, now assured that it will have a Zionist partner to its left for a coalition, has begun moving politically to the right to try to poach votes from Likud. Lately it has dropped hints about considering or advocating Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley “in coordination with the international community”. Annexing the Jordan Valley is a Likud platform plank designed to dovetail with a Trump “peace” proposal that just may be unveiled by the administration in Washington before March 2. The idea is that Israel’s right-religious mainstream, which likes Trump and his initiatives regarding Jerusalem and Israel’s borders, would interpret Trump’s endorsement of Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley as significant support for whichever candidate, Netanyahu or Gantz or both, aligns with this position.

That Trump’s “deal of the century” would be counter-productive to peace, and that Jordan Valley annexation would be disastrous for the future of Israeli-Jordanian as well as Israeli-Palestinian relations, have been amply discussed in these virtual pages. What is relevant here is the further overall rightward drift of Israeli politics. True, there are still some bona fide two-state solution advocates in Blue-White (in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction, which is part of Blue-White). But this does not diminish the fact that, tactically and electorally, Blue-White believes it has to inch away from the center and in the direction of the ultra-nationalist right to get more votes.

Q. What will remain of the left after this or the next round?

A. At the present rate, the only hope for a viable Israeli left wing advocating a two-state solution could well become some sort of Jewish-Arab alliance based on Meretz and the less extreme members of the Joint Arab List. This would reflect at one and the same time the shrinking of the Zionist left and the persistence of the Joint Arab List in hanging together and gaining votes (projected at between 13 and 15 mandates in the coming election).

In principle, a genuine Jewish-Arab list is a forward-looking idea in terms of the integration of Israel’s Arabs into the fabric of the state. But there are problems here, too. One problem is that the Joint List continues to include Arab extremists who glorify Palestinian terrorists. Another is that even the Joint List’s moderates, when advocating for two states, generally mean a Palestinian-Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside a binational Jewish-Arab state that is “Israel” in name only rather than a Zionist state.

Q. Netanyahu as prime minister is able to generate all kinds of smoke-and-mirror events and effects that should ostensibly boost his popularity, like this week’s seventy-fifth Holocaust commemoration in Jerusalem. Does this boost him electorally?

A. It is indeed striking that events like the visit to Jerusalem this week of so many kings and presidents, all publicly welcomed by the prime minister, no longer exercise a lasting effect on Netanyahu’s popularity. They simply don’t budge the poll results. The same can be said about the prospect that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit for the commemoration will offer some firm news about a pardon for a young Israeli-American woman sentenced in Moscow to over seven years in prison for a minor drug offense--a cause celebre that Netanyahu has championed in Israel.

Netanyahu’s rival, Blue-White leader Benny Gantz, can only watch from the sidelines as Netanyahu leverages the privileges of the Prime Minister’s Office to take headline-grabbing local and international policy initiatives. Yet all this seems to have no effect on the electoral chances of either. Netanyahu grandstands, pontificates, bad-mouths the legal establishment to the applause of his followers. Gantz plays it cool, dignified and responsible. None of this seems to change voters’ minds.

Q. Accordingly, you refer almost offhandedly to the prospects of a fourth round and of more Netanyahu manipulation of the system to stay in power. But what does this gridlock say about the long-term viability of Israel and its democratic system? This looks increasingly dysfunctional . . .

A. One of the reasons the country displays few signs of alarm is that everyone seems to be muddling through. Budgets may be frozen, but taxes are collected and the poverty level is not rising. The security establishment may be warning of threats and signaling that it needs new budgets for new technologies, but meanwhile none of the threats has come to fruition.

One could even speculate that, were some long-predicted security or economic disaster to befall Israel--one attributable to the neglect spawned by the current paralysis--we might see one or more Knesset factions daring, after the coming election, to cross the lines in order to form a national-emergency coalition and gain credit for rescuing the country and the system.

Since this hasn’t happened, life goes on, election follows election, and the democratic fabric of the country is little by little eroded.

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