COMMENT

To Bibi or not to Bibi

Roy Isacowitz writes on the 2019 Israeli election - reloaded

Israelis are due to go to the polls in just under five weeks for the second time this year. When prime minister nominee Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a government after the previous election (last April) he took the dubious expedient of calling new elections, rather than handing his mandate back to the president. Doing so was not illegal – in Israel a duly constituted parliament can vote for elections – but it certainly defied tradition and precedent. When Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government in September 2009, she returned the mandate to the president, who then tapped Netanyahu for the job. He, of course, was not keen to return the favor earlier this year.

It is unlikely that Elections 2 will turn out any better for the contestants than the previous one did, despite the desperate bloc-building and arm-twisting that have characterized its runup. The country is virtually split down the middle between two competing ideas about its nature and place in the world – a conservative, hawkish, anti-Palestinian and largely religious weltanschauung versus a more nebulous inclination toward democracy, secularism, liberal values and diplomatic compromise. The former bloc has a numerical edge over the latter, but not enough to prevail against the jokers that often leap out of the pack.

The current jokers are the same ones that stymied Netanyahu’s previous effort at coalition building and are capable of doing likewise next month – Netanyahu himself and Avigdor Lieberman, a veteran immigrant from Moldova with a taste for riches and high office and a penchant for being the enfant terrible. It was Lieberman’s refusal to join the mooted coalition without holding the bloodied scalps of the ultra-Orthodox parties in his hands that scuttled the previous negotiations.

Netanyahu recently became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. In office since March 2009, he has presided over the interment of international peace efforts, a massive growth in West Bank settlement, the trivialization of high-level corruption and the gradual inoculation of the population against humaneness, morality and compassion as generally understood in the West. With at least three corruption indictments pending against him, Netanyahu is generally believed to regard the next government as being his only escape route from prosecution – by enacting legislation forbidding the prosecution of a sitting prime minister and giving the Knesset the power to overrule court rulings (should the High Court annul the aforementioned legislation.) For him, therefore, winning a plurality in the elections and forming the next government is a lot more than merely holding onto power (something he has never been loath to do.) It is literally a case of power or prison.

Lieberman, who in the early stages of his career worked for Netanyahu, shares many of his previous boss’s attributes. A settler himself, he is no less hawkish, no less anti-Palestinian, no less authoritarian, no less power hungry and no less prone to the pleasurable excesses that can be had at the nexus of power and money. Where he differs from Netanyahu is in his antipathy to the ultra-Orthodox, his Moldovan belligerence and petulance and his flair for showmanship, which makes him a sucker for the grand gesture. Netanyahu has always been prepared to give the religious parties whatever they want as the price of staying in power, but Lieberman is hostile to them and determined to dislodge them from government. Doing so involves forming a coalition with parties outside the conservative-hawk bloc, which Netanyahu is (or feels) unable to do, given the influence of his “natural” partners to the extreme right of his Likud Party.

Netanyahu, therefore, is hoping that the elections will strengthen the conservative-hawk-religious bloc sufficiently (a mere three or four seats is all it will take) for him to establish the coalition that eluded him earlier this year. Lieberman, whose five-seat party is expected to be strengthened following his antics earlier this year, is planning to be the kingmaker, conjuring up a so-called national unity government out of the Likud, the Blue & White Party, the largest grouping in the liberal-dove bloc, and of course his own Yisrael Beiteinu faction. If it works, he’s eyeing one of the top three jobs – defense, foreign affairs or finance.

But will it work? That, of course, depends on the Israeli electorate, a Janus-like creature that can’t quite decide whether it wants to be biblical or modern and which has been anesthetized by decades of conflict, brainwashing, Bibi and a strong economy into a state of blissful somnolence. Not all Israelis are sleepwalkers, of course. Many, particularly on the religious-settler right and among the ultra-Orthodox, are highly politicized and partisans of the parties that have traditionally upheld their points of view. In the past that was also true of Israel’s Palestinian population, though decades of affronts and frustration have resulted in a widespread environment of lethargy and ennui. Their voting rate is significantly down.

It’s all the rest, the silent majority, who are the sleepwalkers. Some of them incline toward Netanyahu and the conservative-hawks, while others incline to the liberal-doves – but very few of them are overly concerned with the “big issues.” The shekel is strong, the standard of living is high, jobs are abundant, particularly in high-tech, there are no obvious wars around the corner (bombing Gaza is now routine) and cheap flights (and a strong shekel) enable them to travel regularly and shop compulsively. What’s not to like? On the face of it, the bulk of the country’s population is doing just fine.

It’s a fair assumption that issues of life and death – the occupation, potential war, Gaza, the plight of the Palestinians, BDS – will not be a significant factor in the election. The Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are largely out of sight and therefore out of mind. After more than 50 years, the occupation has settled comfortably into the Israeli subconscious without leaving a trace. Tel Aviv revels in his reputation as party city to the world, untroubled by the apartheid-like regime maintained by Israel just 20 kilometers from the city which never sleeps. Those Israelis who care about such things will support Blue & White or the parties to its left, but they will be far from a swing vote. The lefties in Israel are a known quantity and they don’t win elections.

With the economy doing well (a leg-up for Netanyahu) and the occupation-conflict of little interest to the bulk of the electorate, the election is likely to hinge on three issues: Whether the semi-consolidation on the right leads to a less fragmented vote than was the case last time; whether Lieberman’s stand against the ultra-Orthodox after the previous election will win him sufficient support to continue playing the role of king-maker; and whether Netanyahu has overstayed his welcome and alienated a sufficient number of voters though his machinations to stay in power.

There are signs of Netanyahu overdose among members of the public, but it’s hard to see those who want to be weened off him moving decisively to the liberal-hawk bloc. More likely is that they will vote for parties to the right of the Likud, thus boosting the overall conservative-hawk-religious bloc (which Netanyahu leads.) If the bloc is further strengthened by the recent consolidation of several (but not all) of the extreme right parties, the bloc could well win an overall majority and establish a government without Lieberman or the liberal-dove bloc.

Less likely is that the anti-Netanyahu vote will move strongly to Lieberman and the moderate Blue & White Party, thus depriving the religious-conservative-hawk bloc of its majority. The obvious scenario then is a Likud-Blue & White unity government, with or without Lieberman at its fulcrum. The problem is that Lieberman has already said he will not sit in a government with indictment-pending Netanyahu and it’s possible that quite a few members of Blue & White will feel likewise. Were that veto to eventuate, Lieberman (a born shit-stirrer) and the leaders of Blue & White will probably attempt to persuade their Likud counterparts that they – and the country – will be a lot better off without Netanyahu.

To prevent such an outcome, Netanyahu has demanded that all candidates on his party’s Knesset list sign an undertaking that they will not support anyone else for the leadership of the party and the bloc. Of course, they may well sign and then change their minds when the cards are down. Such things have been known to happen in Israeli politics.

There is no way that the liberal-hawk block will be able to form a government without Lieberman and/or the religious parties. To do so, even in the most favorable circumstances, they will need to make a pact with the three Arab parties, which are now running as their own little bloc. Israel has never had a coalition government reliant on the Arab parties.

As things stand then, the smart money is on Netanyahu forming the coalition that eluded him earlier this year. But there are still five weeks to go and five weeks is a long time in Israeli politics – particularly during summer, which is traditionally the time of year that Israel likes to stage its wars. Things could still get very interesting.