Israel goes back to the polls

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu talks to the press following a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset on May 29, 2019. (Photo: Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

 

Update 05/19 #03

As readers are probably aware, Israel is going back to the polls again on Sept. 17. Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu proved unable to form a majority coalition and the Knesset (parliament), elected on April 9, voted to dissolve itself on Wednesday night, a mere seven weeks later. This Update is devoted to how and why this unprecedented political event occurred, its wider implications and what might happen in the new poll.

We begin with an excellent fact sheet from BICOM. It lays out exactly who was elected on April 9, and how former defence minister and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman made it impossible for Netanyahu to form the 64-seat right-religious governing coalition that was widely expected to be the outcome after the election. It then canvasses the splits, mergers and rumours now roiling the Israeli political scene, as well as other likely events up until September and how these might affect the outcome the next time around. For all the background you need to understand what is happening in Jerusalem, CLICK HERE.

Next up is the always insightful editor of the Times of Israel David Horovitz who looks in more detail at the clash between Netanyahu and Lieberman that led to coalition talks failing. Horovitz is sceptical that Lieberman is really motivated by the religious draft issue which was the ostensible reason no coalition agreement could be reached, and argues that personal animosities between the two men, as well as shrewd political calculations by Lieberman, are really behind the divide. He also looks at the effects of new elections on Netanyahu’s legal trouble – with an important hearing on the corruption allegations scheduled for early October – and how they may have influenced Lieberman’s calculations. For his well-written argument in full, CLICK HERE.  A differing view comes from columnist Ben Dror Yemini, who views Lieberman as taking a positive stance to protect “Israel’s fundamental values”.

Finally, we offer veteran Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner’s piece from the New York Times website focussing on the major social issue which sparked the Lieberman-Netanyahu political standoff – the religious-secular divide in Israel, especially with regard to military service. He looks at the history of this problem, which goes back decades. He also notes the right-left divide in Israel has been losing its salience over recent years, and suggests Lieberman may have been shrewd in picking the power of religious parties as an issue that may be gaining increasing resonance in Israeli politics. For his well-informed analysis of this divide and its political relevance, CLICK HERE.

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Israeli Elections Bulletin

BICOM, May 30

The Israeli Knesset voted last night to dissolve itself triggering a new election after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition. Elections will take place on September 17, less than six months after the April 9 elections.

What happened?

Benjamin Netanyahu told the Likud party last night that he did not succeed in reaching a compromise between Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party and the ultra-Orthodox parties over the conscription bill. This is the first time in Israel’s history that a candidate for prime minister failed to form a coalition after being given the mandate from the president. Netanyahu had tried to form a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and UTJ (8 seats each), Kulanu (4) United Right (5) and Yisrael Beitenu (5).

Lieberman told reporters: “The State of Israel is going to elections because of the Likud’s refusal to accept our proposal. This is a complete surrender of the Likud to the ultra-Orthodox. We will not be partners in a government of Jewish law.” Netanyahu slammed Lieberman immediately following the Knesset vote, saying:  “He has dragged the country to unnecessary elections due to his own political ego”. Netanyahu also said that Lieberman wanted to topple the government in order to win a few more votes in the next election and he had no intention of coming to an agreement.

Netanyahu reportedly asked the Labour party to join his coalition. Israeli media said he offered them two senior ministries and the Presidency, but they rejected the offer.

Seventy-four MKs voted in favour and 45 voted against dissolution. The votes in favour included the parties who Netanyahu had tried to form a coalition with, and the Arab parties who believe that they could win more seats in a new election.

Will anything change? Result of April 9 election

Splits, rumours and mergers

Former Ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, whose New Right party failed to win a seat in the last election, can try again. Shaked is rumoured to be joining the Likud and Bennett is reported to be trying to merge his new party, New Right, with his old party which is now in a group called the United Right.

Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party agreed this week to join Likud.

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkott is eligible to join a party and stand as a candidate, but he hasn’t indicated whether he is interested in entering politics.

The four Arab parties are reported to be ready to reform their Joint List which will likely boost the number of seats they win.

The Labour party will hold a leadership election and there are rumours that Labour could merge with Meretz.

Orly Levy’s party, which received almost 75,000 voters but failed to win any seats, can now merge with another party. She was unable to do this in April as she had been part of Yisrael Beitenu in the 20th Knesset.

The Blue and White party are expected to run again in a similar format but they could amend their clumsy rotation agreement where Yair Lapid was due to take over as Prime Minister from Benny Gantz after two and a half years had they formed a Government.

How the parties and their leaders shaped up in the April elections

Is Netanyahu in a better or worse position?

The return of the lost right-wing seats
Over 250,000 votes for right-wing parties (New Right received 138,598 votes and Zehut 118,031) were wasted as those parties didn’t win any seats. If the Likud or a large right-wing bloc can find a way to win these back it could boost the numbers of seats they win.

Detailed evidence against Netanyahu could now leak
Netanyahu convinced the Attorney General not to send evidence documents to his lawyers before the April elections to prevent embarrassing leaks. But this time they will be out in the open. And the elections will take place only two weeks before Netanyahu’s scheduled pre-indictment hearing on October 2 and 3. After the hearing, the Attorney General will issue his final recommendation whether to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases. In February BICOM published a briefing examining the corruption cases, mapping out the different stages of the legal and political processes, and analysing potential future scenarios.

The US plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks
This was due to be published after the Israeli Government was formed. Now that won’t happen until November, by which time the Trump team will be engrossed in their re-election campaign for 2020. Will this US plan ever be published? If Trump is re-elected this could be something that re-emerges in 2021.

Who will be blamed?
Netanyahu is trying to paint Avigdor Lieberman as the spoiler who dragged the country into another election. Lieberman, in turn, is blaming Netanyahu and will fiercely attack him in the election campaign. It’s unclear at this stage how this will affect their relative political support.

The moderate right voters
The Blue and White party did well in April winning 35 seats, but they largely failed to win over moderate right voters. Netanyahu argues that the merger with Kulanu will bring the party more seats. Netanyahu has showed his hand since the election with attempts to pass an immunity law and limit the power of the supreme court. A strong campaign focusing on these issues by the centre-left bloc could win over some of these moderate right-wing voters uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s policies. Kahlon’s party received 152,000 votes in the April elections.

Arab voter turnout
The Arab parties suffered from very low voter turnout in April – 50 per cent in contrast to 63 per cent in 2015. But having supported the dissolution of the Knesset, they are betting big on getting higher numbers this time.

Will anything actually change?

Netanyahu has succeeded in forging a strong alliance between right-wing parties and the ultra-Orthodox. But if the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and Avigdor Lieberman (or even Netanyahu) is now broken, it may be harder to create a future coalition.


Infuriating but not finishing Netanyahu, Liberman drags Israel back to the polls

The prime minister has long asserted that his enemies are pursuing a vendetta against him. Turns out he was looking in the wrong direction

By DAVID HOROVITZ

Times of Israel, May 30, 2019

The protagonists in happier times – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Israel’s then-new Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman arrive at a joint press conference in the Knesset on May 30, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90).

For two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been charging that his enemies are pursuing a “vendetta” to push him out of office. As criminal investigations against him gathered pace, he blamed the opposition, the media, the police, the state prosecution hierarchy and the attorney general.

On Wednesday, he was proven right. But it was none of these purported antagonists who forced him, just 50 days after he appeared to win one general election, to call another because he was unable to form a majority coalition. It wasn’t one of the derided “leftists” upon whom Netanyahu has focused so much vitriol. Rather, the enemy pursuing the vendetta was his own former longtime aide, now his nemesis, Avigdor Liberman.

Furious as he spoke to reporters immediately after the Knesset had voted to disperse and call new elections on September 17, Netanyahu blamed “the personal ambition of one man” for dragging Israel back to the polls.

Liberman, his former PMO chief, foreign minister and defense minister, never truly wanted to sign a coalition deal and deliberately rejected every compromise, Netanyahu stormed. Liberman, he declared, reaching for the most hideous insult he could find, “is now part of the left.”

What just happened?

Minutes earlier, before the fateful Knesset vote, Liberman had offered a very different narrative. He had wanted to join the coalition, he claimed. He had recommended to the president last month that Netanyahu be charged with forming the government. He had fully intended for his five-strong Yisrael Beytenu to be part of a Netanyahu-led 65-strong coalition in the 120-member Knesset.

All he had demanded was that legislation designed to raise the proportion of young ultra-Orthodox males serving in the army, a bill endorsed by the IDF itself and passed on a first reading 10 months ago, be fully and finally approved with no further changes.

But Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties had chosen not to meet this entirely reasonable demand, he lamented. Instead, the coalition negotiations had been a saga of “complete surrender by Likud to the ultra-Orthodox.” And while Yisrael Beytenu was a “natural partner” in a right-wing government, he said, “we won’t be partners in a government run according to halacha” — Jewish religious law.

Netanyahu’s version of events was slightly lacking. Israel did not necessarily have to be gearing up for new elections set for five months after the last round. Netanyahu could have simply reported to President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday that he’d been unable to form a majority coalition, and Rivlin could then have cast around for somebody else to have a try. But King Bibi had absolutely no intention of taking that risk; much better new elections, with a new bogeyman in the shape of Liberman to help him get out the vote, than giving Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar or any other pretender a clear run at the throne.

But if Netanyahu didn’t quite tell the full story, Liberman’s narrative was transparently false. The ultra-Orthodox draft legislation, whose every comma he so stirringly championed, would barely change the dismal reality in which the overwhelming majority of young Haredi males are exempted from the army. This is not a landmark law for which it was worth bringing down parliament one month after a fresh crop of legislators were sworn in.

Rather, Liberman realized that he held the balance of power. He may have calculated that he could win more seats next time as the great crusader of the secular right (and may well be mistaken). But he was primarily motivated by the desire to hurt Netanyahu. A great deal of nastiness may have played out behind the scenes between these two veteran political heavyweights, but even Liberman’s public utterances leave no room for doubt about his contempt for a prime minister he has repeatedly informed us he considers to be duplicitous, indecisive and soft.

Over recent years, he has leveled most every printable insult under the sun at Netanyahu, including but not limited to liar, crook and cheat. It was his resignation as defense minister last November, when he accused the government of capitulating to Hamas terrorism, that led to April’s elections. In retrospect, it is a wonder that Netanyahu didn’t prioritize locking Liberman into his coalition as the first goal of these failed negotiations, given the Yisrael Beytenu chief’s animus and proven potential for wreaking political havoc.

A cartoon from the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. The driver sending the train into a ballot box is Netanyahu, seated in front of an unconcerned Lieberman and other potential coalition partners. 

 

Liberman won the battle. But who will win the war?

As the 21st Knesset voted itself into oblivion at midnight — the law to disperse itself was its sole legislative achievement — a Channel 12 TV anchor remarked, with a degree of sorrow, that “what we are watching is parliament committing mass [political] suicide.” Netanyahu’s hold on his Likud MKs is so firm that they all dutifully voted themselves out of a job, at least temporarily, evidently confident that he will lead them safely back here in three and a half months’ time.

But what of Liberman and Netanyahu? What now becomes of them?

Pursuing his vendetta against Netanyahu to this bitter dead end, Liberman may turn out to have fatally damaged his own political career. Not only will the formidable Netanyahu be singularly focused on eviscerating him at the polls, but so too will the ultra-Orthodox parties he so publicly humiliated. And while many Israelis may not bother to schlep to the polling stations again, especially if September 17 is a sunny day,  the ultra-Orthodox community always votes in high numbers, and its representation in the next Knesset is likely to grow. Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu didn’t fare all that well on April 9, winning just those five seats — a far cry from its high of 15 in 2009. It might have trouble making it back into the Knesset at all next time.

For his part, Netanyahu vowed after the Knesset dissolution vote to run “a sharp and clear campaign” in September, “and to win.” It would be foolish, as ever this past decade, to bet against him — particularly given the loyalty his party’s MKs have shown him in the last few frenzied days.

Liberman chose not to make an issue of Netanyahu’s alleged criminal entanglements. He chose not to assert that he was staying out of a Netanyahu coalition because the prime minister has been planning to advance legislation that would render him immune from prosecution — and in the process oversee a radical constitutional change that would limit the power of the Supreme Court and undermine the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy. Now that would have been a cause to champion.

But Liberman will be hoping, nonetheless, that his fatal preemptive strike on this Netanyahu coalition will immensely complicate the prime minister’s legal situation from here on. He will be anticipating that with Netanyahu’s pre-trial hearing set for early October, just two weeks after what are now to be our next elections, the prime minister — provided, of course, that Netanyahu is more victorious in the next election than he turned out to be in the last one — simply won’t have time to legislate himself a Get Out of Jail card. If that proves to be the case, Liberman might truly turn out to have been Netanyahu’s most effective adversary.

It is certain, however, that Netanyahu will seek to have that hearing delayed — arguing, quite reasonably, that he has to fight an unexpected extra election. And it’s entirely possible that the attorney general will grant his request for a postponement, which might yet give Netanyahu the time he needs to try to extricate himself from his legal woes, at whatever cost to those democratic checks and balances.

The attorney general, after all, is not pursuing a vendetta against Netanyahu. Unlike Avigdor Liberman.


Why Is Israel Going to Have Another Election?

Shmuel Rosner

New York Times, May 30

Ultra-Orthodox men in Israel at a protest against military conscription last year. (Credit: Corinna Kern for The New York Times)

TEL AVIV — In early April, Benjamin Netanyahu won an election that was supposed to send him to an unprecedented 11th consecutive year as Israel’s prime minister. There was only one small obstacle in his way: forming a government.

The day after the election I predicted that “the coalition that he forms will probably have little more than the minimum 61 seats behind it.” I was wrong by one. Mr. Netanyahu was able to bring together 60 seats out of the Knesset’s 120 — and not a single one more.

At midnight on Wednesday, his deadline to form a government expired. He has only one, costly option now: sending Israeli voters back to the polls and starting over. It looks as if we’ll be voting again in mid-September.
How did this happen?

To really understand it, you have to go back many decades.

In Israel, all citizens are supposed to serve in the military or perform another type of national service. But one group has been relieved of this duty since the state was established: the ultra-Orthodox, known here as Haredim, who make up about 10 percent of the population. Thanks to their high birthrate, the Haredim double in number every 10 to 15 years. When deferment began in 1948 there were about 400 Haredim eligible for it. Today there are more than 50,000. According to Israel’s bureau of statistics, as much as a third of Israel’s population will be Haredi by 2065.

Young Haredi men study the Torah instead of wearing a uniform. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a vast majority of Israelis believe this is unfair.

The Supreme Court doesn’t like the arrangement either. In 2017, the court declared it unconstitutional and demanded new legislation that could withstand judicial review. Since then, the court agreed to grant the government a few postponements, but now the deadline is near. The new government, when formed, must pass a new law to continue the Haredim’s national service exemption. If it fails to do so, the court could decide that the arrangement is void, and prompt a political and social crisis by in essence ordering the state to draft many thousands of reluctant, disobedient, Haredim.

And here’s the problem. The political parties representing the ultra-Orthodox in the Knesset (currently, with 16 seats) have a lot of clout because they have been crucial in propping up coalitions like Mr. Netanyahu’s. In return for their support, the governments — in recent decades most of them have been right-wing — have put aside the issue of Haredi military service. That was the plan, once again, for the next Knesset.

Then one person decided to ruin the plan. Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, represents mostly voters of Russian and Eastern European origin. His voters, like him, are on the right. They are also secular and don’t have much love for the ultra-Orthodox parties and their political power to institute religiously coercive policies.

For years, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Haredi parties were in an uneasy alliance, along with the Likud party. No longer. During the last few weeks of negotiation over forming the new government, Mr. Lieberman has decided to insist on passing a version of a bill on military service that the Haredi parties oppose.

Mr. Lieberman is known to be cunning, so many Israelis suspect that his real motivations are hidden — maybe a personal vendetta against Mr. Netanyahu or a cynical ploy to gain more seats in the Knesset in a new election. But sometimes it is useful to take politicians at face value: Mr. Lieberman, who was defense minister when that bill was written, is committed to passing it and sees no reason make it acceptable to Haredi parties.

But why he is doing this now, rather than during the last government, may have to do with larger changes to Israel’s political landscape, in particular the opportunity to redraw the map of political rivalries.

For many years, the left has been the usual punching bag for right-wing politicians who wanted to galvanize their base. The truth is that leftists, known in Hebrew as smolanim, are disliked by most of the Israeli public. They are associated with a failed peace process, with weaker security policies, with naïveté. In Israeli politics, “smolani” is often synonymous with untrustworthy and unpatriotic.

That trick is getting old. The Israeli left is defeated and marginalized. The public long ago moved rightward. The last election was predominantly fought between Likud and an upstart center-center-right party called Blue and White. The old parties of the left collectively took only 10 seats. Yes, “smolani” is still hurled as an insult at potential rivals, but with less passion. The right dislikes leftists — but there is not much left to dislike.

Maybe this is why Mr. Lieberman has decided to shift gears and go after the Haredi parties.

In fact, the Haredim are even more disliked than leftists: According to polling from the Jewish People Policy Institute, where I work, just 20 percent of Jewish Israelis say that they make a “very positive contribution” to Israel, while almost half say their contribution to Israel is “negative.”

Haredim are disliked not only because they don’t serve in the military and because their politicians hold the government coalition hostage, but also because their participation in the workforce is low and they pay less in taxes than other communities. And, of course, because they are different. They wear black hats and live in segregated neighborhoods, and seem radical, outdated and sometimes just plain weird.

Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in Jerusalem: Growing resentment in secular Israel against their exemption from IDF service and the political clout which keeps the issue from being resolved.

Speaking on Tuesday, Mr. Lieberman said: “I am not against the ultra-Orthodox public. I am for the State of Israel.” He added, “I am for a Jewish state but against a religiously coercive state.” As he tries to convince voters that he has stymied coalition talks out of principle, not self-interest, he is now bringing up other issues that relate to the ultra-Orthodox beyond military service: closing stores on the Sabbath, Haredi boycotts of factories that operate on the Sabbath and the rabbinical use of DNA tests to verify the Jewishness of Russian immigrants, and more. These are precisely the policy areas where the Haredim have exercised their political power — and where they are unpopular with much of the public.

By sabotaging a right-Haredi coalition and prompting a new election, Mr. Lieberman is presenting voters on the right with a question: Whom do they dislike more, the smolanim or the Haredim? Mr. Netanyahu’s bet is on the old fight, against the left; Mr. Lieberman decided to bet on a political fight against the ultra-Orthodox.

He might be on to something. There’s no reason for Israelis to worry about the left anymore. But there is good reason to be concerned about how the ultra-Orthodox can misuse their power. The time has come for someone with political clout to make that point and to try to rein in the ultra-Orthodox pull on Israeli public life and politics. It remains to be seen if it’s a winning political strategy.

Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer. @rosnersdomain