Op-ed: 2021 elections

Israeli politics has now moved from farcical to surreal; insanity is looming

Our electoral system is dysfunctional; our democracy is holding firm, for now

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

A large Israeli flag is carried during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu In Jerusalem, Saturday, March. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
A large Israeli flag is carried during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu In Jerusalem, Saturday, March. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Forty-six hours after polling stations closed, Israel’s election results were finally announced Thursday night, and what an ongoing broch they add up to.

Voter turnout was way down — from 71.5 percent a year ago to 67.2 percent on Tuesday. The distribution of seats was significantly different from predictions in both pre-election surveys and in the 10 p.m. exit polls on Tuesday night. But the big picture is all too familiar: the Israeli electorate has conjured up yet another non-definitive result.

The pro-Netanyahu camp has 52 of the 120 Knesset seats. The anti-Netanyahu camp has 57. Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, possibly inclined toward Netanyahu, has 7. And the great election confounder, the conservative Islamic Ra’am party — which not one of the three ostensibly ultra-accurate TV exit polls predicted would make it into the Knesset — has 4.

That means neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu alliances have a clear path to a majority, and only some kind of ideologically super-illogical amalgamation of strange political bedfellows can spare us from yet a fifth round of elections mere months from now.

A surreal coalition of an Arab party and an anti-Arab party, both anti-LGBT?

The prospect of one such surreal mis-alliance has already risen and fallen, though it may yet rise again:

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas and party members at the Ra’am headquarters in Tamra, March 23, 2021, at the end of voting on election day. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated time and again in the final weeks of the campaign that he would never include Ra’am in a coalition he leads, nor even rely on its support from outside for a majority. “Out of the question,” he told Channel 12 news last week, branding Ra’am’s leader Mansour Abbas an anti-Zionist. Yet as the results were tallied, and it became clear that Ra’am’s support could lift a Likud-led coalition to the magical 61-seat minimal majority total, several of Netanyahu’s Likud colleagues, including a senior minister, began publicly musing that perhaps Ra’am, hitherto an enemy of the state, was not beyond the pale after all.

And thus on Wednesday, the Israeli electorate was asked to contemplate the mindblowing possibility of Netanyahu — the leader who campaigned on the promise to build a “full right” government, and who savaged challenger Benny Gantz last year for so much as contemplating constructing a coalition reliant on Arab MKs — seeking to govern with the parliamentary backing of both Arabs and pretty virulent anti-Arabs: He would have Ra’am on one flank, and, on the other, the far-right Religious Zionism party, complete with its racist Otzma Yehudit component that seeks to expel “disloyal” Arabs. These two beyond-implausible partners do have one thing in common, however: their anti-LGBT stance. So we were also looking at a coalition featuring two anti-LGBT parties and a senior minister who is gay — Netanyahu loyalist Amir Ohana.

Religious Zionism party chairman Bezalel Smotrich (L) and candidate Itamar Ben Gvir celebrate at the party headquarters in Modi’in on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

As of this writing, Netanyahu has neither ruled in nor ruled out a possible reliance on Ra’am, his pre-election dismissal notwithstanding. But Religious Zionism’s leader Bezalel Smotrich, and his Otzma Yehudit colleague Itamar Ben Gvir, emphatically intervened on Thursday morning. “Not on my watch,” said Smotrich.

And thus that route to Netanyahu’s reelection would appear to have been blocked off. Unless or until it is revived again.

Partnering with a PM who abandoned his previous unlikely partner?

In his non-victory speech early Wednesday morning, the prime minister did not reach out to Ra’am. Rather, he pleaded with erstwhile allies who are now in the anti-Netanyahu camp to rejoin him, and thus to spare Israel yet a fifth election.

This constitutes another unlikely gambit, since Israel was sentenced to this fourth vote because Netanyahu refused to pass the state budget, and the Knesset automatically dissolved, precisely so that he could escape his solemnly signed commitment to hand over the prime ministership to Gantz this coming November. Essentially, therefore, he is now appealing to Gantz and anybody else in the Zionist anti-Netanyahu camp to do exactly what he persuaded Gantz to do so self-defeatingly less than a year ago.

An election campaign billboard for Israel’s Blue and White opposition party led by Benny Gantz (R) depicting him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, hangs in the city of Bnei Brak, on March 14, 2021. The writing in Hebrew reads “Benny to the Knesset or Bibi forever”. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Will Gantz again save Netanyahu’s skin? Having defied the political gravediggers and won eight seats, the Blue and White leader is, as ever, pledging to “put Israel first.” In contrast to last year, however, he now insists that this commitment requires ousting rather than rescuing Netanyahu, who he says he’s concluded is a manipulator and a liar.

Will Yamina’s Bennett help Netanyahu stay in office, for that matter, when the prime minister did everything in his considerable campaigning powers to win over Bennett’s voters in the final stretch of the race? Bennett, too, has publicly stated that Netanyahu cannot be trusted. And he would be sitting in government with Ben Gvir, with whom he has refused to ally in the past, and who even Netanyahu, as recently as last week, said could have no place in his government.

Might Netanyahu successfully woo Knesset members from the ranks of ex-Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, which performed so far below earlier expectations in winning just six seats? Sa’ar and his party colleagues, who say Netanyahu’s emissaries have already come calling, are adamant that this will not happen.

Any potential defectors, from Sa’ar’s party or elsewhere, would not merely be abandoning the anti-Netanyahu camp, but also joining forces with the Religious Zionism party, a radical alliance that is deeply hostile to non-Orthodox Judaism, whose leader would like to see Israel run according to the laws of the Torah, and which includes not only the Meir Kahane disciple Ben Gvir, but also a representative of the viciously anti-LGBT Noam movement.

All this to enable the ongoing governance of a prime minister they know cannot be trusted to honor political agreements; who is also on trial for corruption; who failed to achieve a decisive election win even after spearheading a world-beating COVID-19 vaccination campaign; and whose capacity to sustain such an improbable coalition would appear to be extremely slim — meaning they could have to face an increasingly irate electorate again all too soon.

Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid speaks at party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2021, after the release of exit polls for the Knesset elections. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

In the anti-Netanyahu camp, efforts are in full swing to establish very different coalitions — helmed by Lapid, or by Lapid in rotation with Sa’ar, or by Bennett. All the various permutations would require ideological opposites backtracking on solemn commitments. None of the possibilities is straightforward; none of them offers a clear prospect of political stability.

But the alternative remains the almost unthinkable resort to more elections; what was that cliché about the definition of insanity?

No majority for radical reform of the judiciary

Dismally, Israel has been hamstrung by political crisis since way back in December 2018, when the Knesset dissolved ahead of the April 2019 elections. But its politics have not been paralyzed. These latest inconclusive elections saw Sa’ar break away from Likud, and Bennett directly challenge Netanyahu — rivals from his own side of the spectrum that rendered Tuesday’s vote the closest yet to a pure referendum on the prime minister, with forces left, right and center all vying to oust him.

He’s not finished yet, but neither was he victorious, despite the vaccination success, which enabled the electorate to cram the supermarkets, beaches and restaurants on election day.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with his lawyer Amir Hadad prior to a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Castro/AP)

Moreover, his legal complications have only deepened as the electoral deadlock extended. The evidentiary stage of his corruption trial begins on April 5, the day before our newest splintered parliament is sworn in.

Though Netanyahu insists he has no intention of trying to evade his trial, members of his own Likud and of Religious Zionism promised during the campaign to initiate legislation designed to suspend his prosecution for as long as he is prime minister.

However the coalition negotiations play out in the coming weeks, it seems clear that there is no majority in the new Knesset for legislation of that nature, or for a wider reining-in of judicial authority, tailored to Netanyahu’s interests, fundamentally remaking Israel’s separation of powers.

Claiming that the charges against him have been fabricated, Netanyahu has relentlessly castigated the police and the state prosecution, trying to discredit Israeli law enforcement. Demonstrations against the prime minister, demanding his resignation, have frequently turned confrontational, featuring clashes with police and several instances of attacks by pro-Netanyahu counter-protesters. The election campaign was marred by disruptions, including by Likud activists targeting Sa’ar. The prime minister’s son posts endless inflammatory material on social media.

Israel knows all too well about the dangers of political violence; thus far, the worst excesses have been avoided.

Four inconclusive votes in less than two years, with no state budget and a crippled parliament, would indicate that our electoral system is dysfunctional. For now, at least, the pillars of our democracy are holding firm.

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