Israel braced for another divisive Groundhog Day election
By midnight last Wednesday, the almost inevitable happened and the Knesset dissolved itself to hold an election at the beginning of March. The last drop of pragmatism has been squeezed out of Israeli politics, and its politicians will face the electorate for the third time in less than a year, albeit reluctantly.
But there is no guarantee that the outcome at the third time of asking will produce results more conducive to the formation of a government. Cynics are already proposing that Israel prepare for the fourth and fifth round as well … just in case. However, every failed attempt to form a government is deepening both the mistrust between politicians and the public’s lack of faith in the political system.
Since December 2018, Israel has been run by an interim government and a prime minister under investigation for corruption — until last month when he was formally indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu, for many years regarded as a magician who could always find the right formula for assembling a government, appears to have lost his political acumen, and has consequently become a diminishing asset, not only to his Likud Party but also for the entire Right in Israel.
The writing has been on the wall since his coalition collapsed a year ago, followed by his failure to form a government after elections in April and September. What Netanyahu and those who blindly follow him fail to accept is that at the height of his power his calculus, though already self-serving and opportunistic, was in the realm of politics; but after he became embroiled in corruption allegations his concerns tilted first toward saving his skin from indictment, and then from facing the courts and spending time in jail should he be convicted. Netanyahu’s coalition talks have turned into an exercise in manipulating potential partners into agreeing to legislate to grant him immunity from prosecution. His outrageous actions have united two camps — those who are principled and morally opposed to serving in a government led by someone facing such allegations, and those who have identified his weakness and are queuing up to oust him.
From the moment September’s election results were announced, efforts to form a government consisted more of hope than genuine belief. Assembling a coalition with majority support was always an unrealistic prospect. The right-wing bloc of 55 members remained short of the 61 required, and also proved to be rigid. No one yielded to the temptation to join a center-left coalition. Similarly, the center left, led by the and White party, stood firm, without a single desertion that might have resulted in a Netanyahu-led administration.
Israel will have no elected government until at least next spring, which means nearly a year and a half of a paralyzed administration unable to carry out major legislation, pass budgets or make appointments.
This tells part of the stalemate story. Nevertheless, the link that connects the collapse of the coalition a year ago with the subsequent failures to form a government after each of the 2019 elections is Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party. His resignation as defense minister and departure from the coalition triggered the April election. His decision not to join a right-wing coalition, where his politics has for a very long time been played out, and his failed attempt to construct a majority grouping that would include the two major parties, Likud and Blue and White, left only a slim chance of forming a government. Lieberman’s aim to marginalize the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Arab Joint List by forming a more narrowly based coalition then restricted the available options to almost nil.
A third election is a colossal act of irresponsibility. It has come at a cost of billions to Israel’s economy, and another price that is even heftier; Israel will have no elected government until at least next spring, which means nearly a year and a half of a paralyzed administration unable to carry out major legislation, pass budgets or make appointments. At the same time, an interim government could well entangle the country in military operations with major implications for its security, and without the legislative branch’s oversight. All in all this is an unhealthy situation at best, and at worst an extremely dangerous one.
If the previous two election campaigns were nasty affairs, featuring a prime minister with no compunction about insulting and inciting against his political rivals, Israel’s Arab minority, the media, and civil society, one can only expect the forthcoming campaign to be much worse. The only events likely to prevent this are Netanyahu losing in Likud’s leadership primaries to his long-time nemesis Gideon Sa’ar, or if he decides to negotiate a plea bargain and at last vacates the political scene.
In the meantime the usual blame game has erupted over who are the main pantomime villains in the failure to form a government, and if one is to believe the accusations flying in all directions, few are left spotless. However, judging by recent polls it is Blue and White that is being rewarded by the public, both for adhering to its principles and for Yair Lapid’s decision to release Benny Gantz from their agreement to rotate the position of prime minister, as the latter is perceived as the more “responsible adult” in this partnership.
We must now brace ourselves for another divisive election season. However, it is for the voters to reject this style of politics, and most importantly to learn from the consequences of their voting pattern. What might end the current impasse is if the electorate decides to take a less sectarian approach to voting, and in this way punish those who sow division and hatred.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. Twitter: @YMekelberg