The likeliest outcome of this week’s election in Israel is that there will be no outcome. It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that it is insane to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result. I am excited to be a new voter; by the next election – oh, perhaps after Succot – I will already be a veteran voter.
That being said, there are certain points worthy of mention. The campaign has been devoid of issues except for one: “for Bibi” or “against Bibi.” It is as shallow as it sounds. The working assumption is that the Likud will again be the largest party. PM Netanyahu’s base is solid and its support for him is personal. It deems the endless media attacks on him and his legal woes as venomous fabrications. It is a populist support that should sound familiar to any American.
Netanyahu’s run has been remarkable. On May 9, 2021, he will have served as prime minister consecutively longer than FDR served as the American president. But in a parliamentary democracy, that is astonishing and almost without parallel in the world. Angela Merkel has served as Germany’s Chancellor since 2005 but they hold elections every four years, like clockwork (it is Germany, after all) and the choice is binary. Italy, a fractious democracy like Israel, has had seven prime ministers in the twelve plus years that Netanyahu has been prime minister of Israel. He has “won” seven straight elections.
That is not just a testament to his political skills, which alone could educate less gifted politicians. Timing the election so that Israel both acquired the Corona vaccines and distributed them flawlessly – an election on the cusp of a return to normalcy, springtime is here, Pesach days away – is exquisite, a case study in political management. And he projects an aura of leadership both because of his personal qualities and his longevity. Israeli teenagers have known no other prime minister. That is astounding.
Timing, in life, also requires knowing when to step aside, and the longer Netanyahu has served the more vehement and angry his detractors have become. What infuriates them is that Netanyahu’s tenure has been marked by notable successes – a booming economy, a dramatic decline in terror, peace agreements with four Arab states, pressure on Iran, the relative absence of war, increasing integration of Haredim in the army and the work force, low unemployment (pre-pandemic) and others. What should infuriate others are the missed opportunities and the political zigzags that are products mostly of opportunism and unscrupulousness. Netanyahu has never failed to reach out to left-wing rivals who had condemned him during the campaigns to avoid forming a right-wing government. He has usually perceived his right-wing ideological allies (especially the Religious Zionists in whatever political form) as expendable, and only useful if his sole alternative is political oblivion. Those non-right wing saviors have included Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and others. His only stable alliances on the right have been the religious right – the Haredi parties whose interests are parochial and frequently mercenary.
And the missed opportunities are legion. Hamas and Hezbollah are not vanquished but are stronger. They have recovered from all the skirmishes and their threats loom on the northern and southern borders. What else? Extending Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria in whole or in part, and even applying civil rather than military administration to Israeli residents there; reining in the excesses of the Supreme Court by limiting their jurisdiction (now infinite) and their authority to review and reject Knesset legislation (at least until such time as Marbury and Madison make aliya); preserving Jewish identity in matters of conversion, marriage, divorce, aliya, the Kotel, etc., instead of just kicking these cans down the road; giving secular American Jews veto power over Israeli initiatives, not recognizing that their own houses are in disarray and, as such, it would be disastrous to import their ideology and ideas to Israel; allowing housing prices to so escalate as to price the average Israeli out of the housing market. And there are others as well, engendering the conclusion that Netanyahu has often talked more boldly than he has acted and his default position has often been passivity, letting problems fester rather than taking a position and risk angering some group or another.
His coalition choices have shown him to be so malleable that, given his outreach to Arab Israelis in this election in order to offset his loss of some right wing votes to Gideon Saar’s party, it is within the realm of reason that to reach the threshold of 61 mandates to form a government, he will reach out to the “moderate” Ra’am Arab party if they enter the Knesset. That would be a first, earth-shaking, but quite possible. Of course, it bears recollection that just in the recent past Netanyahu supported the expulsion from Gaza and then opposed it, supported the two-state illusion and then opposed it, so where he winds up in any term on any particular issue is somewhat speculative.
There are other nuances that characterize this election. Each election finds some new parties competing, and this election’s flavor of the month is Gideon Saar’s “New Hope” party. It is as if “hope” alone is insufficient, but his electoral prospects are already diminishing. The leftist parties are in danger of disappearing, simply because their ideology speaks to fewer and fewer Israelis and their proposed concessions for “peace” even fewer. Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” (“There is a Future”) party has endured more than a decade because, among other reasons, he presents the most compelling party name: “There is a Future.” That logic is irrefutable. Avigdor Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beteinu” has morphed from an anti-Arab party to an anti-Haredi party. Give him credit for honesty: he makes no effort to conceal his hatreds. But it is jarring to see his advertisements which our negative without even a glimmer of positivity or platform: “a government without Haredim.” That is disgraceful.
The oddity of the Haredi parties is their seemingly fixed share of the electorate even as their percentage of the population escalates, to the chagrin of Lieberman. From four seats in 1977 (Agudat Yisrael), to seven in 2013 (as UTJ) to seven today with projections either seven or six seats in this election, they don’t seem to mobilize their base and certainly not attract any support beyond their base. Granted, I personally witnessed last week amusing signs in Meah Shearim prohibiting any Jew from voting in their “impure Zionist elections” but I don’t that influences more than a relative handful of people. Nor do their voters respond reflexively to the mandates of their rabbanim, the mythology of the seculars notwithstanding. Where are those voters?
An analogous but somewhat more comprehensible enigma is the struggle of the Religious Zionist parties in increasing their share of the vote – even crossing the electoral threshold. As noted here, the religious Zionists are victims of their own success in integrating themselves and their values into the Israeli mainstream, even if they frequently tend to moderate or suppress those values on occasion. There are religious Zionists in a half dozen political parties and the RZ voter is not easily pigeon-holed. The most cherished values of Religious Zionism are not necessarily shared by every religious Zionist. People content themselves with being generally supportive, 80%, but that missing 20% can make the difference between having a truly Jewish state or just a gathering place of Jews.
Thus, the capable Naftali Bennett, who has always drawn Netanyahu’s ire, is attempting again to reach out to the general voters while retaining his RZ base, a neat trick if he can pull it off. The danger has always been that he then presents his party as “Likud B,” which lures potential voters back into the camp of “Likud A.” The only truly RZ party defiantly calls itself for this election “the Religious Zionist Party,” so there should not be any doubt about it. And even that party, led by the talented Betzalel Smotrich, has its RZ critics because it linked up with even further right wing parties so those votes should not go to waste, an entirely plausible proposition that seems to trouble those who seek ideological purity.
That too remains the outstanding feature of this election, so humdrum because of its redundancy that it has attracted little international interest. Every party except for Naftali Bennett’s Yamina has underscored with whom it will not sit, leading to a macabre game of musical chairs in which, when the music stops, not enough people are sitting and so there is no government. If only more parties and people here would adopt Ronald Reagan’s aphorism: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally – not a 20 percent traitor.”
The formation of a government will rest on a very narrow margin – a seat or two or three – but there is no reason to assume that there will not be another election in the fall, as long as PM Netanyahu heads the Likud ticket. If Moshe himself found his people ungovernable, what are we to say? At least let us find the common ground that unites us and build on that.