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Israel media review

Oy, what have they done? 6 things to know for May 30

Whether it’s because Liberman’s a ‘leftist’ or due to PM’s legal woes, we’re heading back to elections for an unprecedented 2nd time in a single year and few seem happy about it

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. ‘All because of one man’s ambition’: This is the reason a scowling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave reporters for why Israel is heading to the polls for a second time in less than six months. He was referring to Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, but at least one side of the political spectrum could have easily concluded that the “one man” was the premier himself.

  • Right after Netanyahu’s remarks, Channel 12 cut to their panelists, with senior anchor Yonit Levy arguing that if the premier were truly interested in avoiding election, he would not have forced legislation to dissolve the Knesset but rather allowed President Reuven Rivlin to give a different MK the chance to form a government.
  • Political correspondent Amit Segal quickly retorted, asserting that if Netanyahu the political mastermind could not form a government under the rather trying circumstances, there was no chance in the world that novice Blue and White chair Benny Gantz, or anyone else, would have been able to do so.
  • But people hear what they want to hear, and at the pro-PM Israel Hayom daily, there appeared to be no issue with sticking to Netanyahu’s script. The paper plasters its front page with the headline “For the second time: Liberman collapses a right-wing government.” (The first time was apparently when the then-defense minister left the coalition in November, in protest of its Gaza policy, though it did not immediately fall.)
  • Next to the headline, the paper features a chorus of analyses from reporters who have had it up to here with Liberman. Sophie Ron-Moria leads her hit piece calling the Yisrael Beytenu chairman “a bully with an excessive appetite” — to which one Walla news editor responded on Twitter, “and you’re fat too!”
  • But Ron-Moria’s colleague Yehuda Schlezinger points out that had the ultra-Orthodox parties tried to extort Netanyahu and the other coalition parties in the way that Liberman had, public opinion against them would have been relentless. Moreover, he argues that Shas and United Torah Judaism had actually been far more reasonable than they ever had been on religious issues, twice agreeing to new demands from Yisrael Beytenu on legislation mandating exemptions from military service for yeshiva students, before Liberman decided that it wasn’t enough.
  • The Times of Israel’s David Horovitz notes that Liberman presented things rather differently: All he had demanded was that legislation designed to raise the proportion of young ultra-Orthodox males serving in the army, a bill endorsed by the IDF itself and passed on a first reading 10 months ago, be fully and finally approved with no further changes; but Netanyahu, Shas and UTJ refused to budge.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the press following a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset on May 29, 2019, at the Knesset in Jerusalem. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

2. Netanyahu’s no good, terrible very bad day: All seem to be in agreement — even before seeing Netanyahu’s death stare in the Knesset as MKs voted to send themselves packing 30 days after being sworn in — that this result is not at all what the premier wanted.

  • The prime minister confidently told reporters that he would win the next election handily, but actually the timing of these new elections will be everything.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth provides a handy graphic circling the relevant dates for readers to keep in mind. A September 17 vote will come just two weeks before Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing and two months before Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has signaled he’d like to reach his decision on the criminal investigations against the prime minister. Factoring in a month and a half for Netanyahu to form a government if he wins again, that will leave him with just a few weeks to pass legislation granting himself immunity that he had been weighing advancing immediately upon the formation of the country’s 35th government that never came to be. Yedioth suggests that the most likely scenario would see the prime minister under indictment by his second month in office with no legislation that would make the charges disappear.
  • The daily’s Nahum Barnea says that “the root of Netanyahu’s failure” was his pre-2015 election decision to sign a covenant with the hard-right and Haredi parties, when he would have had more wiggle room had he reached out to the center. It turned out that those natural coalition partners to which the prime minister has grown fond of referring were not so natural in the end, Barnea quips.
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman speaks at the Knesset, May 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

3. So why are we having elections again?: ToI’s Horovitz dismisses Liberman’s argument centered around the draft law as “transparently false.”

  • The legislation “would barely change the dismal reality in which the overwhelming majority of young Haredi males are exempted from the army. This is not a landmark law for which it was worth bringing down parliament one month after a fresh crop of legislators were sworn in,” he writes.
  • Horovitz suggests that Liberman may be convinced that he has much to gain by being seen by the public as a crusader for the secular right, but concludes that the Yisrael Beytenu chair “was primarily motivated by the desire to hurt Netanyahu.”
  • “In retrospect, it is a wonder that Netanyahu didn’t prioritize locking Liberman into his coalition as the first goal of these failed negotiations, given the Yisrael Beytenu chief’s animus and proven potential for wreaking political havoc,” he adds.
  • Colleague Raoul Wootliff takes issue with Netanyahu’s post-Knesset-dissolution claim that voters in the April election had “made a clear decision” that they wanted him to serve as prime minister of a right-wing government.
  • “Netanyahu may be claiming victory in April’s elections, but a clear-eyed look at the full outcome — the results of all three stages to an Israeli election — shows that this is emphatically not the case,” he asserts.
Ta’al party leader MK Ahmad Tibi speaks during a discussion on a bill to dissolve the parliament, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

3. Naqba recognition in exchange for your support: The one bit of comic relief during a night in which most Israelis, particularly vacation-starved political correspondents, were flinching at the idea of another divisive election season, came from Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ayman Odeh.

  • Relating to Netanyahu’s penchant for issuing “dramatic announcements,” the Arab Israeli MK jokes that Netanyahu had approached him seven minutes earlier to ask him to join the governing coalition, promising that Israel would withdraw from all the territories it captured during the 1967 Six Day War and would cancel the controversial Jewish Nation-State Law.
  • The joke did not appear too far off from what the prime minister — who could not really be accused of not having tried hard enough to avoid elections — had offered Labor chairman Avi Gabbay.
  • While both sides confirmed the existence of the Labor offer, the exact details have differed slightly in the varying reports covering the 11th hour proposal. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter relays that Netanyahu had been prepared to give Gabbay the Finance Ministry, Labor No. 2 Tal Russo the Defense Ministry, MK Shelly Yachimovich the Justice Ministry and another lawmaker from the party the Communications Ministry. All this, in addition to scrapping plans to legislate an immunity law and a Supreme Court override law, in exchange for Labor’s entry into the government.
  • Gabbay, who campaigned aggressively against joining any Netanyahu government, was eviscerated by critics — including some from within his party — for even considering the rather tempting offer. But he tweets that he had a national responsibility to weigh all options available to safeguard Israel’s democracy.
  • The left-wing daily’s Jonathan Lis reports that in the slightly earlier stages of the night when Netanyahu was exploring the idea of a 60-seat government, he offered MKS from the Islamist Ra’am faction a pledge to cease home demolitions in the Arab Israeli community, the formation of a plan to combat violence in the Arab sector and regulation of one of the unrecognized Bedouin communities in the Negev in exchange for their agreement not to vote in favor of bringing down the government in future no-confidence votes.
  • The reported offer is particularly shocking, given Netanyahu’s criticism of Blue and White throughout the past election campaign that any government that it would form would have to “rely on the support of the Arabs.”
Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay (right) with party member Tal Russo as the results for the Knesset elections are announced at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 9, 2019. (Flash90)

4. Hobbling into another election season: Quite a few lessons are ripe for the learning from the 51 days that have passed since April 9 and analysts are already beginning to predict how each party will do things differently on September 17.

  • Likud has already made clear that it plans on going after Liberman’s base of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in its campaign of vengeance. Netanyahu’s new media adviser Topaz Luk publishes a tweet in Russian, simply stating: “We’ve started.”
  • As for Kulanu, which just yesterday agreed to merge into Likud, Walla’s Tal Shalev suggests that the alliance may not hold. She highlights Roy Folkman’s late overnight murmurs to confidants that he no longer feels like he has a political home; but more problematic was Netanyahu’s reported offer of Kahlon’s Finance Ministry to Gabbay in the rush to put together a government that is unlikely to sit well with the Kulanu chairman.
  • Globes’s Tal Schneider states that a fresh election gives Blue and White the opportunity to add a female face or two to the top of its testosterone-dominated list. Two plausible candidates would be Orly Levy-Abekasis and Yifat Biton from the Gesher party, which didn’t cross the electoral threshold last time around.
  • Meanwhile, Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg says that “ego is not what brought her” to lead the left-wing party (even though the recent one-woman campaign she ran had some believing otherwise) and that therefore she was prepared to put differences aside in order to merge into a united left-wing bloc with Labor. The latter party would only be able to provide an answer after its leadership primary is held.
  • Arab Israeli MKs from the hyphenated Ra’am-Balad and Hadash-Ta’al parties say they’re gearing for a Joint List reunion in order to compete in the September elections. Walla’s Shalev points out that whatever Jewish-Arab unity Odeh spoke about at the Saturday night rally against Netanyahu he appeared to have forgotten when he led the Arab parties to vote along with the right-wing factions to dissolve the Knesset and prevent another MK from being given the chance to form a government.
  • Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut tweets a picture of a rather horrifying bony hand poking out from the party’s grave, signaling that it plans to run again. Feiglin tells Army Radio that his party has learned the lessons from the last campaign and will from here on out will be more clear about its right-wing identity (which apparently wasn’t clear enough in a platform calling for reconquering the Gaza Strip).
  • There’s also talk of new players entering the scene. Globes’s Schneider names them as former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and his deputy Yair Golan. Neither have indicated which party they would join, but speculation places them on the center-left side of the political spectrum.

5. Did son just incriminate father? Yair Netanyahu rather shockingly admits that his dad had in 2009 appointed an attorney general selected so that he would fudge and close criminal cases against Liberman, at the latter’s request.

  • Yair’s tweet appeared to immediately spark the glee of a large swath of reporters, who one after the other wondered out loud if it could possibly implicate both the prime minister and Liberman in a fresh corruption scandal, in addition to the probes that have been plaguing the two for decades.
  • The premier’s son appears to subsequently indicate that he let his disgust over Liberman’s torpedoing of his father’s government get the best of him, issuing a statement explaining that he had been an ignorant high school student at the time and had no idea what he was talking about.
Yair Netanyahu, son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Flash90)

6: Poor peace plan: Another round of elections means another likely delay in the roll-out of the Trump administration’s peace plan. The White House has issued a statement, clarifying that its Bahrain economic “workshop” is still a go, but the political part seems like it’s going to be placed on the back burner.

  • In the Daily Beast, Neri Zilber writes that Israel pushing off forming a government for another six months wastes time that the Palestinian Authority does not have to solve its funding crisis caused by cuts from Israel and the US. The issue was expected to be quietly solved shortly after Netanyahu managed to put together a coalition, but with that possibility no longer relevant, the PA will be forced to hobble along, cash-strapped and at risk of collapsing entirely.
  • “If the Trump administration is worried (as it should be), then it’s not showing. When the above scenario was recently put to [Jared] Kushner, including the demise of the PA itself, he feigned nonchalance. ‘It will be what it will be,’ he said, in the manner of a man who has grown accustomed to getting repeatedly bailed out,” Zilber writes.
  • For his part, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s senior adviser Saeb Erekat reacts to the news of another round of Israeli elections by tweeting this reporter’s pitying analysis.
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