Why Israel’s electoral stalemate isn’t a disaster

February 27, 2020 by Jonathan S. Tobin - JNS.org
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Think Israelis are excited by the prospect of going to the polls for the third time in a year to elect a new Knesset? Think again.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election rally in Migdal HaEmek in northern Israel on Feb. 25, 2020. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.

Having spent the last weeks travelling in the Jewish state, it was fairly obvious to me that most voters were numb to the campaign rhetoric about the March 2 general elections. Few knew of anyone who had changed their minds since the elections that took place in April and September. And many were already resigned to the prospect of a fourth vote in September after the parties go through the motions of trying to form a governing coalition in the coming weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has picked up some support in the polls, showing that it’s now ahead of the Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz in some surveys. That stems in part from allegations of wrongdoing at a company Gantz was associated with that undermines his clean image and the contrast with a prime minister who is facing trial on corruption charges. Some voters are also listening to Netanyahu’s harping on the fact that if Blue and White does form a government, it will have to be with the support or at least the acquiescence of the coalition of Arab parties, which are united only by their desire to erase Israel from the map.

But the basic math of the Israeli electoral puzzle remains unchanged. Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing religious parties will probably wind up with more votes than Gantz’s bloc of Blue and White, the left and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, and yet will again fall short of the 61 needed for a majority of the Knesset.

There’s a great deal of frustration in Israel about this, but also a degree of complacency. Still, there is a rational reason for the fact that the failure to create a governing coalition hasn’t caused open outrage. The Israeli public may be sick and tired of Netanyahu after 11 straight years in power. But there is also faith in his basic competence and a realization that the “temporary” administration he has led since Lieberman bolted his Cabinet more than a year ago has governed well. Indeed, the absence of the maneuvering that would occur if Netanyahu had been able to form a coalition backed by a majority of the Knesset seems to have actually lent an air of stability to Israel’s leadership that is often lacking under more “normal” circumstances.

That’s not to say that the current state of affairs is a good thing. The fact that Israel’s parliamentary democracy has started to resemble nations like Italy, where governments collapse and are reformed at the drop of a hat, remains troubling.

Moreover, without the clear majority that virtually everyone thought Netanyahu had won last April before Lieberman’s astonishing betrayal (in which his party left the right-wing bloc and became a neutral advocate of an impossible unity government before becoming a clear ally of Gantz), has crippled Israel’s ability to take advantage of the help it has gotten from President Donald Trump. Were Netanyahu in command of a majority, he might be in a position to follow up on the announcement of the Trump Mideast peace plan with measures that would strengthen Israel’s strategic position.

This also points out the Israeli public’s contradictory impulses towards Netanyahu.

The prime minister has a solid core of followers who will support him through thick and thin. However, the rise of Blue and White, despite its lack of a compelling leader or a platform that is anything but a pallid echo of Netanyahu’s stances on security issues, speaks to a widespread sense that the prime minister has overstayed his welcome.

Many Israelis outside of his traditional foes on the left believe that it’s time for Netanyahu to go. After all, it’s not healthy for any democracy to have a leader in place for so long. While the corruption charges lodged against Netanyahu are flimsy—the attempt to assert that lobbying for favourable coverage is a criminal offence is both absurd and a standing invitation to jail any politician—they are a product of the sense of entitlement that occurs in any administration that stops thinking it is fully accountable to the electorate.

Yet there is also still a strong sense that Netanyahu remains Israel’s indispensable man, and that there is no one else on the scene capable of handling the immense challenges facing the Jewish state.

As the expression often credited to Charles de Gaulle would have it, “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Israel won’t perish if it’s forced to muddle along under any of the mediocrities in the Likud who wish to succeed Netanyahu or the less than inspiring guidance of Gantz and his party.

On security issues, however, the notion of Netanyahu’s innate caution being replaced by a new prime minister with something to prove to Israel’s enemies is a scary thought. Netanyahu’s deft diplomatic skills would also be missed in dealing with the United States, as well as all of the new contacts that the prime minister has cultivated, including those from Arab countries and Africa. And his status as one of the few politicians in Israeli history to understand economics presents a frightening contrast to the Blue and White leader’s lack of similar acumen.

The seemingly permanent temporary government can’t go on forever. With Netanyahu due to go on trial two weeks after the election, it may be that the judges in his case will eventually supply a solution to the electoral stalemate by either convicting or acquitting the prime minister.

Until then, Netanyahu—a leader who should have fostered a successor and retired years ago—will continue in office. And whether you love him or hate him, there’s no denying that as long as he is in charge, Israel remains in good hands.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS–Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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