No Good Choices in Israel’s Election

Benny Gantz (Roman Yanushevsky via Shutterstock)

by Mitchell Plitnick

With elections in Israel looming in six weeks, Israelis are watching Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who is expected to announce his decision on whether he is going to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Similar—and less serious—charges brought down Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, from the prime minister’s perch and landed him in jail. But Netanyahu’s situation is different, and he will likely continue to lead Likud into this election. Despite his legal troubles and his trailing in the polls, Netanyahu remains the favorite in this race because the math continues to work in his favor.

That’s why, earlier this week, the co-leader of the newly formed Blue and White coalition, Yair Lapid, announced that if his party won the election, its first call would be to the head of Likud, as long as it isn’t Netanyahu. If this new “coalition of the generals”—of its four leading candidates, three are former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces—does win a plurality of seats in the next Knesset, as it is currently on pace to do, it will not be able to form a government without Likud.

It’s a tough sell for Blue and White. Most of its campaign is based on being a security-minded alternative to Netanyahu. But of the many Israelis the prime minister has alienated, few have completely disassociated the party of Netanyahu from the man. He does, after all, keep winning the Likud leadership. Moreover, if Likud does agree to join a government led by Blue and White’s Lapid and Benny Gantz, it will almost certainly be able to bring down that government any time it wishes. Netanyahu’s successor will simply have to wait until Likud feels that it can win a new election.

Why Likud?

Polls are indicating that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the Blue and White coalition to get the 61 seats it needs to form a government without Likud. It is the same situation any party to the left of Likud will face, because the playing field gets increasingly narrow moving leftward due to the political impossibility of bringing the Arab-majority parties into the government.

The dissolution of the Joint List—the third largest party in the current Knesset, a union of the four non-Zionist parties, Ra’am, Ta’al, Balad, and Hadash—could cut the presence of these parties by nearly half, but they are still currently polling between seven and 12 seats collectively. Those seats are anathema for most of the Zionist parties, apart from Meretz, a party that has its own concerns about getting enough votes to pass the minimal threshold for the Knesset.

A lot of shuffling is going to take place between now and when the next Knesset assembles. The Blue and White coalition is hoping desperately that if Netanyahu is indicted, it can grab enough disillusioned Likud voters to give it some flexibility about coalition partners, although most of these voters will likely drift to the other right-wing parties.

The outlook would be different if Blue and White would consider the option of some of the non-Zionist parties. For example, most polls have the Hadash and Ta’al parties, which are running together, winning seven seats. Blue and White are getting between 32 and 36, while Labor and Meretz project to get around 12 between them. That would at least put a center-left coalition within shouting distance of the 61 seats it would need. Without Hadash and Ta’al, however, there is no choice but Likud. There is simply no other way to pick up over a dozen seats.

In the Knesset, But Barred From Governing

The common line is that Hadash, Ta’al, Balad, and Ra’am are unwelcome in a governing coalition because they do not support Zionism ideologically. But as Peter Beinart once pointed out, “Israeli coalitions regularly include non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox parties.” The real reason is that these parties are majority Arab parties. After all, it’s not like they could possibly force major changes to Israel’s nature just by virtue of holding a dozen seats in a governing coalition.

Prejudice, ethnocentrism, and nationalism work for Likud on multiple levels. Netanyahu caused quite a controversy last week when he bribed and pressured the Jewish Home-Tkuma coalition—itself led by far-right racist and self-proclaimed “proud homophobe,” Bezalel Smotrich—to accept an alliance with the explicitly racist Otzma Yehudit, led by former disciples of the notorious Meir Kahane. As Likud’s communication director Eli Hazan said, they did it “because they need to win.” The racist party would not have passed the Knesset threshold, but by joining with two other far-right parties, they will gather support and give the right perhaps two more seats. Plus, they could draw some right-wing voters who might stray from Likud to Gantz or other Netanyahu rivals if the prime minister is indicted.

On the other side of the ledger, bigotry bars more centrist parties than Likud from reaching out to the farthest left parties for similar advantage. Lapid made it clear how much fear his party has of being labeled as partners with “the Arabs.” Referring to Arab citizens of Israel, he told a cheering crowd in a recorded speech aired by Israel Radio on Monday morning, “We didn’t speak with them, we didn’t ask them… We won’t form a government with the Arab parties, we will contact Likud.”

If Blue and White does manage to win the election and form a government, it is no reason to rejoice. Benny Gantz, the former IDF chief of staff who leads the Hosen L’Yisrael (Israeli Resilience) party which joined with Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem parties to form the Blue and White coalition, remains a political unknown. He has divulged little of his political views, preferring to rely on his military career and being “not Netanyahu.” But he gave a signal with an early campaign ad boasting of the devastation he wrought in the Gaza Strip in 2014. He and Lapid would split time in the prime minister’s office, and Lapid—co-leading a party not just with Gantz but also with former chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Ya’alon in top roles—would likely feel that he has to prove his toughness. Netanyahu has faced criticism from his right flank for perceived “restraint” in using Israel’s full military might. There is good reason to fear that Gantz and Lapid will not be similarly “restrained.”

For Palestinians, Blue and White doesn’t represent an improvement. Gantz and Lapid would surely make every effort to repair the relationships with Europe and with the Jewish community and the Democratic Party in the United States. Historically, that has meant diplomatic floor shows that do little if anything to advance Palestinians’ rights. The racism built into the Israeli electoral process ensures that this is the best option that can be expected in the near term. The status quo, which has moved ever rightward, is not likely to change unless Israeli moderates and liberals “need to win” as much as Likud does and decide to reach out to majority Arab parties. That day seems very far off, but perhaps desperation may eventually overcome prejudice.

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.

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