Israel’s fourth round of Knesset elections - Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (December 28, 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.

Q. Last week’s collapse of Israel’s so-called corona unity government ushered in a fourth round of Knesset elections in two years. Before discussing the forces at play, do you have any broad observations on what is transpiring at the national strategic level?

A. First, this new round offers yet more proof that the Israeli system of governance is broken. It would be simplistic and unfair to blame only the greedy, egotistical personality of Prime Minister Netanyahu or only the swelling forces of religious ultra-nationalism or only Israeli tribalism. Blame them all. One way or another, Israel’s system, which was designed to deliver democratic representation to all streams of Israeli life when the country numbered barely two million people, no longer meets the needs of a hi-tech military and economic powerhouse whose extremely diverse and inharmonious population is approaching ten million. Yet the system is so badly broken that it can’t fix itself. As with the glaring constitutional disparities of the American Electoral College system, it is stuck. And as with Trump in the United States, it is striking to what extent the system has allowed itself to be suborned by a megalomaniacal personality mired in leadership flaws and accusations of criminality. As a corollary, such an unbroken string of governmental crises is liable in the months ahead to tempt one of more of Israel’s enemies--Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas--to attack Israel or Israeli targets somewhere. Second, with the country entering its third corona lockdown in parallel to a 90-day election campaign, there will be neither time nor opportunity for party primaries, including for the new parties that are emerging. But because party primaries in Israel are populist and tend to elevate mediocre demagogues, it might not be a bad thing if this time around, as in days of old, party bosses set the party electoral lists. Third, Netanyahu’s trial on three counts of corruption begins in earnest in February. He is expected to show himself in court for three sessions a week. How will this affect his electoral fortunes? There is simply no precedent for predicting the mechanics and dynamics of a prime minister at once campaigning and standing trial. Fourth, while these elections are again about “Bibi, yes or no”, his opponents can now focus the public’s attention on Netanyahu’s inept management of the corona pandemic as well, pointing to nearly a million unemployed Israelis and to heavy politicization of government pandemic policies. In contrast, Netanyahu hopes to focus on the four normalization agreements with Arab countries that Trump delivered to Israel in recent months. He is also launching a major logistics effort to inoculate Israelis against corona by election time in the hope of taking credit for a healthy nation.

Q. The key catalyzing actors in precipitating these elections appear to be Blue-White leader Benny Gantz and Likud renegade Gideon Saar. They closed in on Netanyahu from opposite poles of the political spectrum . . .

A. The hapless Gantz, after two years of fumbling and frittering away his electoral mandate to unseat Netanyahu, was finally pushed by his own party rank-and-file to bring down the government because Netanyahu refused to pass a budget. More or less in parallel Saar, a veteran senior Likud rival of Netanyahu, finally bolted the party and in short order formed “New Hope” and poached five coalition members to its ranks. The contrast between these two dynamics is striking. Gantz’s party is falling apart. Senior members like Gabi Ashkenazi and Avi Nisenkorn are either retiring from politics or striking out on their own. Gantz may be determined to lead Blue-White in a fourth round (for the reason, see below), but it is not clear that the party, which two elections ago won 35 mandates, will even pass the four-mandate threshold. While the naïve but well-intentioned Gantz can take credit for preventing Netanyahu from sabotaging his own corruption trial and for legislating an interim budgetary law of sorts that keeps the country financially afloat, few voters will reward him. Saar’s New Hope, on the other hand, quickly became the second largest party in the polls, garnering roughly 20 MKs to Likud’s 28 or 29. Note that Saar’s platform may be anti-Netanyahu and he has never been tainted by corruption, but politically he is firmly to the right of Likud: he advocates annexing settlements and radically diminishing the authority of the judicial branch, particularly Israel’s liberal High Court of Justice. As minister of education some years ago he introduced ultra-nationalist themes to the curriculum. He is no friend of anything remotely resembling a two-state solution or of liberal checks-and-balances in government. Saar is of mixed Ashkenazi-Bukharan (meaning, Eastern) extraction and is married to a popular TV news anchor, both electoral advantages. The bottom line here is that Israel exits this latest Netanyahu government with a substantial majority of its 120 members of Knesset identified with the right-religious mainstream. Almost alone among them (only Avigdor Liberman’s small Yisrael Beitenu party concurs), Saar refuses to serve with or under Netanyahu. Yamina’s Naftali Bennet, who had been boosting his own candidacy as a future prime minister after he successfully spoke truth to power against Netanyahu’s corona mistakes, has waffled and is now overshadowed by Saar. One previously ultra-loyal Likud minister who quickly deserted in favor of Saar, Zeev Elkin, last week launched a dramatic attack on Netanyahu unlike anything we have heard from a Likudnik in years: “I can no longer call on the citizens of Israel to vote for you and trust that you will work for them . . . [they] cannot be held hostage to your personal interests [which are] taking an increasingly central role in making decisions.”

Q. Gantz and two additional former IDF chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Yaalon, the original Blue-White trio, seem to have burned themselves out in Israeli politics. Is this the end of an era of generals in politics?

A. Almost certainly not. Israeli generals have a long tradition of going into politics even though most have only moderately distinguished themselves. Only two chiefs of staff, Rabin and Barak, made it to the top. Yet here is another, Gadi Eizenkot, proclaiming last week tongue-in-cheek, “I’m a former chief of staff who is going to make the next mistake.” Meretz too has a general who aspires to leadership, outspoken former deputy chief of staff Yair Golan.

Q. Eizenkot has a sterling reputation: courageous and intelligent. He is considered left-leaning. Is there any other serious personality now entering center-left politics for this election, or will we encounter more of the same for the fourth time?

A. With Blue-White disintegrating and Labor in tatters, we will definitely now encounter one or more new parties on the center-left, positioned roughly between Yesh Atid and Meretz on the political spectrum. As they organize themselves, they will feature some refreshing (if not fresh) faces. Popular Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai has more or less announced he will be running. MK Ofer Shelah, an accomplished strategic affairs expert, has resigned from Yesh Atid to form a new party. Eizenkot and former IDF Chief of Intelligence Amos Yadlin may or may not join the fray. Blue-White’s Nisenkorn, who distinguished himself as a pro-active minister of justice, may hook up with the remains of Labor or with Shelah or Eisenkot. None of these personalities rule out joining a right-left coalition, conceivably led by Saar, with the objective of moving Netanyahu out of politics.

Q. So at this point in time, what are the ‘mathematics’ of these elections?

A. As matters stand Netanyahu can, according to the polls, count on only about 52 future coalition members from the Likud, the ultra-Orthodox, and Naftali Bennet’s Yamina party who would presumably consent to pass legislation designed to rescue him from his trial. Alternatively, a secular coalition ranging from New Hope on the far right (15-20 MKs?) via Yisrael Beitenu (7-8?), Yesh Atid (15?), one or more center-left parties including possibly Blue-White (10 all told?) and Meretz could number around 53. That leaves up to 15 members of one or two Arab parties. Assuming this is more or less where we are on March 24, the post-election horse-trading would commence sometime in April with Netanyahu and Saar competing to form a coalition of at least 61. Saar would look to coopt Yamina (6-10 MKs) and one or more ultra-Orthodox parties (7-8 each) that will join any coalition that guarantees their religious and financial interests. It is doubtful that an Arab party would wish to join his coalition or that he would turn to Arab MKs. Netanyahu has lately been cultivating the Arab Islamist party (currently four MKs). He would hope to persuade Yesh Atid to join him.

Q. Your bottom line? Your prediction?

A. Barring unpredictable events like a war or a major showdown with the Biden administration, the most likely election outcome would seem at this point to be a right-religious dominated post-Netanyahu coalition. For this to coalesce, a lot of compromises will have to be made between left, center and right. A lot of egos will have to be tempered. Saar’s courageous breaking of ranks will have made the difference, even if his ultra-nationalist ideology will have to yield to compromise with parties of the center and moderate left. Yet while the math may be right, success is not guaranteed. A less likely but nevertheless possible outcome is once again no coalition, a fifth round of elections and an interim Gantz premiership. Lest we forget, the current coalition’s laws deliver the premiership to Gantz next November if there is no replacement government. All Gantz has to do in these elections is garner four mandates and remain a member of Knesset, thereby crowning him “interim alternate prime minister”. The possibility of another unsuccessful election on March 23 explains why Gantz apparently intends to run at the head of a barely alive Blue-White party. Lower on my list of likely outcomes is that Netanyahu succeeds in coopting moderate rightists, centrists, or even an Arab party, forming a coalition that keeps him in office, and even conceivably legislating his way out of his trial. Never underestimate Netanyahu’s political cunning. There, we’ve covered all the bases. Let’s check back periodically this winter and see how this set of predictions evolves.

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