Israeli election: First thoughts

March 24, 2021 by Ron Weiser
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Whilst this is being written immediately post-election with incomplete results, there are a few things we can say.

Dr Ron Weiser

And before we come to that, for all of the justified frustration with the current election process in Israel, all forms of democracy have shortcomings.

Netanyahu began his second term as Prime Minister on the 31st of March 2009 and is now completing his 12th year of this period. If one wants to speak about stability for instance.

Compare that to say, Australia.

In 2009 Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister of Australia.

Since then Australia has had five different PMs (one of them twice), and not all actually elected by the people of Australia.

So whilst there are some obvious improvements that can be made in the Israeli electoral process it is important to note that the main responsibility for the Knesset gridlock over the past two years lies at the feet of the Israeli electorate and not the system.

The Israeli population continues to be unwilling to give a ringing endorsement to Netanyahu’s continuation as Prime Minister.

But it is even less certain about who might replace him – or when.

Although many commentators divide the election results into pro and anti-Netanyahu camps, we need to delve a little deeper.

Whilst the pro-Netanyahu parties are more or less ideologically similar, the anti-Netanyahu ones are quite deeply divided, temporarily united on one goal only – removing Netanyahu.

Ten observations in no particular order.

1 – Netanyahu’s Likud has a strong lead on his nearest rival, Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Whilst this is obvious, it puts more pressure on President Rivlin to at least give Netanyahu the first chance at forming a coalition.

2 – Whatever one thinks about Smotrich’s party and the inclusion of Ben Gvir in its list and also adopting/hijacking the moniker of “Religious Zionists”, it was a political masterstroke of Netanyahu’s to encourage their merger, so that they passed the threshold. On the one hand, not wasting their votes and simultaneously taking votes from Bennett’s Yamina.

3 – Bennett’s Yamina has once again found that whilst opinion polls in the months leading up to the election gave them greater promise, at least as long as Netanyahu leads the Likud the actual election results for Yamina always seem to fall short of expectations.

Up until almost the last days of the election Bennett’s role as a true kingmaker – that is choosing to go with either Netanyahu or Lapid after the election – kept open the possibility of either Netanyahu or Lapid becoming Prime Minister.

However, at the last moment, in which another clever political move by Netanyahu played a role, Bennett pledged to not join any coalition with Lapid as Prime Minister.

On Sunday, Bennett produced and signed a document saying that: “I won’t allow Yair Lapid to be prime minister, including in a rotation (agreement) and I will not establish a government based on the support of Mansour Abbas from the Islamic Movement.”

He now seems to have retained a more limited kingmaker role with only two real choices, if he remains true to his word.

Joining a Netanyahu led coalition, whilst trying to demand a very steep price from Netanyahu.

Or the less likely option of simply going into opposition without joining any potential Lapid coalition thereby making it virtually impossible for Lapid to win in any case – and probably leading to a 5th election. Which he may also be largely held responsible for and carry that political price.

It seems that Bennett, after vacillating between supporting Netanyahu and trying to defeat Netanyahu over the past two years has finally decided on a strategy. It is becoming increasingly apparent that he is trying to cement his position as the natural successor to Netanyahu, rather than defeating him, and will try and make a coalition deal that assists that.

However, if Netanyahu’s block reaches only say 59 seats (with 61 needed) there is a slim outside chance that Bennett ‘reinterprets’ his pledge and offers Lapid a rotation agreement, but with Bennett himself going first as prime minister of course.

If Ra’am (see below) is successful in passing the threshold it remains to be seen if Netanyahu will take them into a coalition in some form and whether Bennett thinks that violates his pledge which is vaguer on this issue, than on not giving Lapid the premiership.

4 – Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope position of declaring in advance that he is the “true Likud” and would not join a Netanyahu led coalition has seen his party on a consistent downward trend that leaves him out in the cold.

Netanyahu will probably try and pluck off some of their MK’s though in order to get a possible coalition over the line.

Someone like Yoaz Hendel and/or Zvi Hauser for example, are ripe for picking and moving – again. If Hendel and/or Hauser do join Likud, they would probably set a record for the MK’s being in the most number of different parties, in the shortest possible time.

5 – Lapid did well enough to currently remain the leader of the anti-Netanyahu forces. But he was hampered by the number of small parties who took votes from him. He will have to fight hard to maintain his leadership position in the anti-Netanyahu camp though. Lapid has been unable to really cut through and should Netanyahu be able to form a government, he will start to look like a perennial election loser, unless there is a dramatic change in actual voting results.

Lapid’s chances of forming a government will depend on whether his potential coalition partners’ distaste for Netanyahu can overcome their feelings about each other.

6 – The largely Arab Israeli Joint List broke into two for this election with the smaller Israeli Arab party Ra’am in a bold gamble to go it alone.

Currently, they seem to be teetering on the 3.25% threshold.

If they fall below, on the one hand, it diminishes Israeli Arab representation in the next Knesset. If they pass the threshold there are numerous possibilities.

And on another level, it is the first Israeli Arab party that openly campaigned on a platform to try and join either Lapid or Netanyahu in government – and which both Netanyahu and Lapid were in active discussion with – breaking through a previous psychological barrier and taboo of Israeli Arabs and Jews alike – regardless of whether they ultimately would have joined or not.

7 – The potential anti-Netanyahu block includes Sa’ar’s New Hope and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

Both leaders and parties are to the political right, natural allies of the Likud, but who cannot stomach Netanyahu. And who would also find it very difficult to join any coalition that has Mertez and the tacit or overt support of any Israeli Arab party – adding to Lapid’s degree of difficulty.

Even were they to do so as an interim measure to remove Netanyahu, such a coalition might not survive long and Israel would likely be heading back to elections again in any case.

8 – Meirav Michaeli has saved the Labour Party from oblivion and has also ensured that the Rabbi Gilad Kariv will be the first Reform Rabbi to sit in the Knesset.

9 – Benny Gantz defied all expectations of political extinction and on the current counting has done even better than merely scraping in. Perhaps he is getting credit for his integrity and brave but naïve move in joining Netanyahu and believing in that infamous rotation agreement. As the only general left in the political arena, at least one can say that he is now a more seasoned politician.

Should Lapid fall or be rolled, Gantz has an outside chance of leading the anti-Netanyahu camp.

And he is still theoretically due to become Prime Minister in November if there is no new government by then.

10 –There are still some 600,000 absentee votes to be counted in the next few days. They could potentially determine a large number of decisive Knesset seats. With Shabbat and Pesach rapidly approaching, final counts may be delayed.

In tennis terms, currently, the ball is in Netanyahu’s court – just – as he tries to win the tiebreaker.

With Bennett waiting to decide which side of the net he wants to play on.

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