The Israeli Election

I have been asked to write a commentary on the recent Israeli election. However, I have been busy with Machiavelli, Erasmus and Martin Luther. In the next few weeks, I really want to write on Netanyahu’s promise of expanding sovereignty in the West Bank that he made three days before the election, I offer this blog as a backstop and backgrounder among my discussions of 16th century influential men of letters on the subject of Jews.

The Prime Minister of Israel, who won re-election on 9 April, failed to form a coalition by 28 May, his 50-day limit. He chose to call a new election less than two months after the last one for 17 September 2019 rather than allow the President to call on another party to try to form a coalition, presumably Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party (B&W). The election was called to prevent any exploration of whether Gantz could put together a coalition that would enjoy majority support in the Knesset. The last election resulted in the following make-up of the Knesset:

Party Leader Seats
     
Likud Benjamin Netanyahu 35
Blue and White Benny Gantz 35
Shas Aryeh Deri 8
United Torah Judaism (UTJ) Yaakov Litzman 8
Hadassh-Ta’al Ayman Odeh 6
Labor Avi Gabbay 6
Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor Liberman 5
United Right (UR) Rafi Peretz 5
Meretz Tamar Zandberg 4
Kulanu Moshe Kahlon 4
Ra’am-Balad Mansour Abbas 4

For Israel’s April parliamentary election, 41 parties submitted lists of candidates to the Central Election Committee. Clearly, most did not make the minimum threshold of 3.25% of the overall vote. But that is just one indicator of how democratic Israeli elections are. Access to voting is also very easy requiring only a simple ID, and, in cases of veiled Muslim women, a picture ID is not required. All citizens, Arab, Druze, Jewish, etc., are eligible to vote if they are over 18. Even convicted felons can vote. Physical access is easy since there are 10,000 polling booths for just under 6 million eligible voters, or 1 per less than 600 of eligible voters and 1/475 actual voters. There is no gerrymandering since Israel is considered a single constituency. Campaign costs are almost all covered by the state according to a distribution formula: 1 unit per past election per MK plus 1 in the new Knesset, the total divided by 2. Further, TV ads are free; a party receives 7 time-units plus an additional 2 for each member of the Knesset. The ratio for radio is 15 + 4. This system is like honey that easily attracts bees. However, by its very character, outcomes are very hard to predict.

There is another dimension to democracy in Israel that is common throughout the world – the use of social media and their impact on democracy and social change both for good and bad.  Online media feed and reinforce racism and thinking within silos at the same time as they also broaden access to the dynamics of politics as new organizations promote social change through digital platforms. In each country, the impact has been varied. For a study of the mixed results in Israel, see Carmit Wiesslitz (2019) Internet and Social Change: The Case of Israel.

The right-wing parties included Likud, Shas, UTJ, Yisrael Beiteinu, United Right (UR) and Kulanu. There is now a move to unite some of them or run on a merged list before the next election. Two critical events took place in the last election which shifted right-wing votes as the votes of significant smaller parties, that did not make the minimum threshold, were allocated to another party, provided an agreement was in place. Thus, Likud gained a seat and then tied with B&W when Gantz initially believed he had won more seats.

The effect was that the votes of almost 250,000 right wing Israelis were diminished in value. As Al-Monitor wrote, “Speaking with Al-Monitor, the veteran statistician said an analysis of all eligible votes in the April elections, including those cast for the New Right and Zehut, both of which failed to cross the electoral threshold, points to a significant advantage for the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc [in the September election]. If the New Right and Zehut had received enough votes to get their candidates into the Knesset, the bloc would have held 68.5 of the 120 Knesset seats (instead of the 65 seats it received). This could only be the case if they failed to have an agreement that, if they did not pass the minimum threshold of 3.25%, their votes would accrue to another right-wing party. Otherwise, votes are distributed across all the parties in proportion to the vote each party received.


In Bibi’s last government, the party of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked did not gain sufficient votes to cross the threshold and gain seats in the Knesset. That would mean 138,508 votes up for grab by a party or parties in the next election that can cross the threshold. When you add the 118,031 votes cast for Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party, which also failed to make the threshold, and recognize that those votes will almost all go to Likud given that Feiglin has now joined that party, then the chances of Likud increasing its vote in the September election are very good. Bibi could then form a government without Avigdor Liberman’s support.

Shaked and Bennett both lost their cabinet positions in the aftermath of the election, even though Bibi could have kept them in the cabinet until September. Presumably he wants to ensure the votes that went to them are siphoned off to Likud or one of the other parties in the Likud-led right-wing alliance. This move was taken even though Shaked had let it be known that she would like to rejoin Likud for the next election. However, ministers from the Likud Party have pushed back fearing that they will be pushed further down in the list put before voters. At her farewell party in the justice ministry, she indicated that, one way or another, not only did she plan to win a seat in the next Knesset, but also to resume her role as Justice Minister. The question then is what party will she align with and will her supporters move with her. What about Bennett’s political ambitions? Will he find another right-wing party with which to ally his Jewish Home Party that he used too create the New Right Party?

There is another twist on support for the right in Israel. The election, and Bibi’s promise of gradually increasing sovereignty gave a boost to the far-right Jewish Power party of Michael Ben Ari and Otzma Yehudit that also ran in April. In the party’s campaign, it promoted annexation but did not garner enough votes to cross the finish line when it ran on a common slate with Jewish Home and Tkuma because they were not high enough on the list. Will the new elections result in a new opportunity for that party promoting the annexation of the whole of the West Bank to re-enter the Knesset and join a new right coalition?  

Most importantly, what will happen to Liberman’s right-wing party, Yisrael Beytenu, which won five seats (a far cry from the 15 seats won in 2009) and had been part of the Likud-led bloc? Bibi would not agree with Liberman’s demand that the legislation, supported by the IDF and passed 10 months previously in its first reading, be put to a vote with no further changes. The proposed law would increase Haredi recruits in the IDF from 10% of their number to just short of 25% over 8 years. Shas and UTJ would not concede allowing a second reading of the bill and Liberman would not drop his insistence that a final vote on the Haredi conscription law be moved along.

Many have cast doubt on the dispute over the Haredi military service law as a credible explanation for the dispute between Bibi and Liberman. The reasons are many, but the core factors are the rate of increase in recruitment of 500 Haredi per year in the proposed legislation will likely be taken up naturally by more Haredi men enlisting on their own as IDF service has become more acceptable in the Haredi community as these soldiers realize both the value of the training and the fact that their military service need not interfere with their religious commitments. On the other hand, training Haredi soldiers, given the additional adjustments, is more costly. Israel is also becoming less reliant on foot soldiers and more on technology. However, Haredi tend to be attracted to digital technology. The pros and cons suggest the dispute is more about principle than practice.

There was another policy difference between Liberman and Bibi that was perhaps more substantial and directly tied into Bibi’s sovereignty expansion announcement. On 17 August 2016, Liberman as Defence Minister introduced a “carrot and stick” policy in dealing with Palestinians to reward Palestinians who were willing to promote co-existence and penalize those who were not. Bibi’s announcement, instead, suggested that he would continue his practice of ignoring Palestinians altogether and simply engage in unilateral moves.

The April election had originally been due to be held in November of 2019 but was brought forward, not only because of the impending criminal charges against Bibi, but because of the dispute discussed above over the bill on national service for the ultra-Orthodox. If Netanyahu had accepted Liberman’s condition after the April vote, it would have meant the loss of support of the right-wing ultra-Orthodox parties which controlled 16 seats. Bibi tried to place the blame on Liberman, the man who previously ran his office and served under him as Foreign and Defence Minister, for scuttling the coalition of the right. Liberman has made no bones about the fact that he now regards Bibi as duplicitous, indecisive and soft. He has called Bibi “a lying, cheating scoundrel.” The falling out was probably at least as much personal as a disagreement over policy and Liberman’s need to retain his secular anti-orthodox credentials.

Bibi’s criminal charges, the law he was pushing to grant him immunity and override the Supreme Court and his efforts to pass that law before his indictment hearing on October 2 also would have protected Deri and Litzman from going to trial. On the one hand, Liberman had no motivation to protect them. On the other hand, this was unlikely to have motivated Liberman since, in the past, he too has proposed passing a law to override rulings of the Supreme Court. Finally, Liberman is very ambitious and would like to become the next leader of Likud. He stands some chance since he is now in residence outside the various factions dividing Likud. And he, unlike Bibi, could entertain a coalition with the centre left.

Finally, as polls seem to indicate since the call for the election, he is likely to gain a number of seats because of his stand against the Haredi. Israelis are generally unsympathetic to the Haredi. Such a move would place him in a more powerful position in the next Knesset. That is clearly a gamble, but just as clearly, Liberman is a gambling man. And there are many indicators pointing his way – Bibi fatigue, the critical current proof that Bibi is not omnipotent, the embarrassment of calling a second election after being unable to form a government with such a sizable right-wing majority and Bibi’s impending indictment.

Another group on the right, the UTJ, the Orthodox rather than ultra-Orthodox religious party, has already made its move for increased power. MK Bezalel Yoel Smotrich, leader of the Tkuma faction in that party, won election in the last parliament as he was given the eighth slot on the united ticket but subsequently beat Uri Ariel to lead that faction instead of being his deputy. He asked that the Justice and possibly the Education Ministries be given to the UTJ following the dismissal of Bennett and Shaked, or, at the very least, the justice portfolio. Why justice and perhaps education? Because “we want to restore the Torah justice system.” He also told a public radio station that the country should aspire to run itself as ‘in the days of King David’.” Bibi rejected the request outright, insisting that, “The State of Israel will not be a halachic state.” But it would very much be an un-halachic or non-legal state if the Prime Minister, as he evidently planned to do, took over the justice portfolio when he is under indictment by that very same ministry. In the end, on the same day Pride Week started with parades in Jerusalem, he appointed a Likud loyalist and openly gay Knesset member, Amir Ohana.

Given Smotrich’s past pronouncements on separation of Jews and Arabs, his initiative that developers in Israel should not have to sell homes to Arabs, his push for separation even in hospital maternity wards, his anti-gay posture (though he admitted regret for calling the Pride Day parade in 2016 a Beast Parade and retracted his assertion that he was a proud homophobe), his advocacy of shoot-to-kill policies in response to stone throwers even if they are children, he would be an extreme right-wing thorn in a new right-wing government and would push the prospective government further right. He has been a major force pushing for annexation in the West Bank, challenging Bibi’s policy of a gradualist increase in sovereignty in West Bank municipalities. Voters will now know this and some might prefer a more centrist alternative though Smotrich has accused his detractors of demonization. When MK Yair Lapid (B&W) insisted that we will not allow Israel to become a halahic state, Smotrich tweeted, “Yair, my brother, fear stems from ignorance. It will not hurt you to come to Mercaz Harav for a little bit, study a little bit and stop being so afraid. I’m saving you a seat next to me.”

Given the small window between the election scheduled for 17 September and Bibi’s indictment on 2 October, it is almost, but not totally, impossible that he could both form a new government as well as get a bill passed that would protect him from being indicted. The prospects for reshuffling the deck of the various political groupings is one way to look at forecasting the new election. Yossi Beilin offered another angle. Voters can now look at each party’s political actions in deciding how they will vote in the September election.

In the desperate last moments before he called the election, Bibi offered to include Labor in his coalition and appoint its leader, Avi Gabbay, Finance Minister. Given the compromises and resistance to compromise, the electorate will be in a much better position to make a more rational choice on 17 September. First and foremost, many in the Israeli public now believe, if they did not heretofore, that Bibi would do anything, literally anything, to retain power if only for the immediate goal of not going to trial. As Yossi Beilin wrote, Bibi’s “first and last priority has been to save his own skin” as well as overriding the “Supreme Court to introduce an immunity law and prevent the court overriding laws passed in the legislature.”

What about B&W led by Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz that had such an impressive showing on 9 April and won 35 seats? The party refused to join a coalition led by Bibi no matter what temptations were offered. It subsequently organized a huge rally on 25 May against Bibi’s efforts to be able to overrule the Supreme Court. It is highly unlikely that B&W would join a coalition with Likud after the next election, but there is the possibility that a centre left and right coalition without the religious parties could be patched together if Bibi was no longer the leader of Likud.

On the other hand, Gantz could ask for the support of the Arab parties without granting them any ministries and any part in the government. The two Arab parties evidently hinted at passive cooperation, but Gantz would not bite. Would that change if forming a government were within sight? On the other hand, would Gantz lose the support within his own party of Moshe Ya’alon, a former Likud Defense Minister opposed to such a deal? Ya’alon might lead a walkout of his right-wing Telem faction.

The problem is that the results of either a compromise or, alternatively, total resistance and laying down the gauntlet, are almost impossible to predict, especially when the opportunity to exercise power is at your fingertips. For, with a union with Labor and support from Liberman, that would bring B&W within a couple of seats of having a majority. So much will depend on whether B&W can improve its showing by running as the centre democracy party against Bibi’s anti-democracy moves, stir up the anti-Bibi Israeli public urging increased civic engagement and showing up at the polls in increased numbers, especially the youth. Will Gesher, led by Orly-Abekasis emphasizing social justice issues, be able to cross the minimum threshold? Even just with the union with Labor, B&W would likely be the first to be called to form the government.

On the other hand, it seems that Labor is headed towards a union with Meretz. But Meretz may join with one or more Arab parties. There is then the prospect that the left-centre could then draw in support from one or more of the religious parties in return for seats in the cabinet and a few compromises. Finally, if the Arab parties could get a higher percentage of Arab citizens to vote, and if they mostly voted for the Arab list, then the number of Arab MKs could possibly even double in size.

As Akiva Eldar in Al-Monitor wrote in this morning’s comment on the Israeli election, “The center-left bloc also failed to fulfill its electoral potential on April 9. The two Arab factions together received three seats less (10 in all) than the alliance of four Arab parties, the Joint List, received in the 2015 elections for the 20th Knesset. According to [Camil] Fuchs, his studies confirm assessments that the breakup of the Joint List earlier this year resulted in significantly lower voter turnout in Arab areas. Whereas turnout in Jewish and mixed Jewish-Arab voting areas stood at 67%, in exclusively Arab areas it only amounted to 49.2%. Among the 60 towns and villages with turnout lower than 40%, 57 were Arab communities. Fuchs says that had it not been for a push by the Arab leadership to get out the vote in the final hours before the polls closed, turnout would have been far lower, and the number of Arab lawmakers would have dropped below 10.”


See: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/israel-elections-blue-and-white-benny-gantz-israeli-arabs.html#ixzz5q3UgSqu6

The Arab parties have now agreed to once again run as a single list and polling indicated that tens of thousands of Arab citizens did not vote because of those divisions and a general mood of despair. This makes it all the more important that B&W makes a deal with the Arab parties. According to MK Dov Khenin from Hadash, “if Blue and White displays a willingness to confront the crucial national issues of the Arab public, voter turnout in Arab communities could be raised to 65% in order to defeat the right.”

 In sum, the election is going to be a crap shoot.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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