Personal animus shouldn’t govern the Israeli election

We should always keep our eye on the big picture and remember the lesson from Chapter 5 of “Pirkei Avot”: Those who are slow to anger and quick to forgive are pious. 

Israelis cast their ballots at a voting station in Jerusalem during the general elections on April 9, 2019. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Israelis cast their ballots at a voting station in Jerusalem during the general elections on April 9, 2019. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Farley Weiss
Farley Weiss is chairman of the Israel Heritage Foundation (IHF) and former president of the National Council of Young Israel.

The fourth election in two years is occurring in Israel this month and the question is: Why? The electorate is not really divided on the main issues that used to divide it.

In fact, this round will likely result in the election of more than the 60 Knesset members needed to form a coalition who are either members or former members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, or who served at one time or another as his chief of staff, during or in between his two stints at the helm. And this isn’t even taking into consideration the haredi and national-religious party members who are likely to comprise another 20 seats.

The real reason for the current electoral disaster is the personal animus on the part of and towards Netanyahu. And when politics gets personal, instability results and everyone suffers.

In the first round of elections, held on April 9, 2019, Likud garnered 35 seats. When combined with supportive parties, Netanyahu could have formed a coalition of 65.  All of a sudden, however, his former defense and foreign minister, Yisrael Beiteinu Party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who had said that he would support Netanyahu, decided that he would not join a Likud-led government.

As a result of Lieberman’s unexpected decision, a Likud coalition was left with 60 seats, not the 61 required for it to form a government. That seat could easily have been obtained, had Netanyahu not let his personal animus towards right-wing rival Naftali Bennett—then head of the New Right Party and currently chairman of Yamina—cloud his party’s interests.

Due to Netanyahu’s efforts to keep Bennett out of the Knesset by vying for the same voters, New Right didn’t pass the electoral threshold. Indeed, his personal animus towards Bennett led to the waste of right-wing votes that could have guaranteed a stable Likud-led government. Instead, a second round of elections was called for and held on Sept. 17 of that year.

That election saw a massive loss of votes for Likud due to a low turnout of its supporters and simultaneous increase Arab-sector voter turnout. Thus, Likud and its allies only received 55 seats, while Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party and its allies received 44. The Arab bloc, with which Blue and White had said it would never form a coalition, won 13 seats.

Theoretically, again Likud should have been able to form a coalition of 63 seats with Yisrael Beiteinu, but Lieberman refused to join a Netanyahu-led Likud coalition, due to his animus towards the prime minister. Yet another instance of personal feelings forcing the country back to the polls.

In the March 2, 2020 election, Likud dramatically improved its performance, receiving 36 seats for itself and a total of 58 with its allies. Again, it could have formed a coalition of 65 if Lieberman hadn’t refused to serve with Netanyahu.

Eventually, a logjam was broken with Gantz agreeing to give up his commitment not to serve with Netanyahu, opting instead for a national-unity government. Most of Gantz’s party left in the process, and the current government is now ending for its failure to agree on a budget. Hence, the election scheduled for March 23.

Netanyahu is still prime minister and is likely to remain so after the election, with polls showing his party receiving around 30 seats. Bennet’s party, Yamina, is polling somewhere around 12 seats, indicating that he is almost certain to become a major minister in the next government.

Former Likud member Gideon Saar (who in the past held ministerial positions) exited the party recently to establish New Hope. Taking a number of fellow disgruntled Likud members with him, and recruiting members of other parties, he may garner around 12 seats. But he, too, has vowed not to serve in a Netanyahu-led government.

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, which is not as politically aligned with Likud, is likely to be the second-largest party, with some 20 seats. And he also refuses to serve in a Netanyahu-led government, even though he previously served as finance minister under Netanyahu.

Lieberman still says that he will not serve in a Netanyahu-led government, and polls show his party receiving around seven seats. The Religious Zionist party is polling at around five. The haredi parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism are expected to receive about seven seats each.

In a normal world of parties politically aligned with Likud, an easy coalition of well more than 60 seats could be achieved. But because Sa’ar and Lieberman refuse to serve in a Netanyahu-led government, it is possible that the upcoming election will result in paralysis yet again.

Jewish Israelis overwhelmingly favor Netanyahu’s policies, but personal animus is leading to the fourth round of elections in under two years. Netanyahu lost a stable, four-year government in April 2019 due to his animus towards Bennett. He learned his lesson and changed his ways, after seeing the self-inflicted damage that his animus wrought.

Lieberman went from being defense minister to foreign minister to the backbenches of the Knesset, with little power and influence, all because of his refusal to serve with Netanyahu. Sa’ar would naturally form a government with Likud and Yamina after the election, if not for his personal animus towards Netanyahu.  Sadly, this animus is shared by part of the Israeli electorate, members of which agree with many of Netanyahu’s policies, but prefer a government without him.

The personal animus towards Netanyahu needs to end. Like all of us, Netanyahu has his failings, but he also has done tremendous things for the Jewish people. Bennett has been the one politician who was subject to such animus but has not reciprocated, and it’s clear that his party would be willing to serve with Netanyahu.

We should always keep our eye on the big picture and remember the famous lesson from Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers”: Those who are slow to anger and quick to forgive are pious.

Israeli politicians and the electorate can agree to disagree on certain attributes of different people without making it personal; look at all the areas of agreement; and work together for the Jewish people.

Holding grudges is never a good thing; nor is personal animus. Let us hope that this election leads to a stable and successful government in Israel.

Farley Weiss, former president of the National Council of Young Israel, is an intellectual property attorney for the law firm of Weiss & Moy.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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