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Israel headed for yet another election

Jun 28, 2022 | AIJAC staff

A year ago, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid,  seen here with then-President Reuven Rivlin, were announcing the formation of their Government. Last week, they held a press conference to announce its dissolution (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
A year ago, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid,  seen here with then-President Reuven Rivlin, were announcing the formation of their Government. Last week, they held a press conference to announce its dissolution (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Update from AIJAC

 

06/22 #03

 

The appropriate legislation will not be passed until Wednesday, Israel time, but it now appears to be a done deal that Israel will go to the polls yet again  – either on Oct. 25 or Nov. 1. This Update looks at what happened to get here, what might happen in the upcoming election campaign, and what is at stake in the actual poll.

We lead with a solid backgrounder from Gabe Friedman and Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. They review why the Government led by PM Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid decided to call its quits last week, and how this fits into the political stalemate that has gripped Israel over four previous elections since March 2019. They also note that Lapid will now be interim PM,  what he may seek to accomplish in that role until the election, and how this may affect upcoming events, such as the planned visit to Israel of US President Joe Biden. For all the basics you need to know about the collapse of the outgoing Government and the resulting election, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Jerusalem Post political correspondent Herb Keinon looks at the prospects this election will break the ongoing political stalemate which has prevented stable government in Israel since 2018. He is not optimistic it will, and explains why. He argues Israel needs a broad and stable government and suggests this is only likely going to be achievable once Netanyahu departs the political scene. For Keinon’s full analysis,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Israeli politics expert David Makovsky tries to give us a snapshot of the upcoming political campaign. He suggests it will be bitterly fought, and each side will try to tar their opponent by association –  anti-Netanyahu forces will try to connect Netanyahu to far-right extremist and provocateur Itamar Ben-Gvir, while the pro-Netanyahu camp will condemn Lapid and Bennett for their coalition alliance with the Islamist Ra’am party, led by Mansour Abbas. Makovsky also looks at polls to identify some voting trends that might help predict the election outcome. For his full campaign preview,  CLICK HERE.

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A 5th Israeli election in 3 years? Here’s how we got here and what happens next.

 

BY GABE FRIEDMAN AND RON KAMPEAS

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, JUNE 23, 2022

 

(JTA) — It has become a common refrain: Israel is heading towards another national election. A whopping five times since 2019, to be exact.

On Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the two men who had cobbled together a historically diverse coalition to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from power a year ago, announced that they will help fast-track a bill to dissolve the Knesset, or Israeli parliament. New votes will likely be cast in October.

Many readers have had the same questions: Why does this keep happening? What happens next? Could Netanyahu make a comeback?

Read on for the answers.

Why are Bennett and Lapid calling for new elections?

The short answer: they have lost their parliamentary majority after multiple politicians defected from their coalition.

The government, formed almost exactly a year ago, had a shaky foundation from its start, combining a slew of parties that historically would have not worked together: Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s national religious Yamina, Lapid’s centrist secular Yesh Atid, the left-wing Meretz and the Muslim Arab Ra’am.

As soon as the new government was in place, lawmaker Amichai Chikli quit Bennett’s Yamina Party to join the opposition, citing the presence of Meretz and Ra’am in the government. That gave the Bennett-Lapid government a 61-59 majority, which lasted until April, when Idit Silman, also in Yamina, quit because of a court ruling allowing families to bring food that was not kosher for Passover into hospitals. That made it 60-60.

The final blow came as the result of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been leading the Knesset opposition and whose veteran politician wiles had helped him remain Israel’s leader for a record 12 years. Netanyahu, who reportedly had been meeting with Yamina members to try and lure them away, seized the opportunity to create a crisis.

Normally, he and his Likud Party would vote to extend Israeli legal protections to Jewish West Bank settlers. But Netanyahu realized that he could anger Yamina politicians by helping to tank the measure, which has been passed repeatedly since just after the 1967 Six-Day War. Without Likud votes and the votes of coalition members on the left who oppose the occupation of the West Bank, the extension did not pass, infuriating Yamina members and other right-wing politicians in parliament.

It was the ultimate example of an issue that split the coalition’s diverse parties into poles that could not be reconciled. Nir Orbach, another Yamina Knesset member who had been twisting himself into Hamlet-worthy knots since the coalition’s launch, finally defected. That left a 59-member coalition, an unsustainable number in the 120-seat parliament.

Why does this keep happening in Israel?

In a proportional representation system, no one party usually musters enough of a presence to lead a government on its own. Parties, and sometimes political rivals, need to come together to form coalitions that agree to work together to pass legislation; there is often just one ruling coalition and one opposition coalition.

For years, Netanyahu’s conservative coalition defeated any contenders, usually a mixture of liberal and more centrist parties, pretty soundly. But by 2019, Netanyahu had alienated some more traditionally conservative voters — and some of his political allies — after being indicted on multiple corruption charges, being seen as beholden to haredi Orthodox demands, and through a perceived imperiousness and willingness to shatter norms to stay in power. The schism gave centrist and liberal parties, led by former Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz, an opportunity to challenge Netanyahu’s reign.

The final voter math, though, led to repeated deadlock; neither the Netanyahu or Gantz coalitions could eke out a firm majority. As the COVID-19 hit in 2020, Gantz said the pandemic required sacrifice and agreed to a unity government with a rotating prime ministership. Netanyahu dissolved the government before Gantz got his turn.

By last year, many politicians across the spectrum could not contemplate another minute of Netanyahu in power. Bennett, who made his name as a staunch settler supporter, and Lapid, a former TV anchor who is liberal on social issues but more hawkish on military issues, formed a historic coalition that included a majority Arab party for the first time.

Israel is not the only country with a parliament that has failed to form a government; for example, Italy has long been plagued with similar issues. But the vast array of conservative parties combined with Netanyahu’s polarizing modus operandi has made the proposition particularly difficult in Israel.

So what happens now?

Netanyahu, who has been champing at the bit for a chance to return to power, has immediately gone to work. In fact, the aforementioned Orbach chairs the Knesset’s procedural House Committee, and The Times of Israel reported that he is using his discretionary powers to delay the dissolution of parliament for a few days so Netanyahu could potentially form an alternative government based on parliament’s current makeup, without a need for new elections. Netanyahu currently can count on 55 of the Knesset seats.

Netanyahu getting to the 61 he needs is unlikely, however. Six members of the opposition are in the Arab-majority Joint List Party — and as frustrated as they were with the Bennett-Lapid configuration, many Arab lawmakers revile Likud and Netanyahu even more.

Additionally, the folks who hated Netanyahu — well, they still hate Netanyahu. Gideon Saar, who leads the six-member right-wing New Hope Party, told Army Radio that there was no way he would join a Netanyahu-led government. “I won’t be bringing Bibi back,” he said. “All of the party members are with me.”

Liberman, who heads the secular right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, which has seven members, wants to go further: he is determined to pass a law before the next elections that would keep anyone under criminal indictment from becoming prime minister.

Even if that kind of bill becomes law, Netanyahu would still run, said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at Hebrew University and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. He could still lead the Likud Party and then repeal the law should he cobble together a majority in the new Knesset.

“Israeli politicians are always changing the rules of the game,” Rahat said. “It’s like changing the U.S. constitution for every immediate need, something that you wouldn’t imagine.”

Various Israeli TV channel polls show Netanyahu’s bloc earning 59 or 60 seats if a vote was held right now, just short of the 61 needed for a majority. It’s unclear what kind of group would reemerge to take Netanyahu on; Bennett is reportedly mulling a break from politics. Lapid’s Yesh Atid is polling at 20 seats, Gantz’s Blue and White at 9 and Yisrael Beiteinu at 5.

What does seem most certain for now: Lapid will take over as prime minister in the interim caretaker government, thanks to a clause written into his agreement with Bennett.


New interim PM Yair Lapid will try to make his stamp on national policy in the few months until a new government is following the election, but will be limited by the rules governing caretaker administrations (Photo: Gil Cohen Magen, Shutterstock)

Can Lapid be a transformative prime minister in just a matter of months?

Probably not.

It is true that Lapid will be the first center-left prime minister since Ehud Olmert left office in 2009. Lapid is committed to a two-state outcome and rode to popularity as an outspoken opponent of the role of the Orthodox rabbinate in public life. As foreign minister, he has reversed Netanyahu policies, repaired ties with the American left and cooled down relations with European nationalists (which Netanyahu had strengthened).

Nothing will technically prevent Lapid from initiating bold, sweeping moves before elections take place. Legal restrictions on a caretaker government do not kick in until after election day. But in the past, according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s Assaf Shapira, attorneys general and Israel’s high court have limited what interim governments can and can’t do, citing norms that apply to lame duck administrations in democracies.

Lapid said in his statement he will pursue a robust foreign and domestic policy — he is keeping the foreign minister portfolio — and hinted that he will cast Netanyahu as a threat to democracy.

“Even if we are going to elections in a few months, the challenges we face will not wait,” Lapid said in a statement Monday. “We need to tackle the cost of living, wage the campaign against Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and stand against the forces threatening to turn Israel into a non-democratic country.”

Lapid will likely be in place as prime minister when President Joe Biden visits Israel in mid-July. It will be an occasion for Lapid to show how his government has moved past tensions with U.S. Democrats that flared when Netanyahu was prime minister.

Could this affect Israel’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war?

The reason for Israel’s relative reticence in joining the U.S.-led isolation of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine has to do with security considerations, which in Israel transcend politics.

Russia, still present in Israel’s region after assisting the Assad regime in quelling Syria’s civil war, controls the airspace over Syria and Lebanon. Israel needs Russia’s approval for its airstrikes aimed at keeping enemies such as Iran, Hezbollah and Syria at bay.

But Lapid, at least rhetorically, has been more outspoken than Bennett in condemning Russia for its war. How he positions himself on this issue in the early days of his short PM stint could be telling.


Israel elections: No light at end of the political tunnel – analysis

If the last year has taught the country anything, it is that this state cannot be governed by that narrow of a majority.

 

By HERB KEINON

Jerusalem Post, JUNE 26, 2022


Israelis are almost certainly heading back to the polls for the fifth time in three and a half years – but there is little reason to believe this election’s outcome will be different from the past four times (Shutterstock, John Theodor)

Israel’s political forecast remains gloomy.

Sure, many on the Right and in the Likud are smiling at the demise of the Bennett-Lapid government. After all, that is what they worked for, dreamed of, even prayed for; that the government of Naftali Bennett – a man they branded as a liar, scoundrel and even a traitor – would collapse.

Inside the Likud and the Religious Zionist Party there are those eagerly awaiting new elections. Polls over the last week are showing the four Jewish opposition parties – Likud, the Religious Zionist Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism – winning between 59-60 seats were elections held today, knocking on the door of being able to form a 61-seat coalition.

Likud and the Religious Zionist Party are particularly buoyed by polls showing the former going from 30 seats in the present Knesset to 35-36 in the next one, and the latter of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir catapulting from its present six seats to nine, an increase of 50% – not a bad achievement for the party over just one year.

But even if the Likud, Religious Zionist Party and the two haredi parties can eke out a 61-seat coalition – which no poll has shown yet – if the last year has taught the country anything, it is that this state cannot be governed by that narrow of a majority.

What torpedoed the current government is that with only a one-seat majority, every Knesset member could hold the government hostage to his or her own demands. That is an unhealthy political situation. It didn’t work this time, and there is no reason to think it can work next time, either.

But, will come the counter-argument, if former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu can reach the magic number of 61 in the next elections with the Likud, the Religious Zionist Party and the two haredi lists, then it will be different. Why? Because, unlike the current government, it will be an ideologically homogeneous government. As such, you won’t have the tension that existed in the current government since everyone will be on the same page.

But everyone won’t be on the same page.

EVEN IN a hard right-wing government like the one in discussion, there are varying shades – from Religious Zionist Party’s Itamar Ben-Gvir on the far Right, to UTJ’s Moshe Gafni, who would represent the Left wing of such a coalition. Not on religious-state issues, certainly, but definitely on issues having to do with the settlements and the Palestinians.

What if Gafni would block something that Ben-Gvir seeks to pass, or what if someone in the Likud – like Yuval Steinitz, for instance, or Tzachi Hanegbi – would think that the Religious Zionist Party is pulling the government too far to the Right even for them? What then would keep Ben-Gvir or others in the party from pulling the kind of stunts that Yamina’s Idit Silman and Nir Orbach, as well as Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Ra’am’s Mazen Ghnaim did this time?

Or what if Gafni and Shas’s Arye Deri want to legislate religious issues that make some in the Likud, such as Amir Ohana or Yoav Gallant, uncomfortable? Then Gafni or Deri would have the government by the neck.


Former PM Netanyahu’s prospects for forming government after the election have been somewhat buoyed by recent polls – but even if he gets a majority, it is likely to be narrow and unstable (Photo: Shutterstock, Roman Yanushevsky.)

Even if Netanyahu could cobble together a coalition of 61, it would be a tortuous one that would have a difficult time governing. In other words, even if after the elections former prime minister can put together a coalition and the country does not go automatically to a new election as a result of a coalition deadlock – as was the case after the elections in March and September 201 – the country is by no means out of the political logjam it has been in since December 2018.

The kind of coalition Israel needs

That political logjam won’t be broken until a wider coalition is formed, say with 66-72 seats, one in which not a single party or MK inside a party can bring down the government. For that to happen, either the existing center and right-wing parties in the anti-Netanyahu camp are going to need to drop their boycott of sitting with Netanyahu, or he has to step aside or be deposed by the Likud.

The former is more likely than the latter. However, for that to happen, the mantra of not sitting with a prime minister accused of crimes needs to come to an end.

AS THE country enters another election campaign, and this mantra is already increasingly being heard, none of the parties should limit their options and handcuff themselves by pledging not to sit with one party or the other.

One may argue that Bennett has shown that it really doesn’t matter what pledges a party makes beforehand, because once the coalition talks are underway it is easy for party leaders to go back on their word. He said during the last election campaign, for example, that he would not sit with Yair Lapid in a government or enter a government reliant on an Arab party – and then he did both.

It might be easy for party leaders to go back on their words, but doing so has a price – a price Bennett is now paying because he broke his campaign vows, something that deprived him of legitimacy to govern in the eyes of a large swath of the population.

Empty promises

As it says in Ecclesiastics, “It is better not to vow than to vow and not fulfill it.” The coalition possibilities will be greater if none of the parties disqualify the others from the get-go; if none of the parties vow not to sit with the others.

Another way to break the political logjam would be for Netanyahu to call it quits and let someone else lead the Likud. If the former prime minister would do so, an alternative government could be formed in the current Knesset tomorrow without sending the country spiraling into yet another election – or after elections, a right-wing government could easily be set up without Netanyahu at the helm.

That is not going to happen, as Netanyahu has made it clear he has no intention of stepping aside. If, however, he would be unable to form a coalition following the next elections, or he would form a narrow coalition that would survive just several months before falling, then it is likely that even if he would want to hold on and try again, his party may show him the door – something that would end the political stalemate.

Until that time, however, the country will continue to be deeply mired in the political morass – and new elections in a few months will be unlikely to significantly change that situation.


Outlining the Political Battle Ahead

 

by David Makovsky

Policy Watch 3623

Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 24, 2022

This PolicyWatch is based on insights gained during the author’s participation in two recent Washington Institute events: a trustee study trip to Israel and Ramallah, which included meetings with many senior government officials, and a virtual Policy Forum with colleague Dennis Ross, broadcast from Washington on June 23. Additional insights stemming from these events will be covered in subsequent releases.

 


The upcoming Israeli election campaign looks set to be as hard fought and divisive as the previous four elections since 2019 were (Photo: Shutterstock, Roman Yanushevsky)

In the coming days, Israel’s Knesset is poised to take steps that will trigger the country’s fifth national election in three-and-a-half years. Facing the prospect of parliamentarians at the edges of his fragile coalition forcing an early election anyway, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sought to preempt such a move by initiating his own departure and naming his successor. On June 20, he announced that he would step down in favor of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Bennett was lauded by many for his collegiality in passing the baton, accentuating his focus on consensus politics and unifying statements during a one-year tenure marked by several notable accomplishments.

The decision will turn the most ideologically, ethnically, and religiously diverse coalition in Israel’s history into a caretaker government led by Lapid—and also mark the first time since 2009 that the country will be led by someone not affiliated with the right. Although this government will have full executive authority, it will not be able to pass any new laws in the Knesset on its own. Yet given the difficulty Israel has experienced with forming governments in recent years, Lapid could well remain a caretaker leader for months beyond the expected election date in early November.

Political Trench Warfare Ahead

The battle lines for this election are already drawn—Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu is determined to stage a comeback and has demonstrated via polls that his public appeal is undiminished by a year in the political wilderness. Moreover, Israel’s political right has a tradition of reverence and loyalty toward its leaders, backing just four standard-bearers since 1949: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu and his supporters resorted to highly controversial tactics in order to secure their stated goal of bringing down Bennett’s government. Tremendous pressure was brought to bear on wavering parliamentarians at the coalition’s edges, including demonstrations outside their homes and public taunting of their children. Netanyahu himself is known to have contacted local rabbis in the hope that they would pressure the families of these politicians. He also hypocritically linked up with leftist members of the opposition to prevent the passage of laws that would have benefitted the Jewish West Bank settlers he has long pledged to support—a gambit that proved to be the final straw for one member of Bennett’s party, whose desertion triggered the prime minister’s resignation.

Members of the Likud-led opposition coalition now indicate that if they win a majority of 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset—a goal that eluded them in the four previous elections—they will pass legislation insulating Netanyahu from his ongoing corruption trial and shifting the selection criteria for Israel’s Supreme Court. Such scenarios likely ensure that most or all of the anti-Netanyahu bloc will stand together in the next election cycle, viewing this as the only way to avert the erosion of key democratic institutions.

Given the scope of this political deadlock, no knockout punches are expected—instead, the parties will likely engage in the political equivalent of trench warfare. Now polls suggest that if the election were held today, 59 seats would go to the pro-Netanyahu camp and 55 to his opponents, with the remaining 6 going to the Arab-majority Joint List, who are unlikely to join either camp. Accordingly, much effort will be spent trying to increase turnout or sway a relatively small portion of moderate voters in order to reach 61 seats.

Netanyahu vs. Lapid or Abbas vs. Ben-Gvir?

In all likelihood, both blocs will favor the same campaign tactic: identifying the other side’s most controversial figure and casting him or her as a kingmaker, in the hope of alarming enough moderates to switch sides. Netanyahu’s camp will no doubt continue its effective approach of questioning whether an Arab Israeli party with an Islamist orientation—meaning the United Arab List (UAL) led by Mansour Abbas, a key member of Bennett and Lapid’s coalition—should be a full partner in any government. To this end, Netanyahu will seek to link his political opponents to Abbas while accusing him of secretly aiming to undermine the state. Netanyahu has often had success in playing to voters’ biggest fears.

Yet this strategy carries risks. Many voters will remember that Netanyahu himself courted Abbas to join his last government, a move vetoed by hardline members of the right-wing coalition. Moreover, Abbas has become popular in Israel due to his personable disposition and courageous public pledges that he will refrain from challenging the state’s Jewish character. Previous elections have also taught Netanyahu that fearmongering about the role of Arab Israelis can easily create backlash that increases turnout in that community against him.


Itamar Ben-Gvir (l) versus Mansour Abbas (r): The anti-Netanyahu camp is likely to try to tar the former PM over his association with far-right extremist Ben-Gvir, while the pro-Netanyahu camp will do the same to Lapid and Bennett over their alliance with Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party. (Photos: Wikimedia commons)

As for the anti-Netanyahu bloc, they are expected to focus their attention on the right’s most polarizing figure: Itamar Ben-Gvir, a disciple of Meir Kahane, the infamous parliamentarian who was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s due to his virulent racism against Arabs. Ben-Gvir’s style is to insert himself in high-profile melees with Arabs and declare that they are merely “guests” in Israel. Although most voters are appalled by his tactics, a new phenomenon is afoot in this nascent election cycle—polls suggest that for the first time, young ultraorthodox males, especially those who previously voted for the Shas Party, are no longer listening to the political recommendations of their religious leaders and are instead attracted to Ben-Gvir’s confrontational rhetoric. Once a swing bloc, this faction is now solidly hard right and growing—including demographically. Stunningly, Ben-Gvir’s party is running third in current polls. Lapid was therefore quick to assert this week that a vote for Netanyahu is a vote for Ben-Gvir, warning citizens that the provocateur du jour would hold the balance of power—and a senior portfolio—in a very narrow government.

Enlarging the Anti-Netanyahu Bloc or Just Rearranging?

While Netanyahu’s bloc has proven itself to be very cohesive, questions abound regarding two groups in the anti-Netanyahu bloc. In theory, moderate right-wing elements in the Bennett/Lapid camp would have the best chance of wooing voters away from Netanyahu given their ideological proximity. Yet they seem to be in disarray at the moment. Bennett is signaling that he wants to take time away from politics after a tough year, and much of the base that voted for his Yamina Party now seems more in sync with the opposition.

If Bennett steps away, Justice Minister Gideon Saar would seem well-placed to lead this camp, since the members of his New Hope Party bolted from the Likud, have been repeatedly characterized as “conservatives with a conscience,” and have steadily resisted entreaties to come back. Indeed, the six seats they won last year proved decisive in cementing the nascent Bennett government. Yet a May poll by the Israel Democracy Institute painted a bleaker picture: while 60% of respondents who voted for New Hope said they were satisfied with the party’s performance, just 18% said they would vote for it again. Similarly, just 36% of Yamina respondents indicated they would choose Bennett’s party again. The assumption is that many of these voters would return to the Likud, explaining Netanyahu’s recent bump in the polls. Unless the moderate right can reverse this sentiment, the anti-Netanyahu bloc may not have a pathway to victory.

Mansour Abbas and UAL could give the coalition more cause for hope, however. According to the poll cited above, an estimated 66% of his voters are pleased with his performance (particularly the increase he spearheaded in budgetary support for Arab and Bedouin communities), and 77% plan to vote for the party again, compared to 58% among the Joint List’s supporters. Moreover, UAL won four seats last election when Arab turnout was just 45%—a full 20 points below the previous round. Abbas is therefore betting that his seat tally will rise substantially if Arab turnout increases; he might also gain support among those Jewish voters who appreciate his support for the state’s Jewish character.

Yet Abbas will need to figure out how to overcome a challenge that arose last election—namely, when two rival Arab factions campaigned against each other (UAL vs. Joint List), many Arab voters stayed home out of dissatisfaction with the lack of unity. Another challenge is the death of Said al-Harumi, a key parliamentary link between UAL and the Negev Bedouins who provided the party with nearly 30% of its vote. Meanwhile, Mazen Ghanaim, a UAL parliamentarian who had a strong Arab municipal base, is leaving politics. The question is whether Abbas can replace these figures with people who share his worldview of focusing on government services rather than challenging the state’s character. He might also seek candidates that represent a younger generation of Arab Israelis; according to polls, this demographic is more eager to integrate into Israeli society.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow in The Washington Institute’s Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations and creator of the podcast Decision Points.

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