On April 9, the slogan “Bibi, King of Israel” seemed right on the mark. That’s when Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the far-right parties won a clear majority of Knesset seats (65 out of 120) and Netanyahu declared “a great victory.” Yet here we are once more, headed into new fall elections. What happened, in retrospect, is easy to describe, but would have been extremely hard to predict.
Divisions on the right proved more problematic than previously thought. Not on settlement expansion, West Bank annexation and/or eroding Israel’s democratic institutions. On these matters the right-wing parties could make peace – with one another! Instead, the bone of contention was the secular/religious divide, most particularly on exemptions to compulsory military service for yeshiva students. During the tricky coalition-building process, Avigdor Lieberman and his five-seat Yisrael Beiteinu Party stuck to their secular guns. They threatened to torpedo a coalition unless Netanyahu forced the ultra-orthodox parties – who won 16 seats – to agree to more ultra-orthodox men in the military.
Netanyahu was unable to do so and Lieberman delivered on his threat, leaving Bibi one seat short of a parliamentary majority. No one should misinterpret this manoeuvre as meaning Lieberman is the least bit liberal. He is hawkish as they come, with little time for civil niceties. His demand that Arab Israeli citizens be forced to sign a loyalty oath is but one measure of the man.
The right-wing in-fighting led the Knesset to dissolve itself and set in motion new elections – an unprecedented situation. No less an authority on proper governmental behaviour than Donald Trump declared that Israel is “all messed up!”
The new round
So what next? It would be comforting to think/hope that, since Netanyahu and company’s intentions have become more transparent regarding settlement expansion, partial West Bank annexation and eroding the powers of Israel’s judiciary, voters might give more support to Israeli centre and left parties in the upcoming September election. Could this second round actually backfire on Bibi? A nice thought, but, unfortunately, a very speculative one.
The Israeli public has drifted right. Here’s how Yossi Alpher, a prominent dovish Israeli security analyst, recently put it: “The point is – for anyone who did not grasp this until now – that this fiasco demonstrated that most of the Israeli public is either right wing, ultra-nationalist right wing, or Haredi right wing. Even Blue-White, the only sizable opposition, is primarily right of centre.”
The reasons for this evolution in Israeli political views are complex. Suffice to say that they are highly unlikely to change much in the near future.
Does this mean the results of the upcoming elections will be almost identical to those of a few months ago? Will there be continued deadlock? Let’s look at Israeli public opinion polls since the Knesset voted for new elections. A composite of these polls shows that Lieberman’s strength has increased, and he seems headed to gain two or three additional Knesset seats. This does not bode well for Bibi. But the polls also indicate that support for right-wing parties overall is growing somewhat. In all likelihood, the right, including Lieberman, will easily win more than 65 Knesset seats. Netanyahu might even attain his precious 61 seats without Lieberman. If so, all is well for Bibi. Oy vey! But if he still needs Lieberman’s support, does the electoral impasse continue?
I don’t think so. Let’s say Netanyahu and company – minus Lieberman – achieve 59 or 60 seats. The Israeli president will then be mandated to see which political leader can form a “viable” government. (This would have happened after the failure of the last round of coalition building, but the Knesset short-circuited the process by voting to dissolve itself.) Note that I did not say “majority government.” The key word is “viable” – a government that could effectively pass legislation in the Knesset. Only Netanyahu is likely to meet this test. He might not win every vote – say, for instance, on ultra-orthodox military service – but, in general, he would have the votes to carry the day. Unless/until the courts dictate otherwise, he would continue on his merry ways.
Not a happy story. Progressives in Israel have enormous obstacles to overcome and, of course, not all of them are of Israel’s own making. It’s time for the Israeli left to meet these obstacles head on as best they can and not hope against hope that matters will eventually improve on their own with more or less the same effort and behaviours. The battle for Zionism’s soul has begun and we are losing. Time is not on our side.
*Simon Rosenblum is a frequent commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was a founding member of CFPN and a former national chair. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect CFPN positions.