Next steps in the Israeli vote, explained

Next steps in the Israeli vote, explained

We asked some experts to help cut through the electoral fog

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, center, at the beginning of his meeting this week with Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. Haim Zach (GPO)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, center, at the beginning of his meeting this week with Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. Haim Zach (GPO)

We recently observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day when we reflect on the mass murder of six million European Jews, undoubtedly anti-Semitism’s tragic apotheosis. Sadly, 71 years after the end of World War II, that most ancient hatred is alive and thriving in the world, in the United States, and, yes, also here in New Jersey.

For the second time in six months, Israel’s political parties are trying to create a government. If there is one thing Israeli political analysts agree on, it’s that it’s impossible to predict the makeup of that government, or even if there will be a government. If Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, and Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud, cannot gather the necessary 61-seat majority on their own or in cooperation with each other, Israel will be forced to hold yet another election in February 2020.

NJJN asked five pundits to share their perspectives.

What is the likeliest outcome of the election?

Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and political analyst, called the prediction game “futile,” but said that the scenario being given the most play is the formation of a unity government between Likud and Blue and White.

The problem, Scheindlin said, is that both Likud and Blue and White “are demanding that their party lead the government, and that’s a zero-sum prospect. So the most likely scenario doesn’t seem very likely. Which is why we’re in trouble.”

Netanyahu promised to negotiate as a unified right-wing bloc, the pollster said, “but for that to happen either Labor would need to join such a government, and it has sworn not to.” Or, she said, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, “would have to go in.”

“Both parties swore they would not join a religious right-wing government,” she continued. “And Labor said it would not join right wingers if Netanyahu is leading the Likud. Another possibility is that Gantz would form a government and manages to bring in the ultra-Orthodox parties and Lieberman. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox have sworn they will not go in with Yair Lapid,” a co-founder of Gantz’s Blue and White party.

If Israel is to avoid a third election “someone will have to make an egregious compromise and violate campaign promises for there to be a government,” Scheindlin said.

Who is Avigdor Lieberman and how did he become the so-called “kingmaker”?

Sam Sokol, a journalist and author of the book “Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews,” said Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party was traditionally the first choice for Israelis raised in the former Soviet Union because the party is secular and right-wing.

But Lieberman’s natural voting base began to shrink when the children of Russian immigrants integrated into society and decided to vote for other parties.

While Lieberman has always believed in and advocated for secularism,
“he was also traditionally pragmatic,” Sokol said. “In the past he sat in the government with charedi parties” absolutely opposed to a change in the religious status quo. “He didn’t make it a do-or-die issue.”

As part of his political calculus, Lieberman has transformed himself from a fringe Russian party politician to the champion of right-wing secularism, Sokol said.

By doing so, Lieberman created a schism between religious and secular voters in the right-wing camp. He claims, for example, that Netanyahu’s partnership with the ultra-Orthodox parties has led to government-sanctioned religious coercion and an unfair situation in which charedim are exempt from mandatory military service while others must serve.

“He is saying, unless I get what I want on the IDF draft issue, I won’t join a coalition. But ironically, he helped tank the last coalition negotiations and could tank these negotiations too. While he can be the kingmaker” by making himself indispensable for either party to reach the requisite 61 seats, “if he somehow forces Blue and White and Likud to form a broad coalition they won’t need him anymore, and he could be out in the cold,” Sokol said.

Is there a path for Netanyahu to remain as prime minister?

Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Netanyahu’s position is weaker than it was in previous elections.

“It’s the second time he is struggling to cobble together the government he would like. So far he has been unable to overcome the cleavages within the Israeli right over the status of religion in Israel, where the religious enjoy preferential policies,” he said.

Although several scenarios are possible, Zalzberg said, “all we can say with certainty is that Netanyahu is paying the price of being generous toward the religious parties. This created a niche for Lieberman to strongly advocate for the secular right-wing population.”

Zalzberg said the threat of being indicted only weakens Netanyahu.

“Even if the president entrusts him with forming a government he would appear weaker if he’s indicted and there are legal questions surrounding his candidacy. His entire legacy is at risk over this.”

The feeling among the public is that “if it’s not the end of Netanyahu’s political career, it’s the beginning of the end,” Zalzberg said.

Are the Arab parties poised to play a greater role in Israeli politics, and if so, why?

Tamar Hermann, director of the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute, says the institute’s most recent opinion poll demonstrates that the majority of Israel’s Arab citizens want to participate in Israeli politics and society as a whole.

“Our most recent opinion poll shows that 76 percent of Arab Israelis support Arab parties joining the government,” Hermann notes. “This clearly reveals that despite Arab Israelis’ serious criticism of their treatment by the state, especially in reference to the legislation of the nation-state law, there is a strong desire among them to integrate into the state and Israeli society.”

On a practical level, a substantial majority is in favor of joining the government and the appointment of an Arab minister. At the same time, we see a significant decline in Arab Israelis’ satisfaction with their leadership. And so, it is safe to assume that if this leadership declines to support the new government (led by Gantz) after receiving a respectful offer accompanied by significant compensation for joining — this will deal a significant blow to the ties between the Arab-Israeli community and its leadership.

“As for the Jewish public — its readiness to join forces with the Arabs in the political arena is more modest,” Hermann added. “At the same time, the study reveals its substantial support for investing resources in the Arab-Israeli community in civic areas (such as education and infrastructure) and for a public space shared by Jews and Arabs.”

What’s at stake for American Jews?

Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, says that if this election proved anything, it’s that the Israeli political arena is no longer divided along traditional right-left lines but rather along a new fault line: right versus center.   

“The emergence of the centrist Blue and White Party, and the marginalization of both the Labor Party and the farther-left Meretz, confirms a process that began with the second intifada: the decline of the left and the rise of the center,” Halevi said. 

For liberal Jews to expect to have a say in determining Israeli policy, “they need to internalize this change and appreciate that their most effective Israeli allies are not on the left but the center. That is where change can come on issues ranging from curtailing settlement expansion to expanding religious pluralism. We need a new alignment between the mainstream American-Jewish community and the Israeli center. This is the ground that can resist the polarization from left and right.”

Michele Chabin is a contributing editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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