Such wonderfully dependable things, numbers. Ostensibly immutable. Numbers, runs the cliché, don’t lie.
And yet, when it comes to coalition-making in Israel’s parliament, the numbers seem to swirl endlessly, bafflingly, almost mystically. Only one man truly seems to be able to understand and utilize them: Benjamin Netanyahu.
After the elections last March, the immutable numbers found 61 of the 120 Knesset members recommending Benny Gantz for prime minister. President Reuven Rivlin had to look no further: He charged Gantz with forming a government.
Does anybody seriously doubt that, had Netanyahu been in Gantz’s position, backed by a wafer-thin parliamentary majority of radically diverse politicians, he would have attempted to lock in his coalition, to bend conflicting political ideologies to his will, justifying whatever compromises were required?
Of course he would have — precisely as he and his Likud have been intermittently cuddling up to some Arab politicians and even the Palestinian Authority when seeking Arab support in the current campaign, thoroughly unfazed by Gideon Sa’ar’s accusations of consorting with “hostile elements.” Precisely as he has paved a path to the Knesset on March 23 for the disciples of the racist rabbi Meir Kahane in Otzma Yehudit. Legitimate? “Certainly!,” Netanyahu said in a recent TV interview when asked about his kashering of Otzma’s leader Itamar Ben Gvir. “I want to bring the votes,” he reasoned. Ben Gvir will be in the coalition, but he won’t be in the government, Netanyahu added by way of explanation, conjuring a hair-splitting distinction to suit his purpose.
Contrast that with Gantz’s behavior last March. His task was not simple. He had the narrowest possible potential Knesset majority. But still, backed by those 61 MKs — from his own hawkish ally Moshe Ya’alon on the right, all the way over to the non-Zionist elements of the Joint List — he froze, caught in the arithmetical headlights. He ruled out the Arab-dominated Joint List as any kind of partner — either within the coalition, or backing it from the outside. And as some of his recommenders slipped away, he chose, rather than send Israel to elections again, to join an “emergency unity government” with Netanyahu, the man he had vowed to oust. The rest is predictable political history — the endless bickering with Netanyahu, the state budget that never passed, the collapse of the coalition after just seven months. And more elections.
What’s happening now, however, is an even more extraordinary tribute to Netanyahu’s magical mastery of the swirling numbers, and a function of his opponents’ dyscalculia.
The polls — unreliable, shifting, and, crucially, hard-pressed to predict the central factor of election day turnout — indicate Netanyahu has a steep uphill battle to retain power. Those who insist Israel’s well-being requires that he be defeated are no longer scrambling for a nail-biting 61 seats. Rather, the parties that say, in their own distinctive formulations, that they don’t want Netanyahu as prime minister — Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, the Arab-dominated Joint List, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, Blue and White, and Meretz — are up around the 70 mark.
Netanyahu’s Likud, the two ultra-Orthodox parties and the Religious Zionists of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir alliance are polling at no more than 50 seats.
Even allowing for the fact that Meretz is lately hovering below the 3.25% Knesset threshold, Netanyahu has a great deal of work to do to secure another victory.
Except his opponents give every indication of failing to do the math. Some of them — notably Meretz, Labor, and Blue and White — have taken to attacking each other. And they’re buying into the self-serving sums of the very man they chorus is an untrustworthy manipulator.
The battle has become even less ideological, and even more personal
In an electoral arithmetic lesson he posted on Facebook (Hebrew) last week, Netanyahu scoffed that Sa’ar and Bennett could at best manage only 25 seats between them, and therefore would be forced to put together a coalition including the loathsome left in order to defeat him. That, in the Netanyahu presentation, would be disastrous for Israel. Only a “full right” government under his leadership can protect the country, he declared — and never mind his anything but “full right” wooing of some Arab politicians, his failure over more than a decade to extend sovereignty to the West Bank and neuter the Supreme Court, and his indefinite suspension of annexation of the settlements and the Jordan Valley in exchange for a peace treaty with the United Arab Emirates.
The prime minister’s math class notwithstanding, the election is more winnable this time by the anti-Netanyahu camp because, since the last vote in March 2020, two of the mainstays of the Israeli right, Sa’ar and Bennett, have joined it. The battle, in other words, has become even less ideological, and even more personal.
In a Times of Israel interview last week, Bennett asserted that he is best qualified to be prime minister, condemned Netanyahu’s use of “hate or polarization as a tool” for political promotion, and said of the incumbent: “It’s time for him to go.”
Sa’ar, who has declared ousting Netanyahu “the imperative of the hour,” no less, told ToI a month ago that “if Netanyahu today was like Netanyahu 10 years ago, or eight years ago, it’s likely that I’d still support him. But today he acts, no holds barred, in a manner that hurts the interests of the state.”
A striking 58% of respondents told Channel 13 in a survey published last Thursday that they don’t want to see Netanyahu remain as prime minister after the elections
The rise of Sa’ar and Bennett in the polls is partly a function of the demise of Gantz’s Blue and White, but some of those two right-wing parties’ support is coming from Likud, too.
In all, a striking 58% of respondents told Channel 13 in a survey published last Thursday that they don’t want to see Netanyahu remain as prime minister after the elections, compared to 33% who hope he’ll stay. The parties’ standing in the polls bears out that message.
Netanyahu rightly asserts that he centrally facilitated Israel’s world-beating vaccination drive, that he delivered four normalization agreements in the final months of the Trump administration, and that he has hammered home internationally the critical need to prevent Iran’s ayatollahs attaining nuclear weapons. For much of the electorate — left, center and, now, more of the right than before — all that is apparently outweighed by factors such as his assault on the law enforcement hierarchies that have indicted him for corruption, less successful aspects of the battle against COVID-19, and the wider sense of skewed decision-making. Is he telling us we’ll be able to fully reopen the country in April because that’s where the data truly points, or because it serves his reelection interests? Has he pushed to fully reopen schools faster than the health professionals recommend because he really believes he knows better than they do and is looking at a bigger picture or, again, because he thinks that will win him support in the campaign’s final stretch?
Israel is about to vote in the midst of a pandemic. Tens of thousands of would-be voters have found themselves stranded abroad with the airport largely locked down for weeks. Large numbers of voters — including not only the elderly but also plenty of others wary of the polling station hubbub — will be reluctant to venture out to cast their ballots. In a country that trusted its governance, these kinds of problems would be solvable: Israelis abroad could vote at embassies; Israelis at home could be served by mobile polling stations. Such solutions have not even been entertained because of the climate of political mistrust, the conviction that any untried system will be gamed by unscrupulous forces. And given that mood, and the way it’s playing out in the polls, the anti-Netanyahu camp is wider and better placed than Gantz was a year ago.
There are more than two weeks till polling day, and so much can still change. Out of nowhere, for instance, the High Court of Justice ruling Monday that Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism in Israel must be accepted for the purposes of citizenship has galvanized the campaigns of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, where turnout, customarily extremely high, may now be even higher.
Sa’ar and now Bennett have allowed Netanyahu to “left shame” them into semi-dissociating from the centrist Lapid
But if the current polling numbers are close to accurate, and if Sa’ar, Bennett, Lapid and Liberman could agree, once the votes are in, on which of them should get first crack at building a coalition, their task would likely be more straightforward than Gantz’s was. If they could unite behind one candidate, then he (yes, he) would likely have more recommendations than Netanyahu can muster, would be charged by Rivlin with forming a coalition, might have a majority even without the Arab Joint List support, and could find the ultra-Orthodox leadership knocking on the door as well. Especially so, if the agreed candidate is Sa’ar or Bennett.
There is no guarantee that such a closing of ranks against Netanyahu will come to pass, however. For one thing, Sa’ar and now Bennett have allowed Netanyahu to “left shame” them into semi-dissociating from the centrist Lapid. For another, while Netanyahu is the unchallenged prime ministerial candidate of his bloc, the anti-Netanyahu camp is rife with clashing egos. We could see their competing desire to be prime minister allow Netanyahu to manipulate them again, even though it is hard to envision any of his rivals agreeing to a rotation arrangement in which Netanyahu goes first — not after watching him evade his deal with Gantz.
Netanyahu is fighting with his usual remarkable tenacity, blitzing Hebrew media with interviews in which he simultaneously exploits and belittles his interviewers — lately by singing and sniping when faced with difficult questions — and mingling COVID messaging with naked electioneering. And there is nobody to compare with Netanyahu and Likud when it comes to actually getting out the vote on election day.
But all that might not be enough — if his rivals do the math and conquer their egos. If they can’t agree on a consensus candidate to build a coalition without Netanyahu, however, then presumably the need to replace him is not the “imperative of the hour” after all.
** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
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