Promise-breaking politicians may actually be good news for ending stalemate

Promise-breaking politicians may actually be good news for ending stalemate

Party leaders’ refusal to renege on vows over past year has helped keep Israel in deadlock, but recent walk-backs and compromises suggest potential breakthroughs on the horizon

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israelis have been witness to a strange phenomenon over the past year: Politicians, for the most part, have kept their word.

What would have been an honorable proposition in any other scenario has emerged as a problem in Israel’s political arena, where it has produced a year-long deadlock of historic proportions, as lawmakers have refused to break campaign trail promises in the name of coalition-building and compromise.

But if the frantic 11th hour negotiations ahead of this week’s party-filing deadline demonstrated anything, it is that this uncanny principled period appears to be at an end.

This message was perfectly captured by Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz, who on Wednesday night tweeted “My word is my bond” to demonstrate his resolve on honoring his merger agreement with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, despite mounting pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing officials.

Well, three minutes of resolve, at any rate, after which point he deleted the tweet.

Two hours later, Peretz’s name was already listed in the number two spot on the Yamina alliance submitted to the Central Elections Committee, which included his party, but not Otzma Yehudit.

The about-face from Peretz can certainly be cause for cynicism, and the reasoning behind it could be chalked up purely to a desire for political survival; but with virtually every poll predicting that the upcoming March 2 vote will leave Israel in the same political deadlock that has plagued the country for over a year, such double crosses — as ugly and embarrassing as they may be — will likely be crucial in forming the next government and preventing a fourth straight election.

Education Minister Rafi Peretz at a faction meeting of his Jewish Home party in the Knesset on November 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Read my lips

Peretz was not the first politician to utilize the phrase “My word is my bond.” The saying has long been the party slogan of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.

Liberman was mocked for it after failing to assassinate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours after becoming defense minister in 2016 — something he had famously promised to do. But since last April’s election, many lawmakers, and particularly Netanyahu, have come to once again believe the secular, right-wing leader means what he says.

In April, Liberman promised he would not join any government that didn’t pass an ultra-Orthodox conscription law that was an identical version to the one advanced by the previous Knesset. Netanyahu sought to tinker with the legislation in order to reach a compromise with the ultra-Orthodox factions, but Liberman stuck to his guns and refused to budge in a move that forced a second consecutive election.

Before and after the September vote, he made clear that the only coalition he would be interested in joining was a liberal, secular unity government with Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. Liberman has said that both parties offered him the most senior of positions in an effort to entice him to join a coalition without the other, but he refused every offer, forcing Netanyahu and Gantz to look elsewhere for coalition partners.

Then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman leads a Yisrael Beytenu party faction meeting at the Knesset on June 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For Likud, that meant placing its sights on the more left-wing Labor Party to reach a 61-seat majority in the Knesset.

After the April election, Netanyahu offered then-Labor head Avi Gabbay the senior defense and treasury posts. Gabbay briefly considered the 11th hour offer, which he had vowed throughout the campaign to never entertain. However, colleagues got word of the back-door talks, and Gabbay was forced to walk away, leaving Netanyahu without a government.

Gabbay was subsequently ousted and replaced with Amir Peretz, who similarly vowed not to join any government with Likud ahead of the September election. But this did not stop the premier from promising the new Labor chairman that he’d get him elected president at the expiration of Reuven Rivlin’s term in 2021, a party official confirmed.

In fact, many believed Peretz would be persuaded into joining a Netanyahu government during the campaign, leading him to shave his trademark mustache on prime-time TV last August “so the public can read my lips when I say: I will not sit with Netanyahu.” He stood by the dramatic declaration after the September vote and Netanyahu was denied another chance at forming a government.

Gantz too has kept his word through two elections, vowing not to serve under the Likud leader while he faces criminal indictment. While he held negotiations with Netanyahu after the April and September votes, Gantz ultimately decided against walking back the promise.

Instead, the Blue and White chairman sought to break up the bloc of religious, right-wing parties formed by Netanyahu in September. But the 55-member alliance stuck together as agreed upon, with each faction swatting away tempting offers from Gantz’s party that are believed to have included immediate Jordan Valley annexation and engraving the status quo on issues of religion and state.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz speaks at the Eli Horowitz Conference for Economy and Society, held by the Israel Institute of Democracy, in Jerusalem, on December 17, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

That was then. This is now

But as the third election nears, the purist approach appears to have lost its shine among many of the parties across the political spectrum.

On the left, Peretz and his partner Gesher chairwoman Orly Levy-Abekasis asserted before and after the September election that their socioeconomic-minded party was designed to cater to both flanks and that merging with the more left-wing Meretz would risk alienating those from the opposite political camp.

Levy-Abekasis, who started her political career in the hard-right Yisrael Beytenu party, had repeatedly scoffed that there was an “abyss” between Gesher and Meretz on diplomatic and security issues.

But with the lackluster results from the September race (six seats for Labor and five for the Meretz-led Democratic Camp) on his mind as the party-filing deadline approached this week, the still mustache-less Peretz ate his words about the importance of running a more centrist slate and agreed to merge with Nitzan Horowitz’s left-wing Meretz party.

Labor leader Amir Peretz is interviewed on Channel 12 on August 25, 2019. The text reads: ‘Why did Amir Peretz shave off his mustache?’ (Screen capture/Channel 12)

On the other side of the spectrum, New Right chairman Naftali Bennett had been convinced over the past month that the best course for his party and for the broader right-wing was for New Right to run independently in the March race.

He announced the decision a month ago and stood by it in the weeks that followed, asserting that the national religious camp is large enough to support two parties — one that is slightly more moderate on social issues and campaigns on the notion of religious-secular partnership as New Right has done, and another made up of Peretz’s Jewish Home, Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union and potentially Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit, which would be more expressly religious and more hardline on social issues.

But just a day after re-asserting the position, Bennett on Tuesday decided to bring Smotrich’s faction into the New Right fold, laying the groundwork for Jewish Home to join a day later.

The defense minister drew the line with adding Ben Gvir, however, saying he could not sit in the same party as a man who hangs the picture of mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein in his living room — a principled position that was largely overshadowed, however, by Peretz’s last-minute capitulation to Netanyahu in breaking the pact he had formed with Otzma Yehudit last month.

Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to reporters at the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Aside from the Jewish Home leader’s infamous tweet, Peretz had met personally with Ben Gvir and promised that he would not renege on their agreement, according to Otzma Yehudit officials.

But following immense pressure from both the prime minister and his party’s spiritual advisers, who were convinced by Netanyahu’s assessment that the joint Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit slate would not cross the electoral threshold, Peretz agreed to desert Ben Gvir.

While each of these political decisions have the power to cause significant damage to the images of the lawmakers who made them, they were also made based on a recognition that at the end of the day, sometimes there are things more important than one’s word.

Because if there is any hope of breaking Israel’s enduring political deadlock, it will almost certainly require lawmakers to break a promise first.

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