Meanwhile, in Israel: countdown to elections? - Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (November 23, 2020)


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.

REMINDER: APN Webinar with Yossi Alpher on Tuesday, November 24, 12 noon (Eastern): Israel and the Biden Administration Register to attend 

Q. The Israeli body politic seems to have given up on a Gantz-Netanyahu rotation. Everyone is focused on new elections in 2021. A series of dramatic events, barely hours apart, appears to point in that direction. Is there an alternative explanation? Is there an alternative?

A. When you look at the events of just the last few days, it would appear that both Netanyahu and Gantz are heading in the direction of elections. But we should not ignore the heavy and more constant background issues that also affect political decision-making in Israel.

Then, too, anticipation of a Biden administration in the US seems increasingly to be a factor in both Israeli and regional considerations.

Q. What are the dramatic events?

A. Two stand out. A serious investigation of the so-called submarine deal, and Netanyahu’s surprise trip, with US Secretary of State Pompeo, to Saudi Arabia.

Gantz, who is minister of defense as well as alternate prime minister, has just invoked his ministerial authority over security issues to set up a governmental committee of inquiry into the circumstances of Israel’s purchase of submarines and surface patrol boats for the Israel Navy from a German firm. A police investigation into possible bribes involved in the deal has already led to indictments. A related issue to be looked at concerns Netanyahu’s approval of sale to Egypt by Thyssenkrupp, the German firm, of the same advanced model of submarine developed with Israel.

Attorney General Mandelblit did not find grounds to indict Netanyahu regarding the legality of his decisions regarding the submarines. Yet many serving and retired officials and officers from the security community believe this is Israel’s biggest security scandal ever. They are convinced that a thorough investigation will implicate the prime minister, who is already facing trial on three other counts of corruption. Hence Gantz’s committee of inquiry is widely perceived as not only a necessary step for the health of Israeli governance but a hostile step against Netanyahu as well. The committee’s short timetable, only four months to investigate and submit a report, appears timed to influence Netanyahu’s calculations regarding snap elections early in 2021.

The second dramatic event, Netanyahu’s reported meeting in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), can only be analyzed superficially at this point because so little has been publicized. Netanyahu flew on Sunday night November 22 with Mossad Head Yossi Cohen to Neom, the futuristic and still embryonic Saudi city on the Red Sea coast not far south of Eilat. There, he met for five hours with MbS and Pompeo, who has been touring the Middle East.

What was discussed is not known. The shared threat from Iran, the Palestinian issue and the prospect of open Saudi-Israeli relations would appear to be high on the list. Beyond matchmaking, Pompeo’s role was presumably marginal in view of the limited shelf-life of the Trump administration. Indeed, MbS may have agreed to this unprecedented meeting precisely because he is seeking, through Israel, the good graces of the incoming Biden administration. The latter threatens to take a tough stance toward the Saudi regime over human rights issues at home and war crimes in Yemen.

What is clear is that from Netanyahu’s standpoint the visit is extremely useful in terms of political self-promotion, particularly if a declaration regarding elections is forthcoming.

Q. And the less dramatic and more constant background issues?

A. Here we get into the nitty gritty of Israeli daily politics and the strikingly dysfunctional Netanyahu-Gantz coalition government. On the face of it, any single issue could trigger a political crisis and new elections. Yet in aggregrate, these issues are so hard to unravel and so laden with internal coalition tensions and contradictions that some experienced observers are predicting that Israel’s strange two-headed coalition will survive by inertia, probably without a Netanyahu-Gantz rotation.

One key issue is the corona virus and the prospect of mass vaccination of the population sometime in 2021. It is now clear, and not only in Israel, that it is impossible to suppress virus spread for long without seriously damaging the economy and the country’s social fabric, including the education system. The curve of infection will rise and dip repeatedly throughout the winter until immunization arrives.

But when will Israel possess millions of doses of vaccine? Nobody knows for sure. Moderna, Pfizer and Astra-Zeneca have committed to supply vaccine to Israel, but only after they fill larger orders from the US and Europe. Besides, their vaccines have not yet been approved. Russia has a vaccine, but is it effective?

The questions at stake are political not only because Netanyahu politicizes them with his kowtowing to the ultra-Orthodox parties’ demands not to enforce social distancing on their flock. They are political because Netanyahu is not likely to plunge Israel into early elections if the virus is still raging and campaigning has to take place by zoom.

This brings us to a second key background issue: Netanyahu’s impending trial, which is still set to begin sometime in January. Netanyahu wants by hook or by crook to delay or cancel it. That is ostensibly one key motive for him to trigger elections. He presumably hopes elections will produce a solid right-religious coalition, without troublesome amateurs like Gantz, that will legislate his way out of a trial.

But if the elections are being held while the trial is generating almost daily revelations and accusations about Netanyahu’s misdeeds and malfeasance? Only if the prime minister’s lawyers can find a way to delay the trial by half a year and corona can be conquered by March do spring 2021 elections make sense. Then too, there is the issue of the budget. Israel hasn’t had one for around two years because it has been ruled, between no fewer than three inconclusive elections, by transition governments. Key projects and reforms are on hold. A primary commitment of the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition that was formed half a year ago is to pass a budget, if not for 2020 then for 2021. But from Netanyahu’s standpoint of political calculation and from a constitutional standpoint, a coalition’s failure to approve a budget is grounds for dissolving it and moving to new elections.

So, by late December, the absence of a budget for 2021 could be Netanyahu’s ‘exit point’. But what if corona is raging and his trial is about to begin? Pass a half-year budget so the exit point is postponed until June-July? And if Gantz refuses? That brings the two of them dangerously close to the November 2021 rotation date whereby Netanyahu ceases to be prime minister and becomes even more legally vulnerable.

By that time, Biden administration initiatives regarding Iran and possibly the Palestinians could become a factor in Israeli politics. Would Netanyahu wish to initiate elections in order to evade US pressure over, say, the Palestinian issue? He would presumably gain half a year, Biden-free, during which Israel is once again busy with elections and coalition forming. Would Netanyahu then hope to form a more right-wing coalition, without the troublesome Blue-White party that does not share his annexationist agenda? Or, on the contrary, are Blue-White leaders Gantz, Ashkenazi and Nisenkorn with their less aggressive Palestinian agenda convenient for Netanyahu in the Biden era?

Q. Meanwhile, despite all this dysfunction and Machiavellian plotting and counter-plotting, here and there the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition is getting things done in ways that seemingly could deliver political stability . . .

A. Indeed. A few days ago the prime minister and his ‘alternate’ agreed on a few vital high-level governmental appointments such as an accountant-general at the Finance Ministry. Some ugly political trade-offs were involved. But at least this begins to satisfy another of this coalition’s commitments aimed at ending two years of stalemate.

Then too, on a totally different front, the Palestinian Authority just agreed to renew security and economic cooperation with Israel and take possession of nearly a billion dollars in import taxes levied by Israel on its behalf. This broke a boycott imposed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) half a year ago over Netanyahu’s plan to annex West Bank territories. That plan was in any case abandoned when two Arab countries, the UAE and Bahrain, initiated normalization ties with Israel.

Abbas also sent his ambassadors back to the two Arab states, and agreed to explore ways to reconfigure PA stipends to Palestinians imprisoned in Israel on terrorism charges. Hopefully this will conform to Israeli and American objections to what are described as “pay for slay” policies that constitute incentives for Palestinian violence.

All this, after a visit by Biden’s emissaries. Abbas’s moves render easier Gantz’s task of managing day-today Israeli-Palestinian relations. But they could also prove convenient for Netanyahu in anticipated Palestinian-related dealings with Biden.

Q. Who are the politically astute Israelis now predicting that there will be no elections next year and that Netanyahu and Gantz will remain in their present jobs, without rotation?

A. Here is what Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote on November 19: “The solution to the political crisis in Israel . . . is truly blinding in its simplicity. . . . Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz will sign a new coalition agreement that freezes the current situation. . . until November 2023. The budget will pass [and] the senior appointments will be divided between the two blocs.”

Benn’s logic is that rightist Likud and centrist Blue-White basically agree on most policy issues. Netanyahu needs Gantz and his colleagues as a “flak jacket” against Biden administration pressures. And Gantz is too weak a politician and Blue White has lost too much public support to do anything but play along.

In any case, Gantz has already allowed in conversations within Blue White that he does not expect rotation to take place a year from now. He can always find corona-related and security-related reasons to justify remaining defense minister (a position where the ex-IDF chief of staff is comfortable) rather than prime minister (a job that still looks to many observers two sizes too big for him).

This alternative take on Israel’s political prospects is supported enthusiastically by Aryeh Deri, who heads the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party, currently a member of the coalition. Deri is a legendary political manipulator. Deri is offering to “guarantee” that the coalition, if not tampered with, will last a full four and a half years. Needless to say, Deri’s political guarantees and promises tend to be clever, yet lack any long-term validity.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Gantz provided it in an interview in Yediot Aharonot on Monday November 23: “The country needs one of two options: either a budget and a functioning government, or elections. I declare loud and clear:

I think Israel needs a budget and a functioning government.” Is this declaration worth any more than Deri’s guarantee?

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