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The upside of Israel’s electoral mess

If right- and left-wing parties can consider forming even a temporary coalition that illustrates both Netanyahu’s difficulties and the broad consensus on security issues.

Head of the Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on May 5, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Head of the Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on May 5, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

If someone in Israel just woke up after being in a coma for the last two years, they’d have a lot of catching up to do learning about what happened while they were asleep. They might be happily surprised by the signing of the Abraham Accords and not so thrilled to learn about a year spent in coronavirus lockdowns. With respect to Israeli politics, that might be the real eye-opener: They would discover that very little had changed.

After four elections and endless negotiations, no stable majority coalition government in Israel has come to fruition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still scrambling to hold on to power by every means and tactic imaginable. And though there’s no way of predicting what might happen next in this long-running dysfunctional saga, it’s more than likely that the end of this crisis is not in sight.

What’s most interesting about this is not so much Netanyahu’s desperate bid to stay in place against all the odds. Rather, it’s the way opinions about him have superseded the convictions about territory, settlements and the conflict with the Palestinians that once were the only things that really mattered in Israeli politics.

The latest development doesn’t add any clarity to the situation. After receiving the mandate to attempt to form a government by President Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu acknowledged failure after 28 days. Rivlin has now given the same opportunity to Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid, and the smart money says that he’s as likely to fail as Netanyahu.

The problem of forming a government with the 61 votes necessary to have a majority of the Knesset remains the same. There is a clear majority of members in the legislature who were elected in the election held in March who can be classified as being on the right with respect to the security issues that used to determine almost everything in Israeli politics. Netanyahu can continue to count on the support of 52 Knesset members who represent his own Likud Party and its religious party allies. Seven more from the Yamina Party led by Naftali Bennett might have supported a Netanyahu government, but that still left them two short of a majority. In theory, the 13 right-wingers from the New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu parties might have given Netanyahu his majority, but they believe that ousting the prime minister after 12 consecutive years in office is a higher priority.

Even more bizarre is the fact that Netanyahu might have gotten past the 61 mark with the aid of one of the Arab political parties. The Islamist Ra’am Party has indicated its willingness to work with Zionist parties, whether Netanyahu or Lapid. Netanyahu, who seemed to be courting the Arab vote in the last election, was willing to break the taboo of giving an Arab anti-Zionist party like Ra’am part of a governing coalition, even if meant supporting him from outside it.

Yet that attempt to break the logjam was foiled by the determined opposition of one of Netanyahu’s allies, the far-right Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich, which includes some disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Netanyahu’s characteristic response to this setback was to blame it all on Bennett rather than Smotrich. The reason for that is that although Bennett was willing to go along with Netanyahu if he could get to 61, he is also a greater personal threat to him and a potential kingmaker who could make a deal with Lapid.

That option presents the bizarre prospect of a government in which right-wingers opposed to Netanyahu would serve alongside left-wingers with whom they disagree on just about every conceivable issue except dumping the prime minister. Indeed, Lapid has publicly said that he would acquiesce to Bennett going first in a rotation agreement in which the Yesh Atid leader would go second. Such a coalition, however, would also depend on the votes of not only the suddenly reasonable Ra’am but the more obdurately anti-Zionist Joint Arab List.

Bennet may, in fact, be the only person with even a remote chance of emerging from the current mess as prime minister. But he knows that if he does wind up leading a coalition that includes leftists like those of Labor and Meretz and anti-Zionist Arabs, he may well be finished in electoral politics, as right-wing voters may never forgive him for empowering these groups and for applying the coup de grace to Netanyahu.

All of which means the most likely scenario is a fifth election later this year, though the prospects of that resolving the problem are slim. That’s especially true when you consider that the Likud vote declined from election number three in 2020 to the most recent go-round.

The argument is about whether Netanyahu should stay on or has rendered an already dysfunctional election system completely unworkable. Given that the smaller parties that represent distinct constituencies like the ultra-Orthodox, the prospect of a much-needed constitutional reform being enacted is no greater now than it was at any other time in Israel’s 73-year history as an independent Jewish state.

Ironies abound in the debate about Netanyahu. He’s coming off a year of events—both in terms of Israel’s diplomatic breakthroughs with Arab states and his successful guiding of the country through the COVID crisis—that can be seen as the crowning achievements of his long career.

On the flip side, two years of electoral stalemate have also seen Netanyahu at his worst. He may be unchallenged as a master tactician, but his maneuvers against both allies and enemies have shone a light on his well-earned reputation as a back-stabber whose word is worthless.

That makes no difference to the quarter of the Israeli electorate that will vote for him and Likud no matter what he does. Though his admirers may rail at the anti-Netanyahu right-wingers as renegades, they represent the belief of many Israelis that the long-running Bibi show must end. Part of that has to do with the trial on corruption charges that he is facing. But even many who believe those allegations are politically inspired feel that the claim that he only cares about holding onto power is justified.

Still, there’s an upside to even this discouraging situation.

Many Americans, including the people running foreign policy in the Biden administration, act as if the failed peace policies of past presidents are still viable. They think that Israel should be pressured into making concessions to the Palestinians to achieve a two-state solution. But while the Israeli left is not quite completely dead, the current electoral equation demonstrates that it is completely marginalized. There is no real debate in the country about a peace that the Palestinians have proved time and again that they don’t want. Nor is there any serious argument about the wisdom of Netanyahu’s tough stand on Iran and the folly of the United States returning to a nuclear deal that will endanger Israel, the Arab states and the West.

Netanyahu’s troubles stem from his personal behavior, not policy. But the fact that so many on the right and left think that his quest to stay in office indefinitely is the most important issue facing the electorate is a sign of stability and relative consensus on the life-and-death issues facing the Jewish state, even if it also demonstrates other problems that currently defy a solution.

So while friends of Israel—whether fans of the prime minister or his detractors—must shake their heads at the dispiriting spectacle that Israeli politics has become, they should not be worried about the country’s fate or the future of its democracy. Sooner or later, this stalemate will be resolved. And if Iran, Hezbollah or the Palestinians create a crisis before that happens, there’s equally no doubt that the country will unite to deal with it. Israel is strong and will remain so. It’s not broken, even if its election system has broken down.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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