The homestretch in Israel’s election campaign

Israel is set to vote next Tuesday, April 9, after an intense and often hard-hitting election campaign in which incumbent PM Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud (left) is being challenged by the new Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz (right).

Update from AIJAC

04/19 #01

This will be the final Update before Israel goes to the polls in a general election next Tuesday, April 9, and offers some analysis of what might happen and how the electoral landscape in Israel currently lies. (Our coverage assumes some knowledge of the Israeli political system and main competing parties – for these basics, see AIJAC’s Jan. 11 election guide, our three election updates and the several stories in the latest edition of the Australia/Israel Review.)

It also contains a piece on an issue which has been important in the electoral campaign, and will require the attention of the next Israeli government, whoever leads it, namely the Gaza standoff.

We lead with veteran Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner giving his rundown of the possible post-election scenarios. He says the first question to ask after Tuesday is if the election outcome leaves Netanyahu the ability to assemble a 61-seat majority from the Likud and other right-leaning parties. If so, Rosner says, the new governing coalition will almost certainly be similar to the outgoing current right-leaning government. Then he looks at other scenarios and how they could play out, including the ways in which a coalition led by main rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party can form government. For this important guide to what might happen next week and what the various outcomes mean,  CLICK HERE. For those reasonably familiar with the Israeli political scene, Rosner also recently penned a flow-chart type guide for who to vote for in this Israeli election –  based on who you are and what you want  – which is both funny and insightful.

Next up is a look at the major wild card which will decide which of Rosner’s scenarios eventuates, the still large bloc of undecided Israeli voters – up to 10% of voters according to some polls. Allison Kaplan Sommers of Haaretz speaks to a variety of such voters as to what they are weighing up – including a usual Likud voter fed up with Netanyahu, a West Bank resident turned off from some parties by their alliance with extremists, and a man who likes the new Gesher party led by educator Orly Levi-Abekasis, but is worried it may not make the electoral threshold and his vote will be wasted. Sommers also speaks to a number of Israeli political scientists about the reasons for the growing percentage of undecided voters in Israel and the possible implications. For this useful look into what many Israeli voters are thinking, CLICK HERE.

Finally, the big picture on why Gaza has been an ongoing problem, and has erupted as a major issue in the Israeli election, is explained by Seth Frantzman of the Jerusalem Post. Frantzman notes that the year-old protest campaign in Gaza, led by Hamas, has achieved Hamas’ main goal, keeping the pressure on and making Hamas relevant, but that Israel also achieved its main goal, preventing border crossings and armed violence inside Israel. He notes that this standoff is the result of Israeli technological solutions thwarting Hamas’ other violent plans, but the current problematic situation is likely to continue as long as each side is achieving its main goals, with no better alternatives obvious. For this top-notch analysis, including eyewitness accounts of the latest border clashes,  CLICK HERE.

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Scenarios for Israel’s Election

BY SHMUEL ROSNER 

Jewish Journal, APR 3, 2019

Election campaign posters in Jerusalem (Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters)

In the days before election day on April 9, the first rule is humility. Don’t presume to know, because you don’t. Yes, the polls tell a story, revealing a slight advantage to the right-religious camp. But they tell other stories: More than 10 percent of the Israeli electorate hasn’t yet decided. Four to five parties might not get enough votes to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. And besides, there are still days left in the campaign — days without public polling (Israel’s law does not allow the media to publish new polls in the three-day run-up to election day). A lot can happen in three days.

Still, here are the likely possibilities and the things to consider for next Tuesday, when Israelis go to the polls:

Does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have an assured 61-seat majority? If the answer is yes, game over. The next coalition is still long and difficult weeks of negotiations away, but it is likely to be a repetition of the current coalition.

The standing of Israel’s two largest parties in the polls throughout March. (Courtesy of Jewish Journal). 

How are those 61 seats counted? Likud plus the United Right, the New Right, the two Charedi parties (UTJ and Shas), Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu. If these parties have 61 seats, Netanyahu can comfortably move to form his coalition. If not, there is still Zehut to consider. The right wing-religious-libertarian party made no commitment to the prime minister, and its leader, Moshe Feiglin, is a true independent. If you count to 61 only by adding Feiglin to the mix, Netanyahu could be in trouble.

What if Netanyahu’s base fails to claim 61 seats? Here again we must ask: With or without Feiglin? But let’s assume Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority. Then we must ask: How many seats did Likud get compared with Kahol Lavan (Blue and White). If Likud is in the lead, Netanyahu is still likely to get a chance at forming the next coalition. If Blue and White has more seats, and Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority, the president has more leeway to ponder the options, and possibly allow Blue and White’s Benny Gantz to form a coalition.

What coalition can Netanyahu form? If his base accrues 61 seats (it’d be easier without Feiglin, but still possible despite Feiglin), Netanyahu has a coalition. If the base doesn’t get 61 seats, the prime minister is stuck. All other potential partners — namely Blue and White and Labor — are committed never to join him.

Can Gantz form a coalition? Only if all parties become convinced that a Netanyahu coalition is impossible. If the parties face the option of either joining Gantz or holding a new election, some parties might calculate that Gantz is the better choice. It could be Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu, the Charedis or even the New Right.

Another scenario that ends with a Gantz coalition: Likud loses badly, Netanyahu decides that he has no choice other than to quit, and a unity government — Blue-White-Likud — is formed.

Will we get the answer on election day? Not necessarily. The electoral threshold is a wild card. Imagine a party that gets 3.24 percent of the vote, when the military vote not yet counted. Imagine that this party is Yisrael Beiteinu, without which Netanyahu doesn’t reach 61 seats. This is a reasonable scenario if voters put stock in the polls. If this happens, we’d have to wait for all votes to be counted carefully, maybe more than once, until a clear picture emerges of the most likely outcome.

Are there wild cards other than the electoral threshold? Sure. Consider the possibility (I know, this is hard to envision) that some politicians aren’t telling the truth, or (also hard to envision) that some politicians might change their minds after election day. Example: Moshe Kahlon decides that it’s time for Netanyahu to go. Example: One of the Blue and White factions decides that its commitment not to join a Netanyahu coalition was merely election rhetoric. Example: President Reuven Rivlin finds an excuse to let Gantz form a coalition although he has no majority.

All of these are unlikely, but possible. All of these are part of the post-election process. On the eve of election day, maybe that’s the most important thing to remember. Unlike what happens in the United States, in Israel, election day is not the end of a process, it’s the middle of a process. After the people have spoken, it is time for politicians to interpret the meaning of it.

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


‘I want to vote Likud. But I’m fed up with Bibi’: The undecided voters who will decide Israel’s election

Allison Kaplan Sommer 
Haaretz, Apr. 4, 2019

Appalled by the lack of substance in the frantic campaign season and with over 40 parties to choose from, these Israelis form part of what feels like the country’s largest bloc ahead of the election — wavering voters

Voting slips for 18 of the 40-plus parties running in the Israeli election on April 9. 2019. (AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Revital Mansour has been a Likud voter her entire adult life. For the past decade, the 41-year-old house cleaner from Herzliya has given her vote to Benjamin Netanyahu — but says that this year she may not. She is tired of hearing about his scandals, court cases and indictments.

“I’m definitely right-wing, I want to vote for Likud. But I’m feeling fed up with Bibi. Maybe I’ll vote for someone else,” she says, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.

But if she does vote for another party, it won’t be the newly formed Kahol Lavan. Despite having three generals toward the top of its slate, Mansour says she doesn’t trust the party led by ex-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to keep the country safe.

One option she is considering is Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash, which, poll after poll, is teetering on the edge of the electoral threshold and may not make it into the Knesset — meaning that a vote for Bennett could end up being a wasted vote.

And so she wavers. When will she make up her mind? “Probably not until I’m in the polling station,” she says. “It’s going to be at the last minute.”

Mansour is part of what seems like Israel’s largest voting bloc: undecided voters. Indecisiveness is not considered a common characteristic among Israelis — they can usually be relied upon to express a strong opinion or preference on almost any given topic. But with the election just days away, ask Israelis who they plan to vote for on April 9 and the answer is frequently: “I don’t know yet.”

This isn’t an isolated occurrence but a manifestation of a years-long national trend, according to Hebrew University political scientist Prof. Reuven Hazan.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of undecided voters over the course of the last few elections,” he tells Haaretz. “There seems to be a growing percentage of Israeli voters who are not only looking for something new but are making up their minds at the last minute” — and that applies across the political spectrum.

This phenomenon has made the polls more unreliable than ever, notes Hazan, which in turn adds to voter uncertainty. “We’ve experienced a big surprise, one way or another, in every election over the past 15 years,” he says, referring to the last four Knesset elections.

Confounded
Conversations with a cross-section of Israeli voters reveal that, generally, the source of their indecision doesn’t stem from their position on the issues or the direction in which they want the country to go — on this they feel fairly certain. However, voters from the right, left and center all seem confounded as to how to express their political will at the ballot box.

Their doubts and debates are numerous: They worry that voting for the small party that hews closest to their views may hurt the larger cause of either protecting or overturning the reign of Netanyahu by taking away a seat from one of the two big contenders — Likud and Kahol Lavan. They worry that if they don’t vote for the small party they really believe in, it may fail to clear the 3.25 percent electoral threshold and disappear from the Knesset forever.

They ask themselves if, after the election ends and the government coalition-building process begins, the party they choose might abandon their principles in order to grab a plum ministry.

Kahol Lavan leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, leaders of the Blue and White party, on the campaign trail in Tel Aviv, March 21, 2019. (Avishag Shaar-Yashuv)

Meanwhile, most say they are not only confused but disgusted by the lack of substantive debate they’ve heard in the short, frantic campaign season. The tidal wave of finger pointing, smears and personal attacks being dug up and circulated by rival candidates is overwhelming from all directions — television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the workplace, and then there’s the barrage of campaign text messages.

“I think everybody has this fear that they don’t want to waste their vote on a party that won’t get into the Knesset. We also want to make sure we’re not going contribute to coalition-building that is going to turn our stomach,” says undecided voter Zahava Bogner, 53, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

“I am so appalled by the candidates and the platforms and the bickering and the rhetoric,” she says. “The parties on the center-right I would vote for have made alliances with people who I feel are repugnant — and I can’t say that word strongly enough.”

Bogner says the political alignment between the more moderate right with Kahanist members of Otzma Yehudit and religious extremists in ultra-Orthodox parties have pushed her to rule out some of the parties she might have voted for.

And while she sees that Kahol Lavan’s leadership includes those who “hold views that are reasonable and consistent with mine,” she still fears that Gantz would be willing to consider a territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

“I don’t want to vote for anyone who is going to give Shas a place at the table,” she says, referring to the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party. “But I also won’t vote for anyone who I worry won’t let me make my home in Gush Etzion,” she adds, referring to the settlement bloc near Jerusalem where she lives.

Just a week before Election Day, Bogner doesn’t know which parties are even on her short list, or how she will ultimately decide. “I really have no idea,” she says. “I’m going to sit down and make a list of all of the parties, cross out those who make me feel sick, and see which among those that are left have the fewest number of people who make me want to cry.”

Pressing reset
Such indecisiveness is understandable, says pollster and strategist Dahlia Scheindlin. She notes the larger choice of parties than ever before (over 40), with many of them new and untested.

“The Israeli party landscape keeps evolving so radically and so quickly,” she says. “There’s an accelerated pace of change that’s just hard to keep up with. From election to election, more and more parties are being created, establishing themselves, collapsing, breaking up and merging. Voters must rethink everything for each new election — realign and decide each time what party they feel connected to, and in many cases determine if they will vote for new parties that until very recently didn’t even exist.”

Center-right voter Emanuel Miller, a 31-year-old from Jerusalem, says he is primarily debating between two new parties: Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher and Kahol Lavan.

Like Mansour, Miller is nostalgic for the days when Likud felt like the obvious choice. But in recent years, he says, he has continually been “let down” by Netanyahu’s “divisive leadership style” and anti-Arab dog whistles. Miller was alienated, he says, by the prime minister’s false claim in the 2015 election that Arabs were being bused to polling stations “in their droves” by left-wing NGOs.

Miller plans to make his choice based on the final set of opinion polls before Election Day. His preference is to support Levi-Abekasis.

Orli Levi-Abekasis, leader of the new Gesher (“bridge”) party, speaking at the Haaretz election conference, March 28, 2019. (Tomer Appelbaum)

“If Gesher clears the voting threshold in the final polls, it’ll get my vote,” he says (the party has been just short of passing the threshold in recent polls). “Its focus on social issues, including improving the health system and greater representation of women in politics, are things that much of the population want to see. … And since Likud is currently primed to win the election [by being able to assemble a ruling coalition in excess of 60 lawmakers], it would make sense to try to strengthen a moderate potential coalition partner and have a government ministry handed to someone responsible, rather than another grandstanding, divisive loudmouth.”

If Levi-Abekasis’ chances of entering the Knesset look grim, Miller thinks he will give his vote to Kahol Lavan.

A vote for Gantz, Miller explains, “won’t be so much a vote for that party as it is an anti-Netanyahu vote. I don’t have much confidence in Gantz and certainly don’t think [Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair] Lapid has proven himself in the Knesset. But I feel Israeli politics urgently needs a reboot.”
‘Toxic’ rhetoric

There is a parallel debate occurring on the left side of the political map. Voters Haaretz interviewed are torn between voting for parties whose positions mirror their beliefs and whom they have previously backed — like Meretz or the Labor Party — or voting for Kahol Lavan, thus giving the party a better shot at either unseating Netanyahu or moderating the composition of his ruling coalition.

Gabriel Avner, a 34-year-old security consultant and writer from Hod Hasharon, is among many on the center-left who say they are torn between Labor and Gantz’s party. He says that because the debates between the parties have been so superficial, and the rhetoric so “dirty” and “toxic,” the more attention he pays to the campaign the more difficult he finds it to make his decision.

Avner has previously voted for Labor, but says he “cannot stand” its current leader, Avi Gabbay. Furthermore, he feels that under Gabbay’s leadership, the party is both “directionless” and unwilling to clearly advocate for a two-state solution or discuss articulate positions on security and diplomacy — so much so that he may “punish” the party by choosing Kahol Lavan.

“I generally don’t vote for small parties, they make it much harder to build a coalition,” says Avner. “Labor was always a big player; not so much anymore.”

He qualifies his criticism by noting that “much of the Labor leadership is fantastic on social issues. But I am a strong believer in the idea that Israelis take to the streets to protest about [the price of] cottage cheese, but they vote on security. You can’t make a real mark on the electorate without it.”

Avner admits he felt better about supporting Gantz last month, before “watching him kind of flounder in the Israeli media electioneering cesspool.”

But the strongest reason for his hesitation is Kahol Lavan’s rotation agreement, in which Gantz would hand the prime ministership to his second-in-command after two and a half years.

“In order to cast a ballot for Kahol Lavan, I will have to feel if I can in good conscience vote for Lapid — and for me Lapid is such an empty vessel,” says Avner. “So I need to ask myself if two years of Gantz would be worth two years of Lapid.”

Rival ads in Nazareth for the Balad-United Arab List and Hadash-Ta’al parties, March 28, 2019 (Gil Eliahu).

Further afield, there are some on the left, like academic Ori Weisberg, who are considering whether to cross an ideological line and vote for a non-Zionist party. The two parties he is considering, Meretz and Hadash-Ta’al, are both in danger of falling under the electoral threshold and not making it into the Knesset, so he must also decide whether he wants to potentially contribute to their demise. (Meretz no longer identified as Zionist in 2015, while Hadash-Ta’al is a predominantly Arab alliance.)

Officially, Weisberg is a member of Meretz: He signed up to vote in the party’s first-ever primary this February. He still believes that the party contains effective politicians who champion causes like LGBT rights and protecting asylum seekers. But he is unhappy with its lack of “a clear and detailed platform,” and his sense that the party has no place for observant Jews like him, “who practice Judaism but support the separation of religion and state.”

He continues: “Meretz, like Shas, is really a tribal party. They have a history of alienating the traditionally observant and … I am frustrated with the lack of real commitment to reaching beyond their base of secular, Greater Tel Avivians,” he says, referring to the central Israel area that is largely liberal and left-leaning.

The far-left (Jewish-Arab) Hadash was part of the Joint List in 2015, meaning it ran alongside two Islamic parties in a four-party alliance. Weisberg says he opposes Islamic parties as much as he does Orthodox Jewish ones, since he doesn’t believe in mixing religion and politics. However, now that Hadash is partnered only with Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al, Weisberg is seriously contemplating deserting Meretz to vote for them — while acknowledging that both choices are flawed.

“Both are committed to advancing equal civil rights and access to resources among Israel’s different communities,” says Weisberg. “Both want to end the occupation, though neither really has a plan beyond reciting dogmatic commitments to two states. I’d rather not reward Meretz for its ongoing political malpractice. On the other hand, I get that culturally Hadash is wedded to its Stalinist aesthetics but it hasn’t been a communist party for a long time.”

When it comes to April 9, Weisberg’s situation is the same as many others: “I really don’t know what I will do when I walk into that polling station.”


The ‘Existing is Resisting’ Gaza Protest is Working

by Seth Frantzman

The Jerusalem Post, March 31, 2019

Palestinians protest next to the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip, as it is seen from its Israeli side March 30, 2019. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

The one-year anniversary of the March of Return protests began with weather that had the consistency of soup. Dust clogged the air, and it threatened to rain. Nevertheless, the tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters came anyway, driving up to five points along the Gaza security fence to protest and riot.

Israel has become used to this over the last year. While both Israel and Hamas – the main organizer of the protests – have altered their tactics, Hamas’s overall strategy has remained the same: to keep the pressure up, looking to demonstrate its relevance after 12 years of failed rule in Gaza.

Hamas wants concessions. It wants attention. And it wants martyrs – but not too many. This is the horrid calculus behind the squaring off along the fence.

Israel’s strategy is also clear: to stop any protesters or rioters from crossing the border, and to prevent the protests from serving as a cover for laying IEDs or sniper fire, or worse.

So far, both Israel and Hamas have been successful in their respective strategies. While Hamas boasted last year that these marches would lead to the “return,” and that Palestinians would be celebrating the conquest of Jerusalem, obviously they know this is impossible.

Yahya Sinwar, today the head of Hamas in Gaza having taken over from Ismail Haniyeh in February 2017, spent 22 years in Israeli prisons. Born in Khan Yunis in 1962, he knows exactly what he is up against. When he was a young man in the 1980s, Gazans regularly commuted to jobs in Israel while Israelis went to the coastal enclave to shop or for car repairs. Then the border area was relaxed, exactly the opposite of today.

Sinwar was still in prison during Israel’s unilateral disengagement in 2005, and was repatriated to Gaza six years later as a result of the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. The Gaza he returned to was ringed with walls and fences, and blockaded on the Mediterranean by the Israeli Navy. By 2011, Hamas was equipped with long-range rockets and was building better ones, benefiting from smuggling via Sinai. Sinwar has watched as Israel developed technological responses to the challenge of rockets and attack tunnels.

The protests are a low-tech and asymmetric innovation by Hamas to the realization that their technology cannot defeat Israel. Instead, Hamas is promoting the concept of “existing is resisting,” and samud, or “steadfastness.” That Hamas has been able to sustain the mass protest for a year – initially every Friday and then on Tuesdays and also at night – is a singular accomplishment among Palestinian factions. Yes, the First and Second Intifadas were sustained. But the Gaza protests are unique though they are rarely portrayed as such in the media because Gaza has become less interesting amid the other crises of the region.

While the ongoing protests are not a global cause célèbre, it’s hard to gauge their importance for ordinary Gazans. Rare is the clan that hasn’t suffered a family member killed or wounded, many by live ammunition. While some 260 dead may seem like a relatively small price for a year-long protest, humanitarian medical NGOs working in Gaza have described their difficulty treating the large numbers of the wounded.

Israeli soldiers listen to a briefing on the Israeli side of the border with the northern Gaza Strip – Hamas has succeeded in forcing Israeli decision-makers to pay attention to Gaza (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

On the Israeli side, Hamas’s relative success can be seen in the burned fields and forests, and the need to constantly close portions of the border area as tensions escalate. The success can also be seen in shifting Jerusalem’s attention to the Gaza issue every few weeks when the Israeli government has said it wants to concentrate on the Iranian threat in Syria. This is no small accomplishment. Yet Israel has been smart enough – so far – not to let herself be dragged into a fourth Gaza war. The number of rockets fired from Gaza recently would have resulted in a war years ago. Before 2009 or 2012 or 2014, the trickle of rockets, mortars and other aggression led to conflict. In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outmaneuvered his political cohorts to prevent a conflict.

Israel understands there are diminishing returns in fighting in Gaza. Israel gains nothing. Hamas potentially can gain propaganda points. And in the end, a ceasefire will likely result rather than regime change.

That doesn’t mean that Israel is losing along the border. In fact, Israel has shown through its constantly evolving military defense technology just how she can outsmart Hamas. Using the latest sensors, electro-optical imaging, drones and an array of other gadgets, Israel uses its lethal precision weapons only as a last resort. Despite the complaints of human rights groups or the United Nations – which might argue that Israel has used excessive force, or that sniper fire should never be used against violent riots – it appears Jerusalem has successfully ridden the learning curve of this conflict.

I went down on Saturday to witness the clashes unfold. Unlike in the past, the cordon around the Gaza Strip prevented me and other journalists from driving along back roads and dirt tracks to get closer to the clashes. The IDF prefers that the media come to one lookout near Nahal Oz to watch the conflict unfold. From the dusty fields in the south near Kerem Shalom, surrounded by military vehicles, I heard flash bangs and shouting, along with ambulance sirens screaming from the Palestinian side. A giant Palestinian flag fluttered.

Further north near Kissufim, the same story unfolded. Here too I saw the IDF’s significant military presence, and the rings of Border Police vehicles and cordons meant to distance civilians from the border. Iron Dome batteries have also been deployed, and soldiers using Skylark drones were positioning their metal birds in a field.

The relative quiet along the border is a testament to the IDF’s restraint. But the need to secure the border and the constant alert in border communities is testament to what the Gazans have done.

No one wants this situation to continue forever. For now, it appears it will.

Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post’s op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.