Update from AIJAC
What a difference a few days makes in Israeli politics. On Tuesday, in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s general election on March 2, the third in a year, exit polls seemed to indicate that incumbent PM Netanyahu of the Likud party had won a convincing victory – perhaps enough to form a government solely of the centre-right-religious bloc that he dominates.
In the subsequent two days, as actual vote totals became finalised (see above graphic for the details), it became clear that, while Netanyahu had improved his position compared to the election in September, he controlled only 58 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, not enough seats to form government in his own right. Israel’s ongoing political stalemate had thus not necessarily been broken. However, what did seem clear was that the opposition, led by Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, had suffered a setback and definitely could not form government.
Today, new stances reportedly being taken by Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beitenu party which holds the balance of power, suggest even this is not so clear.
This Update provides some more background and analysis on where the political situation in Israel is now, as well as other aspects of the election aftermath.
We lead with a factsheet from BICOM, the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre. This discusses the post-election manoeuvring by both Likud and Blue and White, featuring Netanyahu’s insistence that he had won and must form government and his efforts to woo defectors who could allow him to do so, and Blue and White’s proposal to introduce a law that would bar anyone under indictment from being asked to form government. Such a law would obviously affect Netanyahu, who is charged with corruption offences and will have to begin facing court next week, while the proposed new law appears to now have majority Knesset support, with Lieberman saying he would back it. The BICOM backgrounder also provides some discussion of the essential political milestones coming up in the next few weeks. To read it all, CLICK HERE.
Next up is a discussion of how this election – which saw a high Arab turnout with a very homogeneous voting pattern – appears to indicate a changed role for Israel’s Arab minority and the alliance of parties which represents most of them, the Joint List. Written by Arab Israeli columnist Jalal Bana, it posits that the Arab population is now voting and acting in a pragmatic and sectoral way, much in the manner of the Ultra-Orthodox sectors of Israeli society. Bana argues Joint List head Ayman Odeh has a unique opportunity to make the Arab sector’s pragmatic concerns a much more integral part of Israeli politics, and suggests Odeh should be open to alliances of convenience even with Netanyahu’s centre-right bloc. For all of what he has to say, CLICK HERE.
Finally, top Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer looks at the wider diplomatic scene which Israel’s next PM will face, and sees considerable opportunities opening up for Jerusalem. While the piece, written Tuesday, assumed Netanyahu is more likely than not to retain office, Spyer argues that the disarray of both the Palestinian leadership and the Arab political “bloc” that has long dominated the Middle East, creates unprecedented possibilities for Israel, and this appears to apply no matter who forms the next government. Key evidence Spyer points to includes the openness of many Arab states to the Trump Administration peace plan released in January, and the behind the scenes talk “of nonbelligerency agreements, open economic and business ties, overflights and visits of trade delegations between the Gulf states and Israel.” For this look at Israel’s regional prospects – if it can achieve stable government – from an always insightful observer, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- More analysis of the very latest developments in Israel and the threat they may pose to Netanyahu’s aspirations comes from Israeli political reporter Barak Ravid.
- Palestinian Affairs journalist Khaled Abu Toameh asks, in the wake of the Israeli poll, why Palestinians have not been able to hold an election in more than 14 years.
- Some reporting on the divided Palestinian reaction to the Israel election in the West Bank and Gaza.
- Reporting and expert commentary on Israel’s tough policies in response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, and the debates about these policies within the Jewish state.
- Meanwhile, reporting from both the New York Times and Washington Post suggests that Iran’s severe COVID-19 problem may be even worse than Teheran has admitted.
- Trump Administration mediator Jared Kushner’s PowerPoint presentation on the Administration’s Middle East peace plan, which he showed to both the UN Security Council and US Senators, has now been made public and can be viewed here.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Another major development this week was the release of two very significant reports on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as this AIJAC factsheet explains. Other recommended analyses of the IAEA reports come from Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute, Andrea Stricker of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and security affairs journalist Eli Lake.
- Judy Maynard describes how hypocritical and destructive “anti-normalisation” rhetoric from Palestinian Authority leaders, which condemns any contact with Israelis as treasonous, recently blew up in those PA leaders’ faces.
- Naomi Levin reports on some Canberra Estimates hearings which clarified Australia’s stance on funding UNRWA, the controversial UN agency for providing aid to Palestinians.
Netanyahu and Gantz seek post-election leverage
BICOM, 5th March 2020
What happened: The final, but not yet certified, results in the Israeli election left Benjamin Netanyahu 3 seats short of a 61 seat majority. Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Blue and White leader Benny Gantz have a clear path to a governing coalition.
- With another political deadlock likely, both sides sought to increase their leverage ahead of coalition talks.
- Blue and White, with the tacit support of the Joint (Arab) List, floated the possibility of passing legislation, once the new Knesset is sworn in, to prevent any prime minister from continuing to serve if indicted for serious criminal offences. Blue and White later clarified that the law would not apply retroactively, but rather for the next Knesset – potentially preventing Netanyahu from staying on as prime minister after a fourth election.
- Meeting with his right-wing and ultra-orthodox allies yesterday, Netanyahu claimed he had won the election, saying: “The nation’s decision was clear: 58 mandates for the Zionist right-wing camp and 47 mandates for the Zionist left-wing camp” – failing to mention the 15 seats won by the Joint List, and more than 500,000 primarily Arab-Israeli voters, from any consideration. Netanyahu added that Gantz “was trying to steal the election.”
- A number of Blue and White parliamentarians claimed on social media yesterday that Likud had approached them to defect, but that they had rejected the offer.
Context: The law being proposed by Blue and White is likely a “trial balloon” to apply pressure on Netanyahu and remind him that the anti-Netanyahu forces hold the majority in the Knesset. Likud lawmakers blasted the initiative as undemocratic and a possible coup that “the people” would not stand for.
- It is unclear, however, what Blue and White’s end goal is. A national unity government with Likud would almost certainly still involve Netanyahu serving with Gantz as Prime Minister in a rotation agreement. Blue and White made clear even before Netanyahu was officially indicted that this is a non-starter.
- Netanyahu has already begun delegitimising any cooperation with the Joint List, calling them “terrorist supporters” yesterday. The most likely path to a Gantz government would be to form a minority government with the outside support of the Joint List – a politically sensitive step for some Blue and White Knesset members.
- Joint List leader Ayman Odeh blasted Netanyahu for his comments yesterday, saying: “Anyone who repeats the lie that Netanyahu won is coming out of the assumption that there are only 105 Knesset members and is wiping out 1.8 million [Arab] citizens.”
- Netanyahu’s efforts to secure the 3 defections he needs to form a government look remote at present. In comments yesterday Netanyahu alluded to the need for national unity, raising the possibility – which he consistently rejected during the campaign – of a grand coalition with Blue and White.
Avigdor Leiberman, head of the “kingmaker” Israel Beitenu party, who is reportedly planning to back Benny Gantz as PM and support a bill aimed at barring Netanyahu from being asked to form government while under indictment.
Looking ahead: Avigdor Lieberman still holds the keys to any likely coalition government with the seven seats he won in the election, but he has yet to indicate which option he prefers.
- Will he be willing to support a Gantz minority government along with the Joint List? Will he be willing to enter into a narrow right-wing government with the ultra-Orthodox (and led by Netanyahu)? Or is his plan to force Netanyahu into some kind of prime ministerial rotation with him?
- Similar to Liberman, Blue and White also face several difficult decisions, and may have to decide the least worst option between: cooperating with the Joint List or entering into a national unity government with Netanyahu still playing a role even as Prime Minister.
- For most of the political establishment, the option of a fourth election is no longer theoretical, although lawmakers and analysts made clear that the post-election process will take weeks to play out.
- President Rivlin is likely to begin consultation meetings with party leaders on 10 March and by 17 March he must ask a party leader to form a Government. That leader will then have 28 days (plus an additional 14 day extension) to form a governing coalition. 17 March is also the opening day of Netanyahu’s criminal trial in the Jerusalem District Court.
Comparing the Israeli political “Blocs” over the three Israeli elections in the last year.
Netanyahu must reach out to Arab parties
There is a theoretical possibility for some form of integration of Arab lawmakers in the realm of the coalition but not necessarily as an integral part of the government.
by Jalal Bana
Israel Hayom, 04-03-2020
Israeli Arab voters, through the Joint List party, are moving to a pragmatic and sectoral voting pattern that could see their concerns take a more central role in Israeli political life
Raising the electoral threshold, so they say, caused a boomerang effect. If the intention was to make it harder for the Arab parties to enter parliament, in essence they came together as the Joint Arab List and were greeted by an unprecedented fusing of the Arab public.
But this process has another outcome, that many are not talking about: from ideologically-motivated voting for small parties, the Arab public has moved to a pragmatic and sectoral voting pattern, similar to that of the ultra-Orthodox parties.
It is a radical shift that could greatly influence the political behavior of Arab lawmakers. They are also aware that the impressive achievement of the Joint Arab List does not necessarily signal that the sector has ideological devotion to the List’s agenda, but rather its strong desire to be part of the political life despite the ideological abyss between the Arab minority and the Jewish-Zionist majority.
It is not far-fetched. The ultra-Orthodox representatives, as we know, opposed for decades being part of the government and made do with other positions in the coalition. Only after a High Court of Justice ruling was Deputy Health Minister and United Torah Judaism leader Yakov Litzman forced to accept his appointment as minister. It proves one thing: There is a theoretical possibility for some form of integration of Arab lawmakers in the realm of the coalition – and not necessarily as an integral part of the government. As much as that sounds strange or unacceptable, one can even imagine a significant step in this direction to be taken especially now, and especially with the Likud.
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, has an opportunity to turn his party into an active participant in the government decision-making process.
Fact: An investment program of NIS 15 billion ($4.3 billion) in infrastructure in Arab towns was implemented during the Netanyahu government, whose members were also New Right leader Naftali Bennett (who supports annexation) and Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (who supports land swaps). During the campaign, Netanyahu said again and again that he intends to continue investing resources, especially amending and changing the so-called Kaminitz law, which allows the state to enforce home demolition orders. Amending this law together with the Joint Arab List could be the basis for a pragmatic union, despite the ideological distance.
Both sides need to show responsibility. Joint Arab List chief Ayman Odeh can prove that he is not waiting forever for the day when there is a clear majority for the ideological left in Israel to turn his party, a sectoral party, into an active partner in the decision-making process. It would be a shame for him, as well, to waste the electoral achievement.
Netanyahu can take the opportunity to ground his government’s stability through some sort of cooperation with the Joint Arab List, and this way also signal his desire to build trust and prove to every Arab child in Israel that he is their prime minister, too. They will both be the signatories of a modest beginning of a healing process for one of the main reasons of tension in Israeli society – without betraying their ideology. I would not be surprised if Odeh was waiting for the call.
Israel’s New Diplomatic Moment
Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2020
Benny Gantz and Binyamin Netanyahu: Whoever ends up forming the next Israeli government will have the chance to take advantage of some extraordinary diplomatic opportunities for Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory in Monday’s Israeli election, the third since April, following two inconclusive results. Although Mr. Netanyahu may be frustrated in his attempt to form a government, his Likud Party won 36 seats, a strong showing. During the campaign, Likud candidates stressed their support for President Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, unveiled in January. The plan won’t bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but it may expose deeper processes of change underway in the Middle East. It could even advance those changes—and Israel stands to benefit.
Both the Palestinian cause and the broader Arab political bloc that long championed it are in disarray. The Palestinians are divided geographically, each group locked in with divergent interests and strategies.
Gaza has been ruled as an Islamist enclave by Hamas for 13 years. The movement’s first generation of leaders is now retiring; Khaled Mashal stepped down in 2017 and is set to spend his golden years in his villa in Doha, Qatar. The upshot is that Hamas-controlled Gaza is no longer a provisional entity. Hamas maintains its rule as an example of uncompromising Islamist resistance to Israel, trimmed where necessary according to the needs of Egypt and Qatar, who respectively control access to and financing of the Hamas enclave.
Palestinians in the West Bank live mainly under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority, which is run by an unpopular but immovable elite. President Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t held an election since 2005, and security is handled between his Jordan-trained police force and the Israel Defense Forces. Mr. Abbas pursues a strategy of denouncing Israeli policy in all available forums while quietly cooperating with the security structures that keep Hamas and other Islamists at bay.
Jerusalem’s Palestinians remain in a kind of limbo. Israel places barriers before their acquisition of full citizenship, and they can complain justly of large discrepancies in municipal funding. Still, something is stirring from below. The number of Palestinian Jerusalemites electing to educate their children in schools offering an Israeli matriculation exam is tripling each year, according to David Koren, an Education Ministry official. Hebrew courses for Arabs are flourishing. Given the choice, Jerusalem’s Palestinians are choosing attachment to stable, First World Israel over absorption into the corrupt, dysfunctional Palestinian Authority.
This trend is even clearer among Israel’s Arab citizens, especially its rising middle class. The furious reaction among Israeli Arabs in the “Triangle”—an area the Trump peace plan suggests a future Palestinian state might include—says it all. Sha’a Mansour Massarwa, mayor of the Arab city of Tayibe, described the proposal as a “nightmare.”
What can unify Arabs in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the rest of Israel? Religious beliefs and perceptions of a threat to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque cross boundaries. But the pattern of Palestinians compartmentalizing themselves is as unmistakable as it is disastrous for revanchist Palestinian nationalism.
The internal weakening has been made worse by external developments. The Palestinian cause used to be the great standard of Arab nationalism, uniting Arab police states in their rejection of Israel. But Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is by now a distant memory. Bashar Assad presides over rubble in Syria. Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya is broken up. Egypt is Israel’s strategic partner, enforcing its own partial blockade of Gaza.
The eclipse of the power edifice that stood behind the Palestinian cause is raising new possibilities. While the Arab League predictably rejected the Trump peace plan, the responses of individual Arab states, particularly in the Persian Gulf, were more nuanced.
Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the U.S., tweeted after the plan’s release that it was “a serious initiative that addresses many issues raised over the years” and “an important starting point.” Mr. Otaiba, along with the ambassadors of Bahrain and Oman, attended Mr. Trump’s unveiling of the plan. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco also cautiously praised the U.S. effort and some of its elements. Abdullah Bin-Zayed, foreign minister of the U.A.E., shared an article on Twitter about the emerging alliance between Israel and the Gulf states.
The Monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council have a clear interest in closer relations with Israel, and several have shown openness to the Trump Administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
The Gulf monarchies have clear interests in closer relations with Israel, centring on shared concerns about Iran and Sunni political Islam. The need to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause now constitutes a barrier to closer relations. But a stance that criticizes some parts of the Trump plan while encouraging the Palestinians to work with it could thread the needle. The talk
It has fallen to Iran and Turkey to continue the Palestinian fight. Iran supplies the missiles that enable its clients in Lebanon and Gaza to threaten Israel. Turkey offers Hamas a haven and pursues a “soft war” in Jerusalem, investing in property, nongovernmental organizations and projects intended to reverse the normalization of Israeli rule.
That non-Arab states must take up the Arab world’s traditional banner confirms it: The old Arab order is gone, and Mr. Trump’s plan may usher its departure into the daylight. If Mr. Netanyahu can assemble a coalition at home, he’ll be first in line to reap the diplomatic fruits abroad.
Mr. Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and at the Middle East Forum. He is author of “Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.