Australia/Israel Review

Editorial: Political stability at last?

Mar 2, 2021 | Colin Rubenstein

A worker of the Central Election Commission in Israel wearing a full protective suit during a media demonstration of special polling stations for people infected with coronavirus as part of  preparation for the upcoming Israeli general elections, in Shoham, Israel, 23 February 2021. Israel is expected to hold legislative elections on 23 March 2021 to elect the members of the 24th Knesset.  EPA/ABIR SULTAN
A worker of the Central Election Commission in Israel wearing a full protective suit during a media demonstration of special polling stations for people infected with coronavirus as part of preparation for the upcoming Israeli general elections, in Shoham, Israel, 23 February 2021. Israel is expected to hold legislative elections on 23 March 2021 to elect the members of the 24th Knesset. EPA/ABIR SULTAN

While it would be easy to view Israel’s fourth election in two years as a sign of chronic political dysfunction, there are reasons to be optimistic that a stable government is not far away. Perhaps Israel is finally on the road to recovery from its political crisis, as it is with respect to the COVID crisis that has gripped the country for the past year.

For one, rather than a replay of the previous rounds of elections, the March 23 contest has introduced new players, like Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, and added more prime ministerial contenders to the field, such as Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Yamina’s Naftali Bennett.

Current PM Binyamin Netanyahu will once again face judgement at the ballot box, even as his trial on corruption charges hovers over him. Though indisputably the leader of Israel’s largest party, he still needs to find enough willing partners to govern, something that has become increasingly difficult with every passing election. 

Yet he has shown extraordinary political skill in the past – a viable Netanyahu-led coalition of the centre-right with a Knesset majority remains very much a possibility. Despite widespread criticism of his handling of aspects of the coronavirus pandemic crisis last year, Netanyahu will make a case for re-election based on his strong diplomatic achievements internationally, a solid economic record, cautious yet attentive management of Israel’s vital security challenges and his personal orchestration of Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign.

On the other hand, his opponents – some of them long-time former colleagues including Sa’ar, Bennett and former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman – will doubtless go beyond criticising his handling of the pandemic. They will also be attempting to tap into a growing sense among many Israelis that, after more than 11 continuous years in power, and amid a corruption trial which increasingly preoccupies his focus and attention, it is time for Netanyahu to retire in favour of new blood – someone with different policies, messages and/or style of governance. 

One encouraging sign at this election is indications that Israel’s Arab citizens are engaging with the country’s legislature in a more politically diverse way than in the past.

The Arab party Ra’am has reversed the traditional reluctance of Israeli Arab parties to support a Zionist-led coalition and has been expressing a willingness to consider supporting the next Israeli government in exchange for new and expanded programs to meet the pressing needs of Israeli Arab communities.

Indeed, Israeli Arabs also have a good chance of entering the Knesset on the Labor and Meretz lists, and, for the first time, an Israeli Arab appears on the nationalist Likud slate. 

Yet paradoxically and disappointingly, the same Likud that placed an Arab Israeli on its list cynically played matchmaker for the anti-Arab Otzma Yehudit and far-right Religious Zionism parties, convincing the latter to unite with the former for the sake of salvaging some votes from the very fringes of politics. Deplorably, this barefaced horse-trading will likely result in bringing unrepentant followers of the late racist demagogue Rabbi Meir Kahane into the Knesset. 

Yet whatever happens on March 23, what’s certain is that Israel’s leaders post-election will face many of the same challenges the country is experiencing today, only hopefully with a fresh mandate to act.

Completion of the country’s vaccination program is a top priority, as is charting a recovery for the nation’s economy, which saw its GDP shrink and deficits and unemployment soar in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. 

Israel’s next government will also need to work hard to heal the rifts in society that grew during the darkest days of the pandemic, with polls showing a large drop in social solidarity and cohesion over recent months due largely to controversies over adherence to coronavirus restrictions within some sectors of Israeli society.

The government, however it is comprised, will certainly seek to expand the circle of Arab and Muslim countries that have normalised relations with the Jewish state under the landmark Abraham Accords and, just as importantly, validated the right of the Jewish people to be regarded as a legitimate part of the region where they became a people.

It will have to continue to put considerable effort into preserving and building Israel’s special relationship with its most important ally, the United States. 

Based on past experience and the record of the vast majority of candidates, we know that the next Israeli government will work constructively with American negotiators to try to find ways to nurture and preserve paths to peace with the Palestinians, even if all sides acknowledge that conditions are not ripe for an agreement to end the conflict in the near future.

No conceivable Israeli leader will be prepared to stand aside and allow one of the world’s most dangerous regimes – and foremost sponsor of terrorism – to build the world’s most dangerous weapons. Therefore, first and foremost, it is a top priority for the next Israeli government to persuade the US, Europe and other major international stakeholders to refrain from easing sanctions on Iran until it returns to full compliance with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the JCPOA. 

But all conceivable Israeli leaders will also urge US and EU negotiators to retain valuable negotiating leverage essential for pressuring Teheran to permanently extend and strengthen that totally inadequate deal – which not only ignored Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional aggression, but has actually brought the Iranians closer to crossing the nuclear threshold thanks to its sunset clauses and other flaws. 

Despite everything, Israel’s robust democracy has successfully weathered a very difficult time over the last two years and doubtless will continue to do so even if this election also proves inconclusive and leads to yet another early trip to the ballot box. But we join the vast majority of Israelis in hoping it does not have to face this test and badly needed, stable, effective government returns after March 23. 

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