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Israel’s Elections Are All About the Small Stuff

A few likely scenarios for Monday’s ballot in the Jewish state

Liel Leibovitz
February 28, 2020
Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images

American elections are decided bigly. They turn on large, oily axes like dramatic conventions or major speeches or sudden surges of momentum. They’re semitrucks, and they command us to slow down and watch them drive by endlessly; big behemoths carrying our hopes and frustrations from state to state. In Israel, we do things differently. For example, it would’ve taken just 1,500 more votes for the New Right party to make it into the Knesset in April, which might have spared the country two more election campaigns and a year of anguish and expense. One member of Knesset striking a deal can tip the balance between deadlock and decision. One small tremor can make all the difference.

This makes predicting the outcome of Monday’s election an exercise in futility. Here is what we know now: After months of winning hearts and minds by saying little and doing less, the allure of Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is rapidly wearing off. This is due in part to acting State Attorney Dan Eldad, who announced earlier this week that the state will launch a criminal investigation into alleged improprieties by Fifth Dimension, a cybersecurity company formerly headed by Gantz. The bumbling enterprise, and its failure to launch, were long seen by Israeli voters as the blackest mark on Gantz’s reputation, with some wondering how a man who couldn’t even run a small startup might hope to successfully steer the ship of state.

Faced with these grumblings, Gantz played the folksy card, saying, “I’m not some tycoon and I don’t consider myself a businessman”—a line of defense some Israelis accepted as proof that whatever else Gantz was, at least he was not as entangled as his chief rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in suspicions and accusations of wrongdoing. The newly minted criminal investigation, however, robs the former IDF chief of staff of that valuable currency, and Israeli voters will go to the polls on Monday knowing that both leading candidates for prime minister will soon have to face justice for their alleged misdeeds.

Gantz’s troubles, however, don’t end there. Last week, the candidate turned down Netanyahu’s invitation to a televised debate, a rare offer the prime minister has not extended in a decade. Israelis immediately interpreted Gantz’s refusal as a sign of weakness, and more and more pundits argued that Gantz was nothing more than a political puppet, a figurehead propped up by Netanyahu’s rivals who would be lost if, God forbid, he ever won the election. The storyline stuck: This week, Netanyahu’s Likud reversed a long-standing trend and inched ahead of Gantz’s Blue and White party, taking a one-seat lead with 33 Knesset members versus Blue and White’s 32.

That, of course, could change overnight, and even if it didn’t, Netanyahu still wouldn’t have anything resembling a comfortable lead. As Israelis slouch toward the voting booth for the third time in a year, four likely scenarios emerge:

The first, and most maddening, is more of the same: The two large voting blocs—the right and the center-left—again locking horns. President Reuven Rivlin again tasking this candidate and then that with forming a government. Again months of feverish negotiations. Again no sign of compromise. Again an election, No. 4, making no one happy or confident.

It’s safe to assume that all involved will do their best to avoid this outcome like the plague. For one thing, Israelis know that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, and they’re getting less and less patient with a political class that is unable to paper over the narcissism of small differences. For another, Netanyahu’s corruption trial looms large, beginning in Jerusalem next month. The prime minister and his supporters are certain that he will prevail, exposing, along the way, the wicked machinations of a power-hungry judicial cabal. The prime minister’s detractors, on their end, know that Netanyahu has beaten scores of accusations in the past, and are in no rush to see his case adjudicated, realizing that holding the prime minister guilty until proven innocent has been an effective strategy these past two electoral rounds. On left and right, then, no one stands to benefit from another election later this year.

Which brings us to scenario No. 2: This one depends squarely on how many seats Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu can win this time around. In the previous election in September, Lieberman won eight seats—a vast improvement over the five seats he eked out last April in round one. His party’s ascent was largely thanks to an aggressive campaign that focused on attacking Israel’s Haredi community, a popular stance with some secular Israelis who resent the ultra-Orthodox for not serving in the army. But viciously negative campaigns have a notoriously short shelf life, and according to recent polls, Lieberman’s party is slipping again and is projected to win a mere six seats.

Lieberman has been, and remains, the missing piece without which neither candidate can cross the 60-seat threshold and gain a majority in the 120-seat parliament. Having stormed out of Netanyahu’s coalitions numerous times in the past only to return sheepishly when conditions struck him as favorable, a weakened Lieberman can again decide that he has nothing to gain from taking the high road and team up with his old boss and political patron, Bibi. This is especially likely if the latter continues to rack up support, opening a three- or four-seat advantage over Blue and White and making Lieberman an offer he can’t refuse.

Lieberman, however, isn’t the only kingmaker in town. Enter scenario No. 3: Ayman Odeh, who leads the Israeli-Arab Joint List and is expected to remain the leader of the nation’s third-largest party, bringing in as many as 14 seats. A weakened and desperate Benny Gantz may decide to swim against the current of Israeli political common sense and seek the Arab party’s support, much like the late Yitzhak Rabin did in order to sustain his embattled cabinet and proceed with the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. Such a step will come at a steep political price, with the majority of Jewish Israelis likely to decry a coalition reliant on a party that’s still a haven for supporters of anti-Jewish terrorism.

There is one final, and increasingly plausible, scenario: An emboldened Netanyahu, once again heading Israel’s largest party and only a handful of seats shy of a simple majority, may yet shake things up with a simple and powerful announcement: “I am 70 years old,” a Bibi flush with 34 or 35 or 36 seats may say, “and I’ve now served as prime minister longer than anyone else in this nation’s history. A decade in power is enough. My achievements are many and speak for themselves. Let me preside over one more government, and I promise—in a year, or two, or three—to step down and retire.” A statement like that has reportedly been entertained by Likud’s highest echelons. If boosted by favorable electoral conditions, it could very well cause a small cadre of ambitious politicians to defect from Blue and White, or even the new left wing Frankenparty, Labor-Gesher-Meretz, and join Bibi in exchange for a ministerial position and a few years of power and influence.

The history of Israeli politics in the previous two decades is largely the history of precisely such seismic tremors, with hopefuls—remember Tzipi Livni? Ehud Olmert?—breaking off and regrouping, forming new parties and wrecking old ones. It’s a folly to think that Blue and White, a lumpish assortment of individuals who have very little in common save for their disdain for Netanyahu, will fare any better.

Whatever happens on Monday, here’s one incontrovertible fact you should hold on to if you’re looking for reasons to feel cheerful about the future: Last April, 67% of Israelis exercised their right to vote. Five months later, weighed down by disappointment at their political system’s failure to produce a clear-cut result, the number was even higher, with 69.4% of all eligible voters showing up at the ballot. The numbers are expected to stay high this time around as well, which means that Israelis, while sober about their predicament, are refusing to abandon their commitment to the democratic process. This is a major sign of strength that shouldn’t be overlooked, and an indication that eventually, Start Up Nation will engineer its way out of this sorry mess.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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