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Five Key Takeaways From Israel’s Indecisive Election Rerun

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Heidi Levine/Sipa/Pool via AP

Benjamin Netanyahu at a voting station in Jerusalem, September 17, 2019

Anyone expecting clarity from Israel’s electoral rerun will be disappointed. The public was sent back to the polls when coalition negotiations following the April 9 election failed. The resumption of those negotiations based on the new distribution of seats in the Knesset will not prove any easier. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will soon call the party leaders to begin the traditional round of post-election consultations, and within days will call on either Benjamin Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party (with 33 seats), or Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud (31 seats), to have first shot at forming the next government.  

Some of the outcomes from Tuesday’s vote are clearer than others. Netanyahu had a bad election. His options for forming a governing coalition are now limited, but those of his chief opponent—Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz—are no more promising. Gantz’s party may have the most seats, but they too lost a couple of mandates, and they have no natural bloc of allies, given their aversion to sitting in government with either the Palestinian-Arab Joint List or with the ultra-Orthodox parties (an aversion which is largely mutual). The so-called obvious option of Likud and Blue and White coming together to form a unity government (most likely with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party), is complicated by Blue and White’s commitment not to sit with Netanyahu while he faces corruption allegations, as well as Likud’s commitment to not abandon their allies on the right and in the ultra-Orthodox camp.  

If one is looking to understand the weeks as well as the years ahead for Israel, here are five key takeaways from this week’s election that might help.

First, Netanyahu is down, but neither he personally nor the line he represents is out. At one level, this election was about Netanyahu and the corruption accusations surrounding him, as well as his attempts to strip bare the Israeli governance and justice system in order to keep himself out of jail. That specific effort stands or falls over the question of whether Netanyahu succeeds in leading the next government. The two great unknowns in that respect are what will happen inside the Likud and Lieberman’s endgame. Thus far the senior echelons of the Likud have offered a case study in timidity when it comes to their unwillingness to challenge Netanyahu, but if that changes then the path to a coalition becomes more obvious and Netanyahu’s tenure is over.

The second unknown is the end game of Avigdor Lieberman, now the kingmaker, a veteran Soviet immigrant politician and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home Party). Not only did his party increase its representation (from 5 to 8 seats), but Lieberman set much of the agenda for this election with a campaign calling for a national unity government arrayed against the prospect of Israel becoming a state of Halacha (of Jewish law, as prescribed by the ultra-Orthodox).   

Does Lieberman seek to revel in the spectacle of bringing down Netanyahu, or to build his own power for the future, or perhaps a combination of both? Lieberman appears to have given himself no path back to being part of the old Netanyahu–right–ultra-Orthodox coalition. But a Lieberman flip to resuming his old position in that coalition could give him leverage and a leg-up in positioning for the future leadership of the right after Netanyahu, in which case the old coalition is back along with Netanyahu.

Until the attorney general decides whether to press charges against him, Netanyahu is not technically barred from serving as prime minister and is free to pursue attempts, however far-fetched, to postpone or legislate his way out of the prospect of serving prison time. There may be a moment when Netanyahu’s deciphering of the writing on the wall pushes him toward stepping down and attempting to reach a plea bargain (the success of which is far from guaranteed), but we are not there yet.

Even while he remains caretaker prime minister, Netanyahu has significant levers of power at his disposal. By contrast, as long as the Likud stands behind Netanyahu, Gantz has few options. The most obvious election outcome would be for Blue and White to align with Likud (without Netanyahu and most likely with Lieberman). Netanyahu’s path to leading a coalition without Gantz may be narrow, but it should not be entirely discounted. So long as he remains in power and given his unparalleled experience, Netanyahu still can engineer political realities to which everyone else will have to respond.

Which brings us to the second take-away—that the next few weeks could be a very bumpy ride indeed, with implications not just for domestic Israeli horse-trading but on a much wider scale for the future of the Palestinians, the wider region, and even Israel’s relations with America. Netanyahu’s best option for staying in power might well be to create a crisis of a security or diplomatic nature. It might allow him to push towards an emergency government of national unity, together with Blue and White, which might even be welcomed by Gantz as a way of climbing down from his own ‘no Netanyahu’ commitment (especially with an indictment presumed to be around the corner). Netanyahu has two options in this respect. While they would seem to be transparently far-fetched power grabs, it is important to remember that he is well positioned to embark on such adventures, and that no scenario looks simple right now.

One option would be to generate a security emergency based on escalation either in the south against Gaza and Hamas or on the northern border with Lebanon and Syria in the context of Israel’s standoff with Iran. The stage has certainly been set for either of these eventualities. Israelis have been told by their government for some time that another round of fighting in both the south and the north is inevitable, given what has been described as the need to restore deterrence and the build-up of weapons, and in particular missile capacity, by Hezbollah and Hamas in their respective sectors. In the days before the election, speculation was rife about a significant Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Exchanges of fire continue, at least on a weekly basis.

There is no shortage of potential flashpoints, between the latest incident at the Saudi oil processing facilities and the uptick in Israeli military strikes, which have now extended to Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.

The second option involves an emergency surrounding a diplomatic development and that could come either on the Iranian or Palestinian fronts. The most obvious scenario would be Netanyahu working together with President Trump, Special Envoy Jared Kushner, and Ambassador David Friedman to have the so-called “deal of the century” presented in the near future. That could be depicted as both an opportunity and potential threat to Israel. Indeed it could be a reason for forming an emergency government—in order to have a broad domestic consensus for responding to that plan and, crucially, in order to reach understandings with the Americans. To be clear, there is no American peace plan in the sense of a plan that is designed to create a peace that could be agreed to by Palestinians. There is, however, an apparent American willingness to put Israeli ideas on the table with the tiniest semblance of a nod to the existence of Palestinians.

Netanyahu has thus far not been enthusiastic about any such plan, but he may now see a personal political advantage in having the Americans advance one. Netanyahu would not endorse all of it, but he could point to inevitable Palestinian opposition as a point of departure for reaching understandings with the U.S. that he would claim are of great historical significance. Netanyahu could depict this as ‘removing’ the threat of a PLO state from the table and definitively subduing the old Clinton Parameters, to be replaced by new arrangements friendlier to Israel, possibly even allowing for the extension of Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank with an American blessing. A variation on the diplomatic emergency theme would be for Israel to enter urgent consultations with the U.S. administration over a set of understandings regarding Iran, whether that be America moving toward a new diplomatic initiative, or toward a new pressure campaign, or a combination of the two.

Netanyahu will not be attending the UN General Assembly meetings in New York next week and therefore will not be meeting with Trump. But he remains well placed to work with the U.S. administration on any of the above ideas through his confidant, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who could be camped out on the White House lawn working these angles. Expect to see less of the risk-averse Netanyahu to whom we have grown accustomed.

There has been a tendency in some quarters to depict this election result as a defeat for extremism, a turn away from the excesses of recent years. The third takeaway: Sadly, this is wishful thinking. It is certainly a relief to see the Jewish ethno-nationalists of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power Party) failing to make it into the Knesset. The party, drawing upon the xenophobic and anti-Arab legacy of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, represents an out-and-out ethnic supremacism. But it would be a mighty stretch to suggest that this defeat signals the purging from Israeli politics of the ugly ultra-nationalism and racism that has come to characterize far too much of Israeli political and public discourse.

Netanyahu’s own Likud—as well as the Yamina Party (Right Party, with 7 seats), Lieberman and his party, and parts of the ultra-Orthodox—are no strangers to a politics of extreme prejudice. It cannot be forgotten that both Netanyahu’s Likud and the Yamina Party worked extremely hard to put the Kahanists inside the Knesset. Netanyahu personally intervened to make sure that the Kahanists were on the list of the Jewish Home Party in April and tried to repeat that maneuver with Yamina for this second round of balloting. Of course, that was a product of political necessity, but it would not have been possible absent ideological proximity.

The attempt during this campaign to reinvent Lieberman as the sane center-ground of Israeli politics, struggling to vanquish ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, is particularly disturbing. Lieberman is a worthy challenger for the title of being the most outspoken, intolerant ethno-nationalist of the last generation of Israeli politics. Almost no one in power has taken such an overtly and aggressively racist line against the Palestinians—inside Israel, in the occupied territories, and towards Arabs in general. Lieberman has prided himself in calling for a loyalty oath for Arab citizens; he has called for the expulsion and even hanging of Arab members of Knesset; he called for the bombing of the Aswan Dam in Egypt and for transferring Arab-Israeli towns and villages outside of Israeli sovereignty. Lieberman owns many of the patents to the intellectual property that constitutes the anti-democratic and Jewish supremacist turn that Israel has taken. No process of healing can start while he remains in power.

The Joint List may have recovered some lost ground for Arab representation in the Knesset on September 17, but it did so against the backdrop of continuous campaigns and vilification against the Arab minority.

All of which points to the fourth takeaway: Even with its 33 seats in the Knesset, Blue and White does not offer, yet at least, a political and ideological alternative to the politics of the Likud right. The reason that a unity government between Likud and Blue and White is seen as the most likely outcome of the election is not just mathematical (in other words, that such a coalition would constitute a majority in the Knesset). It also appears as the most obvious path because the two parties’ outlook and policies have more similarities than differences. Both Likud and Blue and White (along with Lieberman) represent what has become the new center of gravity of Israeli politics, a politics that is significantly to the right. Neither is willing to countenance a sovereign and territorially viable Palestinian state and an end to occupation; neither is willing to take on and remove Jewish settlements in the occupied territories; neither has been supportive of U.S. negotiations with Iran or of the nuclear deal; neither is committed to taking on the deeply embedded structural discrimination against Palestinians who are citizens of Israel; and both espouse a deregulatory, pro-corporate, free market approach to the economy that rules out more equality-driven or environmentally meaningful policies.

On Gaza, Blue and White sounds, if anything, more hawkish than Netanyahu and his government. While this could be put down to electioneering and playing to a Netanyahu vulnerability, it is nevertheless a genuine risk that Gantz could take a more militarily aggressive posture towards the Gaza Strip. It is in the domestic arena of Israeli governance and the institutional foundations of democracy where the most difference is likely to be felt between the continuation of Netanyahu versus a coalition in which Blue and White has significant influence. Netanyahu has been moving towards anti-democratic changes that would greatly alter the supreme court, the separation of powers, and governmental oversight.  He has enacted legislation that has provoked the Palestinian citizens of Israel and threatened freedom of dissent within Israel’s democracy. Blue and White has set themselves against these trends and would likely stop and perhaps even reverse the actions taken in these areas. One can anticipate Blue and White being less aggressive on settlement promotion and less aggressive on annexation, as well as supporting a return to a more bipartisan relationship with the U.S. But Gantz has not thus far offered anything approaching a vision for peace.

Blue and White is also less likely to align Israel with the global coalition promoting an illiberal international order, for which Netanyahu has been both a trailblazer (and in many instances, it has served as a useful cover against accusations of anti-Semitism). But Blue and White will have to prove that it has a politics of democracy over ethnocracy, which may well expose a fault line within its own bloc of Knesset members (one constituent element of Blue and White is the Telem Party of former Likud Defense Minister Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, a party of the ideological right).

If Gantz wanted to chart a different political course, especially with regard to the territories and the occupation, but also in terms of inclusivity towards Israel’s most marginalized and discriminated against minority, its Palestinian Arab citizens, then he could attempt to form a governing coalition that would consist of Blue and White, the Zionist center-left of the Labour-Gesher group, and the Democratic Union, together with the ultra-Orthodox parties and support from the Arab parties’ Joint List, or elements thereof (a kind of confidence-and-supply arrangement familiar in some European polities). In contemporary Israeli political terms, and on issues other than religion and state, this would be the most progressive possible coalition option created by the election results. But the difficulties in forming such a coalition are manifold and, in all probability, insurmountable. To his credit, Gantz has already placed a call to Joint List Leader Ayman Oudeh and they are scheduled to meet—which is more than was done by his predecessors on the center-left and is certainly noteworthy by Israeli standards.

The fifth and final takeaway from this election, perhaps surprisingly, is that the prospects for advancing a new progressive camp in Israel have improved. Netanyahu has cast a powerful shadow over Israeli politics for the better part of a generation. That hold has now been weakened. As unpleasant a leader as Netanyahu has been, one cannot deny his talents as a skillful and accomplished agenda-setter—not only on the local scene but also internationally. That will not be easy to replace. The teasing loose of Netanyahu’s grip paves the way for some much-needed fluidity in Israeli politics.

More important could be the effect of the Joint List now having a larger representation than the Zionist center-left in the Knesset. Too much of the Jewish liberal camp has long avoided meaningfully addressing a fundamental quandary—that there can be no advancing of a progressive political project in Israel absent an inclusive approach toward and acceptance of the legitimacy of the perspectives of the Palestinian minority, one that sees the Palestinian-Arab citizens not only as an untapped voter pool but also strives to create shared approaches that transcend the ossified terrain of the Jewish and democratic state narrative.

The calls in the last few days from leaders in both the Labor Party and the Meretz Party to pursue coalition options with the Joint List suggest the beginnings of some movement on this front. How the Joint List and the rump of the Israeli-Jewish center-left that remains in the Knesset navigate these challenges, and whether they can overcome the binary options of the past, will have a great say in determining whether the pendulum of Israeli politics can be pulled back from its current dangerous trajectory.

Israeli politics may have its unique ingredients, from the technical features of a pure proportional representation system to the existential issues of maintaining a permanent occupation and denial of rights to millions of people, but it also now shares many features that are common to the global crisis of the so-called liberal democratic model.

In that respect the need to present and win support for alternatives to the current Israeli politics of ethno-national supremacy is not exceptional nor should it be treated as such.

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