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 Knesset just passed, on a preliminary vote, a new election bill sponsored by Blue-White, Netanyahu’s disaffected coalition partner. Why now? Is Blue-White serious?
A. Blue-White’s leader, Benny Gantz, seems so out of place in Israeli politics that it is hard to tell if he’s
serious. If his bill becomes law, he and PM Netanyahu will have to agree on a date for Israel’s fourth round of
elections in two years. Gantz will ultimately have to accommodate Netanyahu’s demand to delay the elections until
as late as June 2021. By that time, with anti-covid vaccinations proliferating, Netanyahu will take credit for
stopping the virus rather than spreading it through gross mismanagement and politicization.
So Gantz’s initiative seemingly enhances Netanyahu’s chances to win an election and galvanize a coalition that legislates immunity from prosecution for him. And the prime minister’s looming trial on three corruption charges--now set to launch in February at the rapid pace of three hearings a week--is currently what the prime minister’s entire political world revolves around. Correction: it is what nearly all of Israeli political life revolves around.
Q. But if the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition cannot function and cannot even pass a budget, what alternative does Gantz have?
A. The budget, or rather the absence of a budget for two years now, is the key. Netanyahu and his reliable ally and
finance minister, Yisrael Katz, are delaying the budget because passing one by year’s end would effectively ratify
the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition agreement and lock in rotation of the premiership to Gantz next November. That, in
turn, would cast Netanyahu into the political wilderness, corruption trial and all.
If, on the other hand, Netanyahu continues to stall the 2021 budget until December 31, 2020, the government automatically falls and elections automatically take place 90 days later. By late March, covid-19 will still be raging while Netanyahu’s trial will have commenced in earnest. Netanyahu’s endless delay of the budget violates his coalition agreement with Gantz. So does his hedging about approving high-level civil service appointments. Gantz is understandably fed up. Yet Gantz would appear to be in a better political situation if he simply holds off and lets Netanyahu either pass or prevent a budget this month.
Q. Is Gantz that naïve politically, or is he bluffing with his election bill?
A. Even if he is bluffing and he won’t pursue the bill into its second and third readings and a final vote, the main conclusion being drawn by the political establishment and the media is that the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition is so dysfunctional that elections are the only alternative. And yet there is a strong possibility that new elections, whether held in late March or in June, will simply lead to yet another political stalemate. They will prolong the corona-induced economic distress that Netanyahu has so badly mismanaged due to his own preoccupation with staying out of jail and surviving politically.
Q. In other words, nothing of substance has changed on the Israeli political scene during the half-year tenure of the Likud-Blue White corona emergency coalition?
A. Actually, there are some interesting changes. But it’s not clear whether they potentially add up to coalition
changes following another election.
One key change is the rise in the polls of Naftali Bennet and his far-right Yamina party. Having barely gained six mandates last March, Yamina now easily gets 18 to 20 mandates in the polls. Just as the covid pandemic has driven down Netanyahu’s ratings, it has benefited Bennet, who for the past six months has demonstrated the most reliable and accurate grasp of the steps needed to combat the virus and prevent economic deterioration. Needless to say, Bennet’s public performance has been facilitated by the fact that Yamina is not in the current coalition and Bennet does not have to make real-life decisions about covid. Come election time, his poll ratings are likely to plummet once his center-right public realizes that the Yamina movement is also populated by right-wing messianic extremists, settlers and political non-entities.
Another key change, unfolding in recent weeks, is the political flirt between Netanyahu and an Islamist Arab leader from the 15-MK Joint List, Mansour Abbas. Abbas’s party, Raam or the United Arab List, is one of four Arab parties that comprise the Joint List, which in turn is the most successful Israeli Arab electoral collaboration ever. Abbas has surprised his fellow Joint List MKs by advocating political collaboration with the Likud, and Netanyahu has accommodated him by designating budgets for causes championed by Arab citizens of Israel such as law and order and municipal development.
Abbas’s political behavior has sown disarray in the Joint List, which holds anti-Zionist views and has hitherto refused to contemplate any genuine sort of collaboration with the Likud or any other Zionist party. Disaffected Arab voters now relegate the Joint List to only 11 or 12 mandates in the polls. The threat of fragmentation in the Joint List posed by Abbas endangers its impressive electoral achievements under overall leaders Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi.
On the other hand, Netanyahu’s readiness to work with Abbas appears to have legitimized the notion of a post-election governing coalition actively supported by the Joint List. Right-wing opponents of Netanyahu like Moshe ‘Bogie’ Yaalon, who is currently allied in the opposition with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, are no longer wavering about the option of working with the Joint List. Even Avigdor Liberman, leader of Yisrael Beitenu and a notorious anti-Arab (and anti-Netanyahu) advocate, might be prepared to acquiesce in a coalition supported by the Joint List.
If Netanyahu can collaborate with Arab MKs, so can centrists and rightists like Yaalon. The resultant prospect of forming an anti-Netanyahu coalition after the next election that relies, for the first time in Israeli political history, on the votes of an independent, Arab nationalist list, could be revolutionary.
Finally, the elements in Gantz’s original party list who stuck with Gantz following the refusal of Yesh Atid and Yaalon to join the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition after the March 2020 election, appear to be melting into oblivion. What remains of Blue-White, led by Gantz, can barely muster double digits in the polls. This collapse is attributed to Gantz’s political ineptness and the fact that in voters’ eyes he shares in the blame for the current coalition’s mismanagement of the virus and the economy. Labor, led by Amir Peretz and a member of Gantz’s surviving bloc, cannot cross the four-mandate threshold in the polls.
This means that if elections were held tomorrow, the main winners would be Likud, Yesh Atid, the Joint List and Yamina. Meretz on the Zionist left, Yisrael Beitenu on the secular right, and the ultra-Orthodox lists would hold their own with their loyal followers and score between five and ten mandates each. Labor (including its earlier designations, Mapai, etc.) would, for the first time in Israeli political history, not be represented in the Knesset.
Q. So at least in theory we could visualize a center-right anti-Netanyahu electoral coalition led by Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beitenu and survivors of Blue-White, that relies on Arab votes from the Joint List and faces off against a Likud-led rightist electoral coalition. No new faces to add to this strange mix?
A. Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and MK Ofer Shelah, currently representing
internal opposition to Lapid within Yesh Atid, are all toying with forming one or more centrist parties, perhaps in
concert with Yaalon. But it is not at all clear who would vote for each or all of them. Would they simply
redistribute the existing anti-Netanyahu vote and reduce the size of Yesh Atid? Could one or more of them prove
capable of siphoning off Likud voters? Are they all capable of getting together in a single united list under one
agreed leader, along with remnants of Labor and perhaps Yisrael Beitenu?
As matters stand, the safest bet regarding the outcome of new elections is yet another standoff between Netanyahu’s loyal Likud and his ultra-Orthodox allies on the one hand, and the anti-Netanyahu right and center on the other. The Joint Arab List could conceivably revolutionize this result. The Zionist left, without Labor, will be reduced to Meretz, which might or might not fit into an anti-Netanyahu coalition.
Netanyahu, for his part, will use every trick in the books and employ all his political mastery in an attempt to remain in power and to use that power to evade prosecution and conviction. One trick he still might promote as a last resort is to get himself elected president of Israel next summer when Reuven Rivlin’s seven-year term ends. Alone among Israel’s political elite, the president has automatic immunity from prosecution while in office. Netanyahu would be out of the decision-making limelight, but he would be safe until age 80. Even his strongest critics might agree to elect him president as a way out of the current political-judicial impasse.
Q. Bottom line? Any strategic insights?
A. Like the previous three rounds, this election will be about Netanyahu: for or against. A second, not fully ripe,
axis of political alignment will pit those prepared to organize a coalition dependent on Arab votes against those
who reject Arab partners. Security and peace issues will barely register in the electoral debate; Netanyahu can
take credit for normalization with the Emirates, but he won’t get many votes on this account. Covid and the economy
will play a stronger role, particularly if elections are held in late March, but mainly in terms of discussion of
Netanyahu’s performance in managing them.
If elections are not held, it would reflect Netanyahu’s decision to allow a 2021 budget, honor next November’s rotation and permit a degree of normalcy in Israeli political life. Because this does not solve Netanyahu’s legal problems, it is extremely doubtful.
Into all these calculations we must factor the vicissitudes of the virus, the economy and Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges. The direction of none of these issues is predictable.
One conclusion is that a political system that allows all this to happen, one abortive election after another, is defective. Yet it is not likely to be fixed any time soon. This should sound familiar to Americans.
A second conclusion is that Israel is operating in a leadership vacuum. No one--no seasoned politician, no IDF ex-chief of staff--seems capable of filling that vacuum. This too should sound familiar here and there among western democracies.
Finally, whether or not the Biden administration tries to move quickly on the Palestinian issue, during most of the year to come it will be hard to locate an Israeli partner.
For previous editions of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, go to the Index Page.