Election #5 in Israel: A preview
Aug 3, 2022 | Amotz Asa-El
The experiment has ended. Following one year of surprisingly effective incumbency, Israel’s eight-party coalition of strange bedfellows has been dissolved. A politically-perplexed Israel is now headed to its fifth general election in just three years on November 1.
The outgoing Government was unique not only in terms of Israeli history, but also anywhere in the world. Most governing coalitions in democracies are built around one large party, with smaller allies. In extraordinary situations, some have been led by a pair of large rivals. This one, however, left the largest party, Likud, in the opposition, while the coalition’s largest component, Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), won less than 15% of the electorate, as opposed to Likud’s 25%.
Moreover, the self-named “government of change” was a rainbow coalition that ranged from a right-wing party headed by Naftali Bennett, a former head of the West Bank settler organisation, to an Arab party, Ra’am, led by an Islamist preacher, Mansour Abbas.
Even more oddly, the Government was headed by Bennett despite the fact that his faction, Yamina (“Rightward”), represented only seven out of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers. According to the coalition agreement, Bennett was scheduled to hand over the premiership to the centrist Yair Lapid, of Yesh Atid, in August 2023, halfway through the coalition’s four-year term.
However, the coalition that initially included 62 lawmakers incrementally lost four of its members, three from Bennett’s faction and one from the left-wing Meretz.
All four cited various disagreements with the coalition’s compromises on assorted issues, from religious affairs to Arab-Israeli relations. The common denominator among all four is that they were relatively marginal politicians. The coalition’s eight party leaders actually worked in surprisingly effective harmony, despite their huge ideological differences, and even delivered some long-term change.
Most crucially, Israel’s 36th Government passed a budget after three years of fiscal paralysis during which the budgets of Israel’s ministries, rather than reflecting changing events and priorities and government plans, simply continued to be a monthly one-twelfth of their share of the 2018 annual budget.
Equally important, the Bennett Government fended off successive pandemic waves without imposing any lockdowns, while displaying remarkably close cooperation between Bennett and his political opposite, Health Minister Nitzan Horovitz of the Meretz faction.
Macro-economically, Bennett’s Government undid the pandemic’s shock, ultimately reducing to zero the budget deficit which in 2020 soared to NIS 160 billion (A$67 billion), or 11.9% of GDP, and overseeing a fall in unemployment from 18.2% to 3.4%.
Led in this effort by Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing secular-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) party, the outgoing Government’s restoration of fiscal planning and discipline came coupled with some long-term reforms, including raising the retirement age for women from 62 to 65.
Perhaps most importantly, the Bennett Government set out to tackle the law and order crisis in Arab towns, defining it as a major strategic goal for Israeli Police and investing heavily in arresting gang leaders, multiplying street patrols, building intelligence resources, and collecting illegal arms.
Lastly, on the Palestinian front, despite its eclectic structure, the Bennett Government displayed resolve toward Gaza, delivering the quietest year Israel has seen on that front this century even while balancing two seemingly contradictory policies – on the one hand, letting thousands of Gazans enter Israel to work as day labourers, and on the other hand, changing the arrangement whereby Hamas received monthly cash infusions from Qatar to an allegedly more transparent process designed to make sure the money does not reach Hamas’ terrorist activities.
Fittingly, the Government displayed harmony even as its two leaders announced its dissolution on June 20, and the consequent passage of the premiership from Bennett to Lapid, as per the terms of their original coalition agreement. The joint, televised address was laced with mutual compliments and underscored by Lapid’s statement to Bennett: “I love you; you placed the state above your personal interest.”
However, over its year in office, the Lapid-Bennett coalition only smoothed over, but did not undo, the crisis that has largely paralysed Israeli politics for the past three years. As its downfall made plain, Israel’s politicians remain split down the middle between those prepared and those unwilling to serve in a government led by the indicted former PM Binyamin Netanyahu. The key question, therefore, is whether the Nov. 1 election can finally end this stalemate.
The agenda and main protagonists of Israel’s 25th general election are the same as in the previous four contests, all of which revolved around one issue and one man: Netanyahu.
The agenda remains the extraordinary situation whereby Israel’s most electable politician is facing trial, as Netanyahu has been since his indictment in November 2019, for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
Lurking behind the controversy over Netanyahu the person are divided attitudes toward the judiciary, media and police, which Netanyahu has accused of collectively conspiring to unseat him and tarnish his family. The pro-Netanyahu camp also includes the ultra-Orthodox parties and the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism party, as well as Netanyahu’s Likud party.
The anti-Netanyahu camp is led by acting PM Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which has 17 lawmakers and is flanked by five allied parties – two to its right and two to its left, and one also occupying similar centre ground to Yesh Atid. On the left are Labor and Meretz, which currently have seven and six Knesset seats respectively. On the right, Netanyahu’s opponents include Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, with five seats, and Justice Minister Gideon Saar’s New Hope with six. Meanwhile, Defence Minister Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White currently has eight.
In terms of personalities, there are two notable changes in the approaching election. The first is Bennett’s decision to take a break from politics for an unspecified period of time.
The 50-year-old hi-tech entrepreneur’s Yamina party will thus be led this time around by his long-time political partner, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. However, like Bennett before last year’s election, she is in no position to rival Netanyahu electorally – polls suggest her party will barely pass the electoral threshold of 3.2%.
The second personnel re-alignment is Justice Minister Saar’s decision not to vie for the premiership, as he did in the last election, and instead endorse Gantz’s candidacy and merge his New Hope party with Gantz’s Blue and White. This, for now, is the most important development the new election has generated.
While the electoral contest for the premiership is set to be mainly between Netanyahu and Lapid, with Netanyahu enjoying a ten percentage-point lead as of now, what will decide the election is the balance between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs – and here the Gantz-Saar joint ticket could be significant.
The Gantz-Saar ticket is expected to garner about 12-15% of the electorate. Moreover, they are the only ones in the anti-Netanyahu camp whose leadership is also acceptable to Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox satellite parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
This could become very meaningful in the not-unlikely event that neither bloc wins a majority of 61 in the 120 seat Knesset. The balance of power in such a scenario will lie with the anti-Zionist Joint List party which, unlike Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am party, is unacceptable to both major parties as a coalition partner – and would likely reject participation in a governing coalition in any case.
If another inconclusive election outcome results, pundits predict that some of Netanyahu’s partners, especially the United Torah Judaism party, will refuse to allow him to push for yet another premature election. However, they find Lapid disagreeable due to his liberal record on religious issues. Therefore, pundits predict they will likely offer to support a rotation deal whereby the anti-Netanyahu camp gets the premiership first, but the top job would go to Gantz rather than Lapid.
The second prime minister in the rotation arrangement would be an unnamed Likud candidate. This way, everyone can await the results of Netanyahu’s trial, which will hopefully end before any prospective rotation comes about. If the court clears him, everyone would accept his return to the premiership, while if he is convicted, even the staunchly loyal Likud would presumably replace him.
If such a deal would indeed come about, Israel would have what it hasn’t had had since 2018: a broad, consensual, stable, and durable government.