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Israel goes to the polls for the third time in a year

Feb 28, 2020 | AIJAC staff

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Update from AIJAC

02/20 #04

Israel is heading back to the polls next Monday, March 2, for the third time in less than a year. This Update explores why, what could happen, and what to watch out for as the results come in.

It also features a good analysis of what lies behind the clashes between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) around Gaza earlier this week.

We lead with veteran Israeli political commentator Shmuel Rosner, who offers a short guide to the Israeli election. Rosner suggests that the chances of anything dramatic happening are small, and the overwhelming likelihood is that nothing substantial will change in terms of the political deadlock that has gripped Israel over the past year, including all the dilemmas that stalemate brings with it. Nonetheless, he suggests a number of factors to watch – turnout, the Arab vote, the decline of older political forces, etc. – as well as the options for both PM Netanyahu and major challenger Benny Gantz. For Rosner’s must-read basic guide to understanding what’s going on with this election, CLICK HERE. A more detailed guide to all the factors Rosner discusses comes from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Next up is Anshel Pfeffer, a senior correspondent and columnist for the left-leaning Israeli paper Haaretz, who looks at some of the longer-term electoral and demographic changes that have brought Israel to the current stalemate. He details a small but definite electoral shift away from parties supporting Netanyahu among Jewish Israelis over the past few elections. Pfeffer says the outcome of the election will hinge on whether this shift will continue – a further shift of some 50,000 votes could see a viable path to government for Gantz – or stop, in which case the current deadlock will very likely continue. For his political analysis in full,  CLICK HERE. The latest Israeli polls suggest the shift Pfeffer mentions is unlikely to continue, and small gains by the pro-Netanyahu bloc may even be likely, though probably not enough to win a governing majority.

Finally, we offer readers some analysis of the latest Gaza conflict which began on Sunday –  and saw more than 100 rockets fired into Israel and Israeli strikes on Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets until a ceasefire on Tuesday. Israeli security reporter Yaakov Lappin says the principal reason for the latest outbreak is that Hamas, which rules Gaza, has proven itself unwilling or unable to control PIJ, which is determined to destroy any hopes of a ceasefire  – even though Hamas wants one. He also offers some good discussion of Israeli security force thinking about the difficult situation, and how the IDF is preparing to deal with both Gaza militants and the quality of life problems for Gazans caused by 14 years of Hamas rule. For this valuable guide to the Gaza dilemma, CLICK HERE.

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Israel’s (Third) Election: A Short Guide

 

BY SHMUEL ROSNER 

Jewish Journal of Los Angeles,  FEB 26, 2020

Let me begin by stating the obvious: One doesn’t lose sleep over something that happens often and is likely to happen again soon. So don’t lose sleep over Israel’s election on March 2. There’s a slight chance that it will be dramatic. There’s a greater chance that it won’t. There’s a slight chance that it will be the last election for a while. There’s a greater chance that the next election will come within a … well, that depends on the following factors:

Voter turnout: In this election, the third in less than a year, the camp whose voters don’t tire is the one with the advantage. And we’re all tired. The campaigns are tired, the streets are tired, the media coverage is tired. It is the dullest election campaign in Israel’s history. It also takes place on a Monday, not the usual day for an election. It’s also happening as the coronavirus is making people nervous about visiting public places. It’s also happening when most polls suggest that nothing will change. So, why bother?

Arab vote: The Arab Joint List is an important player in this election. The more votes it gets, the more complicated the situation becomes. Why? Because more seats for the Arabs means fewer seats for the center-left bloc (Blue and White, Labor-Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu). If this bloc doesn’t have more seats than the right-religious bloc (Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Yamina), it won’t be able to form a minority coalition with the Arabs sitting on the fence. Complicated? Keep reading.

Long-term trends: The involvement of Arabs in national politics is an important development. Another interesting trend within the past year: The religious-Zionist camp can’t find common ground and unite around a party (maybe it no longer feels the need to have its own party). And Israel’s founding party — Labor — is gone, merging with Meretz and no longer a major player.

Netanyahu’s options: If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc (Likud) surprises and wins more than 60 seats, he will form a coalition and govern. If he has fewer than 60 (as predicted), what he wants is a fourth election. That is, keep his job while voters wait for another round. (Netanyahu’s criminal trial on corruption charges is slated to begin March 17.)

Gantz’s options: If Benny Ganz’s bloc (Blue and White) has more seats than the Netanyahu bloc, he can form a minority coalition. The bloc will vote for it, the Netanyahu bloc will vote against it, and the Arabs will abstain. If his bloc has fewer seats than Netanyahu’s he will face a dilemma and a challenge: Would he and could he form a coalition based not on the abstention of Arabs but rather on their active support? (He will need them to vote for a coalition that includes ultra-nationalists such as Avigdor Lieberman).

Prior commitments: Many of Israel’s political problems can be solved if some parties decide to no longer stick to prior commitments and habits. These are: Blue and White’s complete refusal to join a Netanyahu coalition (it is a personal condition, not against Likud but rather against him). Likud’s insistence on representing a “bloc” that includes the ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman’s war against the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox refusal to abandon Likud. The inability of Likud leaders to challenge Netanyahu. On election night, look for signs of change in the way the leaders speak about these conditions.

Losing parties: Which parties are going to be afraid of a fourth election? These will be the parties more likely to become disloyal to previous commitments and accept the need to end the deadlock. Likely losers: Lieberman, whose bag of political tricks seems to get smaller with every round. Yamina — the right-wing party whose commitment to Likud costs it every time. But it also could be Blue and White. If recent polls are correct, Likud might get more seats in this round than Blue and White, possibly signaling that the party’s peak is behind it, and maybe it is time for it to cash in.

Best-case scenarios: For Netanyahu: a 61-seat coalition. Such a coalition would enable him to govern and also could mitigate his legal troubles. For Gantz: an ability to form a minority government that could survive long enough for Netanyahu to be forced out. For the public: A unity government. A tie could send Israel into another round.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain


These 50,000 Israelis Can Send Netanyahu Packing Next Week

Anshel Pfeffer

Haaretz, Feb 25, 2020

At the end of three Israeli election campaigns in a year, there are very few floating voters left untapped. Even so, Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan will be hoping to find some in the ‘soft-right’ flank of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party

People walking next to election campaign billboards for Likud and Kahol Lavan in Bnei Brak, central Israel, February 23, 2020. (Oded Balilty/AP)

 

Israelis are returning to vote a week from today. The final result will almost certainly be the same as in last year’s two elections. The parties supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not have a majority in the 23rd Knesset, and the parties opposing him will not be able to create a coalition capable of winning the vote of confidence to approve the proposed government. Virtually every single election poll conducted in the past few months has confirmed this.

There is not one poll in which the four parties in Netanyahu’s potential coalition – LikudShas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina – have more than 58 seats, leaving them three seats short of the necessary Knesset majority.

Benny Gantz doesn’t need 61 seats to depose Netanyahu and become Israel’s new prime minister within weeks. Since Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and the right-wing flank of his own Kahol Lavan party won’t sit in the same coalition as the Joint List, or even in a coalition supported by the Joint List from the outside, Gantz’s likeliest path to governing is if Kahol Lavan, the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance and Yisrael Beiteinu win more seats than Netanyahu’s bloc and the Joint List abstains on the vote of confidence (which the predominantly Arab alliance probably will do – even though Kahol Lavan politicians have taken to calling this option “the Jewish majority”).

Gantz’s problem is that he also lacks three seats to make this scenario a reality. The polling averages over the past month have the three parties of Gantz’s notional minority government totaling 51 seats, while Netanyahu’s four-party bloc is averaging 56 seats.

Last September, the number of votes needed per seat was 35,917; last April, it was 32,860. Assuming next week’s turnout will be similar to the last two elections (69.8 percent in September; 68.5 percent in April), three seats are worth about 100,000 votes – or about 2.3 percent of the total vote. On paper, that means Gantz’s path to victory is shorter than Netanyahu’s right now: The latter needs five extra seats, or about 160,000 votes, to make it to the necessary 61. But even Gantz’s task seems insurmountable.

Talk to the pollsters and they will tell you there is a reason the polls all show political deadlock: At the end of three election campaigns in the space of a year, there are very few floating voters left. Those who do exist are “undecided within the blocs” – deliberating between Kahol Lavan and Labor-Gesher-Meretz; or between Likud and Yamina. If there really are 100,000 voters floating between the Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs, the pollsters haven’t detected them.

But polling is a science based on limited samples. There is something better than polls: actual elections.

The problem with comparing Israeli election results is that between every election, parties split, merge or even change allegiances. Some parties can win significant chunks of votes, but those votes won’t be counted if they don’t cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. But the comparisons can still be useful.

If we split the parties into three groups – those who would choose to be in a coalition with Netanyahu; those who would not be; and those in neither camp (the Arab parties) – we can see an interesting trend over the past three elections.

After the March 2015 election, there were seven right-wing or religious parties who could serve in a coalition with Netanyahu, and did (though Yisrael Beiteinu joined the coalition for only part of that term). These parties – including the far-right Yachad slate that didn’t pass the threshold – won 56.4 percent of the total vote. The four parties that wouldn’t be part of a Netanyahu coalition (including the pro-marijuana legalization Green Leaf) won only 32.5 percent. The four separate Arab parties, which ran together for the first time as the Joint List, won 10.6 percent.

In April 2019, the parties that had supported the Netanyahu coalition in the past (including two right-wing parties that failed to cross the threshold – Hayamin Hehadash and Zehut) won 55.4 percent of the total vote, one percentage point less than in 2015.

This may seem a tiny dip, but two things should be taken into account. First, the reservoir of “Jewish votes” in this election was larger, as the Joint List had split and the Arab parties ran in two separate slates that won a combined total of just 7.8 percent – almost 3 percentage points lower than in 2015.

Second, the demographics of Israel – with higher proportions of religious and right-leaning Israelis becoming eligible to vote – should have benefited the Netanyahu coalition. Parties that wouldn’t sit in a Netanyahu coalition (including Gesher, which failed to pass the electoral threshold) won 35.9 percent of the vote, up almost 3.5 percentage points from four years earlier.

Five months later, in the September 2019 election, the pendulum between the Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs swung much further. The Likud coalition parties (including Otzma Yehudit, which didn’t pass the threshold) slumped by a further 9 percentage points, to 46.3 percent of the vote. The anti-Netanyahu parties bloc jumped by more than seven points to 42.1 percent and the Joint List, once again running on a united Arab slate, won 10.6 percent, identical to its 2015 result.

In other words, the “Jewish vote” – about 89 percent in both March 2015 and September 2019, and which split 56 to 32 percent in favor of Netanyahu-supporting parties in 2015 – is now far closer at 46 to 42 percent. And once the votes of Otzma Yehudit are taken out of the equation (since it didn’t cross the electoral threshold), the margin is down to 2.3 percentage points and almost tied.

This isn’t just a result of voters turning against Netanyahu. It has as much to do with Lieberman moving Yisrael Beiteinu from the pro-Netanyahu column to the “anti” one, and center- and right-wing parties being absorbed into larger ones (Kulanu and Zehut into Likud; Gesher into Labor).

But the result is the same: The Netanyahu bloc is only 2.3 percentage points bigger than the anti-Netanyahu bloc (not including the Joint List). That is only 100,000 voters – half of whom, if they switch sides, can give Gantz the necessary seats to form a minority coalition government.

This election will hinge on whether the swing away from pro-Netanyahu parties continues on March 2, even by just a couple of degrees that the pollsters haven’t detected – and then Gantz could eke out those last necessary votes. Or, as the pollsters currently predict, the momentum has been arrested and we’ll be facing another deadlock next week. The only options then would be a national unity government or a dreaded fourth election.

Finding the voters

Where can those 50,000 votes come from? Potentially only from Netanyahu’s own party (they won’t come from the ultra-Orthodox Shas or United Torah Judaism parties, or from far-right Otzma Yehudit. And while there seems to be a slight drift from Naftali Bennett’s religious-Zionist Yamina party, it amounts only to a few thousand votes.

Likud won 1,113,617 votes in September, down 26,753 from the 1,140,370 it received in April. But Likud’s loss was actually much greater, as between the two elections it had absorbed both Kulanu and Zehut, who collectively had received a total of 270,787 votes last spring. Kulanu did even better in 2015 with 315,360 votes – all of which have now evaporated elsewhere.

Five months ago, Likud lost 297,540 potentially pro-Netanyahu votes from the April election – mainly of former Kulanu supporters but also former Likudniks. These likely went mainly to Yisrael Beiteinu (which nearly doubled the number of its votes), the crossover party for right-wingers fed up with Netanyahu, and to Kahol Lavan (whose gains were offset by voters returning to Labor and Meretz, which is why Kahol Lavan only increased its vote by some 25,000), and others who stayed home.

The “soft-right” flank of the Likud camp – voters who are frustrated by Netanyahu’s alliance with ultra-Orthodox parties and do not support his campaign against the judiciary and law enforcement agencies – isn’t a myth. Lieberman and Gantz dipped deep into that well of voters last September. And if there are just 50,000 left there, they can still send Netanyahu packing next week.


Hamas fails to curb Islamic Jihad, which has no interest in stabilizing Gaza

Following recent rocket fire, Israel cannot tolerate the “new rules of the game” that PIJ is trying to impose on it, and the objective of reaching a long-term “understanding” with Hamas, the terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip, is looking increasingly distant.

by  Yaakov Lappin

JNS.org, 02-25-2020 12:58

Smoke trails from rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza City on Feb. 24, 2020. (Photo by Ail Ahmed/Flash90.)

For months, the Israeli government has pursued the objective of trying to stabilize the Gaza Strip. It tried to reach new truce understandings with Hamas through indirect negotiations – brokered by the Egyptians and others – and avoid a new war.
But the latest incidents show that the goal of stabilizing Gaza is growing increasingly distant by the day.

On Sunday, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad attempted to carry out a border bomb attack, which was foiled successfully by the Israeli military when troops deployed along the border shot dead the terrorist as he planted the bomb. Outrage spread throughout Gaza when a video emerged of an IDF bulldozer removing the terrorist’s body from the scene.

On Monday, the IDF launched a series of airstrikes against Islamic Jihad after the terrorist group fired dozens of rockets at Israel, over half of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system. The border bomb attack and rocket fire are just the latest signs of how untenable the Gazan situation is becoming.

There are a few reasons for this. First among them is the fact that Hamas – Gaza’s ruling regime and its largest terrorist army – is unable or unwilling to constrain Islamic Jihad, the second-largest armed faction in the Strip.

An explosion following an Israeli airstrike on Islamic Jihad sites in Gaza City (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Hamas has, over the past year, tried to avoid war. According to a source familiar with the issue, Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar has prioritized the goal of improving the economic and humanitarian situation for Gazans. ‘

Sinwar has done this not because Hamas abandoned its radical long-term ideology of destroying Israel or its efforts to set up waves of terror attacks from the West Bank, but because he concluded that a war at this time would threaten his own regime. He also concluded that a continued economic deterioration among Gazans would pose big risks to Hamas’s control of the Strip.

So Sinwar turned to temporary pragmatism. He remains interested in the option of reaching understandings with Israel and hopes such steps will improve Gaza’s economy, leading to developments such as the construction of new factories to create jobs, letting more Gazan traders into Israel, and finding solutions for Gaza’s dire energy and water needs.

There is no doubt that Sinwar is strong in Gaza, as are members of the Hamas military wing group that surround him. Yet the Hamas leadership still lacks the power to force Islamic Jihad to line up with the efforts to reach a truce.

Hamas military chief Yahya Sinwar

Islamic Jihad is still attempting to destroy the chances of achieving a ceasefire, and Hamas cannot stop it. This is due to the simple reason that doing so would undercut Hamas’s ethos as a jihadist Islamist movement and call into question its ideological commitment to conflict with Israel.

Israel has been trying to isolate Islamic Jihad and keep Hamas out of fighting. This is why it conducted a surgical missile strike when it killed Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu-al Ata on Nov. 14, 2019, after he ignored multiple Israeli warnings to cease and desist from the rocket, anti-tank missile and bombing attacks that he was conducting against Israelis.

The missile killed al-Ata and his wife, but not his children, who were in another room in a Gazan apartment building. Hamas was able to stay out of the two-day flare-up that followed, just as Israel had intended.

The hope in Israel was that after that operation, conditions would emerge that would enable Israel and Hamas to reach longer-term understandings. But then, new developments kept coming. The US killing of the Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani caused Islamic Jihad to up its attacks from Gaza in solidarity.

Then, in late January, the Trump administration unveiled its Mideast peace plan, and this caused Hamas to feel like it “had to do something” in response to signal its rejection. These factors have all decreased the chances of an Israeli–Hamas long-term truce.
Hamas facing an identity crisis

Last week, an Islamic Jihad cell targeted IDF troops, who returned fire. The PIJ, it seems, is back to its old patterns, trying to spark instability every day. Meanwhile, Hamas has yet to decide on its identity. Is it a civilian political regime? A terror faction? A military force? A national movement? Or a fundamentalist radical ideology? Hamas keeps trying to say “yes” to all of the above; this merely adds to the instability of Gaza.

Hamas has not done enough to convince Israel that it is even able to uphold a truce, or that it would not use commodities going into Gaza to build up its military force and threaten Israelis. It’s not able to provide assurances that rockets will stop terrorizing Israeli civilians, or that balloons with grenades tied to them will stop appearing over southern Israeli towns and villages. It has not visibly decreased its attempts to orchestrate deadly terror squads from the West Bank.

If Hamas wants international money invested into Gaza’s critically ill economy, then it would need to create significant periods of calm and quiet – something the terrorist group has consistently failed to deliver.

Israel has displayed much patience and caution in its dealings with Gaza, based on the understanding that its options range from bad to worse.

Commendably, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not rushed to war as a first solution. But the IDF has nevertheless been preparing for one. If any of the future rounds of escalations leads to war, the IDF knows that this time, it will have to achieve decisive results.

Islamic Jihad operatives training on the outskirts of Gaza City (Photo: AP/Adel Hana)

That means striking enemy positions wherever they are. And all of these positions are embedded deeply within Gaza’s civilian neighborhoods. If the IDF detects an enemy headquarters operating on the fourth floor of an apartment building, it can use its accurate firepower to hit the floor without bringing down the whole building.

The potential path to a wider escalation is getting shorter with time. Rounds of fighting can create two or three days of hostilities, which will then either return to calm or escalate into a wider conflict.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have manufactured rockets with heavier warheads than in the past and with longer ranges. But the IDF has completed a long and qualitative process of preparation and improvement.

It has created new combat networks that link together Ground Forces, IAF and Military Intelligence. Commanders on the ground now have access to intelligence, drones and other capabilities as they move through the urban battlefield that did not exist five years ago, and the IDF’s target bank is constantly being updated.

Israel cannot sit indefinitely on the side and watch residents of Sderot, who have a mere 15 seconds to find shelter, live in terror. It cannot accept Ashkelon coming under rocket fire by terror squads who fire from schoolyards.

If war does come, the IDF will have to attack the enemy where it is.

The wider problem, however, is that while a war may boost Israeli deterrence, it will not fix the economic or humanitarian conditions that years of Hamas rule have created. In fact, after a future war, those problems will only be worse.

It is in Israel’s security interest is to increase the quality of life for Gazans, a fact that the Israeli defense establishment stresses. It is an Israeli interest to decrease the 40 percent unemployment rate in Gaza, which reaches 65% between the ages of 20 to 30. These figures are a red blinking light showing that Gaza is on the edge of the cliff.

Every day, more than 400 trucks move from Israel into Gaza bringing commodities.

When Gaza suffers power cuts, it turns off the electricity to sewage-treatment plants, and Gaza’s sewage then washes up on the southern Israeli coastline. This is a small illustration of how it is impossible for Israel to fully “disconnect” from events in the Strip. While hospitals in Gaza now have electricity 24 hours a day, other problems continue to fester.

A spike in Gaza’s unemployment rate

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has also caused real harm to Gaza’s economic situation, buy cutting budgets in order to punish Hamas, his bitter rivals. The P.A.’s budget cuts have caused a spike in the Strip’s unemployment figures.

In the past year, Israel has increased the number of merchants who cross out of Gaza via the Erez border crossing – 355,500 crossings of this type occurred in 2019, compared to 106,400 in 2018. Exports from Gaza of commodities like agriculture, textiles and furniture are up, but these measures are minor in the grand scheme of things and amount to a band-aid on a gaping wound.

Israel wants to see more salaries being paid in Gaza because it knows that can contribute to calm. But one terror attack launched by a Gazan who received an entry permit into Israel can wreck all such efforts.

While Israel recognizes the need to improve the quality of life for Gazans who live under the rule of terror factions that use them as human shields, it cannot give in to terrorists or allow armed attacks on Israeli communities to pass unanswered. A failure to respond appropriately to terrorist aggression would not only damage Israel’s deterrence in its merciless neighborhood, where other foes watch closely, but would also have adverse effects on the wider international community. In the meantime, the complex Gaza problem continues to fester.

Yaakov Lappin is a leading Israeli security journalist and analyst and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

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