Fragmented party lists spell trouble for Israel’s divisive PM
Earlier this month, the first phase of Israel’s election process was concluded when the parties submitted their lists. Still, one is none the wiser as to what kind of government, if any, might emerge after the votes have been cast on Sept. 17. Moreover, it could be due to the heat of the summer with everyone busy holidaying, or it could be down to a sense of deja vu and apathy so soon after the April elections, but so far the public has shown scant interest in what the parties have to say — and who can blame them? Their politicians have been busy posturing and berating each other, while failing to convince anyone that they are suited to leading the country.
The failure to form a coalition following the elections earlier this year threw the political system into turmoil, highlighting that the absurd number of parties in the mix divides the vote enormously — and with an entry threshold of 3.25 percent, many of those votes went to waste. For the two major parties, Blue and White kept its list as it was and Likud made some minor changes, while their satellite parties on the right and left were busy forming new alliances to avoid spreading their vote too thin. For instance, the New Right party failed to cross the threshold by a few hundred votes and, together with Zehut, missed out on six seats, which could have helped prevent the up-and-coming rerun.
In the forthcoming elections, a more united ultranationalist-religious alliance will run on one platform. Similarly, on the left, much beehive-like activity saw the return of Ehud Barak to frontline politics and led to some major reshuffling, mainly between Labor and Meretz, which might increase their electoral support. Nevertheless, and crucially, it seems that voters don’t move between blocs but within them — which will only result in a similar stalemate after September’s ballot.
One of the first signs of the direction the elections are taking is that the discourse is becoming even more hawkish, nationalistic, populist and bigoted than previously. If there is any difference between the two big parties on relations with the Palestinians or Iran, for instance, it is paper-thin.
In his efforts to attract voters from Likud and its allies, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has vowed that if he were to become the next prime minister and another round of fighting took place, he would “pound Gaza,” send in ground troops and eliminate the entire Hamas leadership. But to conduct an all-out attack on Gaza, home to 2 million people, most of them refugees living in scandalous conditions, would mean not only combating its militants, but also disregarding the lives of innocent citizens who are bound to be killed and injured in such a small place with one of the world’s highest population densities.
For the sake of luring voters, Gantz and the other leading figures of his party, including two former military chiefs of staff, instead of presenting a political alternative are basically threatening to obliterate Gaza. Cynically they are pandering to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters with threatening language toward the Palestinians and a policy that will destroy any hope of a new era of peace.
Lieberman’s last-minute decision to torpedo the formation of a government in May must be regarded as a stroke of canny political ingenuity.
Despite my misgivings regarding Avigdor Lieberman, and I have more of these than I can count, his antics have stolen the spotlight in this election campaign. He has single-mindedly hijacked the political agenda, determined to bring down the curtain on Netanyahu’s premiership and bring about the end of an era. He is doing it with glee in his eyes, knowing that this might also end with Netanyahu facing trial on corruption charges and perhaps spending years behind bars. If the performance of his Israel Beitenu party at the ballot box turns out to be even close to what opinion polls are suggesting, it will return to the Knesset with 10 seats, twice as many as it currently has, turning it into a pivotal force that will dictate the identity of the next prime minister and the composition of his coalition.
The newly reinvented Lieberman is playing two cards which appeal to voters. First is the unity card, insisting that any coalition must be among Israel Beitenu, Likud, and Blue and White. Second, he would like to exclude the ultra-orthodox parties from such a coalition, which is music to the ears of many secular and more moderate religious Jews in Israel. Without his party’s participation, there will be neither a right nor a centrist coalition.
To achieve this goal Lieberman is tempting Likud MKs to rid themselves of their current leader, enticing them with the prospect of a stable coalition with Blue and White, of saving themselves the constant financial and legislative blackmail of the ultra-Orthodox parties, and of ending the Netanyahu era and starting afresh. If this scenario should come to pass, then as cynical as it was, Lieberman’s last-minute decision to torpedo the formation of a government in May must be regarded as a stroke of canny political ingenuity. It is only a shame that it will result in one of Israel’s most dangerous and bigoted politicians being elevated to an extremely powerful position.
Lieberman’s plan may or may not work out, but it has clearly put Netanyahu under intense pressure, and led his henchmen to produce a North Korean-style petition, in which the party’s candidates for the Knesset pledged that “regardless of the election results, Prime Minister and Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is the only Likud candidate for prime minister — and there will be no other candidate.” It reminds me of the dreaded vote of confidence given to football managers after a run of poor results: Everyone knows these things aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
Yet, there is a genuine chance — the first in a long time — to bring an end to Netanyahu’s premiership, and with it a long and slow recovery from his divisive, corrupt and warmongering time in office.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg