A Follow-Up Analysis of the Israeli September 2019 Election

On the morning after, I published my immediate responses to the Israeli election results. That blog has subsequently been edited, the figures updated, some new observations included and has been posted on my web site (howardadelman.com) on WordPress. I now want to offer a more detailed analysis, beginning with my notes from the end of my initial blog on the election. Contrary to most commentators who insist that the results are not much different than in April, I argue that they are a game changer.

Clearly, the biggest winner emerging from the election is Avigdor Lieberman, head of Israel Beiteinu and former Defence Minister. He not only blocked Netanyahu from forming a government following the April election, but increased his representation from 5 to 8 seats in this election and is now clearly poised to become the kingmaker in the new government, even though his security and defense policies are not congruent with those of Blue and White. Lieberman took a significant risk in taking down Bibi, who enjoys considerable popularity on the right. However, in so doing, he enhanced his base by promoting a national unity as well as secular government that would exclude the religious parties. Lieberman gained the votes of rightists who were tired of Netanyahu or of alliances with the ultra-Orthodox, or both.

However, since the results were formally announced, Lieberman indicated that he would be willing to sit with Haredi lawmakers – but only on condition that the government back a series of proposals which religious MKs have long opposed, especially passage of the Haredi draft law unamended, but also permitting the passage of legislation permitting civil marriages, requiring the Haredi schools to teach the secular curriculum, changes to the conversion system in Israel, opening minimarts and permitting public transportation on shabat in towns with a significant non-ultra-orthodox presence, and the expansion of an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In other words, “I will join with you in a coalition if you surrender on all the platforms you hold dear.” Highly unlikely to happen, though it is notable that those parties have stopped referring to Lieberman as Amalek.

Either way, if his gambit works, next to Netanyahu, the religious parties may be the biggest losers and Likud may become not only eventually free of Netanyahu, but of its dependence on those religious parties. Netanyahu has had to repeatedly reiterate that, “we are in this together. I will not abandon you.” But Likud might. Further, Netanyahu’s blasting at the “left” during the election campaign was clearly misdirected. Bibi seemed to have lost control of his political artillery for it was not aimed at the greatest danger to him. Instead of screaming that Arabs are voting in droves to drive his right-wing voters to the polls, he upped the ante and laid unsupported charges of Arab voter fraud, which many if not most of his own supporters viewed as a political sham.

When politics can no longer be painted as black and white, Netanyahu emerged as a loser. Further, he miscued when he tried to buy the support of the Libertarian Zehut by promising its leader, Moshe Feiglin, a ministerial position and offering to support the legalization of medicinal marijuana. There is little indication that he won anything significant by that move. To the contrary, he emerged as desperate and willing to make any deal to stay in power. Finally, his desperation was on full display when he blatantly violated laws against broadcast interviews and also published polling figures on Election Day.  

Three different majorities were produced by the election. There’s a definite majority against Netanyahu remaining in power. There’s a clear majority for a secular coalition, without the clerical parties. And there’s also a right-wing majority. The Blue and White Party is an amalgam of Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience (including the Telem faction headed by Moshe Ya’alon) and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Though Blue and White is committed to pursuing a two-state solution and continuing negotiations with the Palestinians, the party also ran on a platform of continued settlement growth and permanent control (but not an extension of sovereignty, let alone annexation) over a large part of the West Bank along the Jordan River.

The party campaign also included a promise not to include the ultra-Orthodox parties in any coalition. More positively, it advocated the realization of the right of every person and community to shape their way of life and future. Freedom and tolerance were bywords in the party platform which also promised to pass legislation permitting same-sex civil unions, surrogacy by same-sex couples and expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall to be administered by non-Orthodox Jewish leaders. The party supported initiatives blocked by the ultra-Orthodox, such as public transportation on Shabbat and canceling the “mini-market law” prohibiting certain commerce on the Sabbath. As stated above, this was also Lieberman’s explicit goal, which also included ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce. It is an ambition that would be supported by the two small leftist parties as well as the Joint List. That alone could be the basis for a coalition sufficient to produce a majority government with 65 seats in the Knesset.

The Joint List is not strictly speaking an Arab Joint List since it includes a Jewish member of the Knesset from the socialist Hadash Party. The three other parties included in the Joint List are the exclusively Arab Ta’al, the Islamist Ra’am and the nationalist Balad, the last anathema to Jewish leaders such as Yair Lapid. However, the four parties are united on defining Arab Israelis as the indigenous inhabitants of Israel (a non-starter for Blue and White), their recognition as a national minority with collective cultural, educational and religious rights (negotiable) and in opposition to land expropriation and home demolitions, a position conditionally acceptable to Blue and White. The Joint List will insist that action be taken to rescind or severely amend the nation-state law. The Joint List also aspires to have a democratic constitution based on the principles of justice, equality and human rights.

The Joint List also supports ending Israel’s military rule over the disenfranchised Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, ending the blockade of Gaza, establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, dismantling of all settlements and the security barrier, freeing all “political prisoners” and achieving a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue that ensures Palestinian refugees have the ability to return to lands now a part of Israel. Not a single one of these election goals is acceptable to Blue and White for the party not only supports the status quo and a “united” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but also continued Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, retaining settlement blocs in the West Bank, but willing to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, on the domestic front, during the election, Gantz plastered Arab towns with campaign posters and appeared on Arabic language television, appealing to Arab voters by upholding equality of rights as an abstraction and the rule of law as a fundamental principle. It is not clear how Gantz will handle the issue of expropriation and demolition of homes, but I would bet that he would be negotiable on this in dealing with the Joint List.

Blue and White, however, is uncompromising in making security a prime platform, with IDF freedom of action anywhere, though it supports convening a regional conference with the Arab countries to advance a peace deal with the Palestinians. Lieberman is even more hawkish since he deplored the November ceasefire with Hamas. He would end the payments to Hamas as well. He dubbed that caving into terrorism and abandoning the Israeli citizens in the south. Instead, he advocates the death penalty for “terrorists,” destruction of their homes and the expulsion of their families.  

On defence policy, Yamina is equally hawkish. Before the April election, former Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, then his number 2, split away from the national religious party to cater to secular right-wingers. The gambit did not work and their party failed to pass the minimum threshold. Their political careers were saved by the failure to form a government following the April election.

At the same time, Rafi Peretz, who inherited the leadership of the Home Party, merged with Bezalel Smotrich’s hardline National Union and then with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party and got 5 seats in April, but the risk of a repeat in September was too high and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP) joined with the New Right in a marriage of convenience under Shaked to ensure they passed the minimum threshold without the burden of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, which did not pass the minimum threshold. Shaked, though leader, is but one of the two secular candidates in the first 13 spots on the slate. The marriage of convenience lasted only until the votes were counted. Shaked is now positioning herself to replace Netanyahu as leader of the Right.

Only one Jewish party, the only declared socialist party, and it has only 5 seats, supports a separate Palestinian state. The Democratic Union, led by Nitzan Horowitz, is a merger of Meretz, former prime minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party (who, in 10th position, did not get a seat) and Labor deserter, Stav Shaffir. That party calls for immediate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and, in the interim, loosening restrictions on both the Gaza Strip and Palestinians in the West Bank. It is very revealing that a realistic two-state solution is only supported by a very small minority of Israeli Jews. The Democratic Union, as secular and egalitarian, could be part of a coalition, but without any responsibility for or even involvement in decisions with respect to the West Bank and Gaza. Would the party be willing to accept being part of a coalition on such terms just to see Netanyahu out of office?  

What about Labor-Gesher made up of Labor, led by Amir Peretz, a former socialist party, and Gesher, led by Orly Levy-Abekasis? It did not pass the minimum in April to be given seats? It still has a strong economic egalitarian program for wealth distribution (minimum wages, new public housing, free education, increased pensions paid for by increased taxes on higher earners), opposes special budgets for West Bank settlers, but otherwise is not hawkish concerning a two-state solution acceptable to the Palestinians.

Could the two Jewish religious parties bend in order to be included in a coalition given the likely policies contrary to what they stand for? Perhaps if the coalition protected United Torah Judaism’s chief, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, from standing trial for bribery and aiding an alleged pedophile, Litzman might compromise to enter a coalition with his 8 seats. But that is unlikely on a number of counts, particularly since Blue and White ran on a rule of law platform.

Shas, led by Aryeh Deri, has 9 seats and has had a history of being more flexible provided its core interests were served. But Deri too is under investigation for corruption and had been previously imprisoned for bribery. Given the demands for secularization and the prospect of charges, the party is unlikely to be part of a coalition led by Gantz.  

What seems complicated, with a multiplicity of possibilities about the formation of the new government, is much simpler upon analysis and boils down to two main options. In one, Gantz will lead a centrist-right government that includes Lieberman and Likud without Netanyahu as leader. It would have about 72 seats. Alternatively, there are two variations. Gantz could form a centre-left party with respect to domestic issues, supported by both the Democratic Union and Labor-Gesher. The government would include Lieberman on the right who would be awarded an important ministry like Defence. However, this coalition would only have 52 seats. It would need the support of the Joint List.  The two variations are its inclusion in government or an agreement to support the government for say two years under specific conditions.

Lieberman and Gantz, as well as even the Joint List, prefer a unity government. The Joint List would then not have to support the government. More important, Ayman Odeh would become Leader of the Opposition, a formal position with cabinet rank. He would be entitled to be updated at least once per month on security and domestic policies. Odeh would also be formally included in all ceremonies. That might really rankle the explicitly anti-Arab Jewish parties and might be sufficient reason for Likud members to remain reunited behind Netanyahu, especially given Bibi’s grip on the party and determination not to be convicted. My own conviction is, that although this is the preferred solution among the winners in the election, it is unlikely in the short run. More likely is a Gantz-led centrist-left domestic government and centrist-right government on Palestinian and foreign policy, with an agreement that the Joint List will not support a vote of no-confidence – under specific conditions (such as removing Netanyahu laws meant to suppress dissent) – for about two years. Whatever variation, Israeli Palestinians will, for the first time, exercise a degree of power. A more inclusive Israel is on the horizon.

In my next blog on proportionate government, I will weigh the merits and demerits of the system and review the roles and success rates for those parties that did not meet the minimal threshold. There are over twenty of them.

Appendix Reprint

At 2:37 Friday morning Israeli time, the Central Election Committee (CEC) announced the “almost final” results of the 17 September 2019 election…Over 4,431,000 votes were cast and over 99% of the votes counted. The turnout was 69.7%. The electoral threshold for a party to win seats was 3.25% of the votes cast.

Party Seats % Party Seats %
Kahol Lavan 33 25.93 Likud 31 25.09
Joint List 13 10.62 Shas   9   7.44
Labor-Gesher   6   4.80 United Torah Judaism   8   6.06
Democratic Union   5   4.34 Yamina   7   5.88
Total 57 45.69       55 44.47
Yisrael Beiteinu   8   6.99 Votes for other parties   0   2.85
  65 52.68     100.0

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