Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu announced last week that Israeli voters would be going to the polls for a second time this year. The announcement followed Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to secure the support of a majority of the parliament for a new term. His Likud party contested the elections in April in coalition with a number of small religious parties. However, he also needed the support of the secular Yisrael Beytenu party, headed by his former ally, Mr. Avigdor Liberman. For some, the fallout between the two over the question of the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men and the subsequent decision to dissolve the newly-elected Knesset underlines the precarious balance that exists among the various political forces in Israel. For others, the September 2019 elections offer the opportunity to address strategic and electoral mistakes made in the run-up to the vote in April.
Considering the high profile fallout between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Liberman, it is not surprising that both of them are trying to frame the argument in ways that are advantageous to them. According to Times of Israel’s Marissa Newman, “In Avigdor Liberman’s telling, last week’s coalition crisis that ended with shock new elections called for September was about one thing and one thing only: passing into law, untouched, the Defense Ministry bill regulating the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men.... In Netanyahu’s telling, by contrast, last week’s punishing debacle was about one thing and one thing only: a personal vendetta by the double-crossing Liberman, who is seeking to replace Netanyahu in office and has no qualms regarding the consequences of his obstinacy for the public purse.”
As this interview with the Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz shows, Mr. Netanyahu's attacks against Mr. Liberman have spurred the latter to reiterate that his disagreements with the Israeli prime minister are political and ideological, rather than personal, thus leaving the door open to future cooperation with the Likud party: “According to Liberman though, it had nothing to do with Netanyahu, but was rather a simple matter of being a politician who says what he means and means what he says. Instead, he believes that Netanyahu had decided early on in the post-election negotiations that he didn’t want Liberman in his new government, and that it was actually the prime minister who used the draft bill as his excuse to keep out Yisrael Beytenu. To back up this claim, Liberman says his party never held coalition negotiations with anyone except Netanyahu, neither outside Likud nor within the Likud Party.”
Yisrael Beytenu’s leader may also be reacting to recent polls published by Arutz Sheva that show Likud winning enough seats in the next Knesset to obviate a governing coalition with Mr. Liberman: “A new poll published in Maariv's weekend paper shows that if elections were to be held today, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would be able to form a coalition without the Yisrael Beytenu party. The poll, conducted by Panels Politics, gave the leading Likud a whopping 37 Knesset seats and the center-left Blue and White party 33 Knesset seats.... Yisrael Beytenu, led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, would receive seven Knesset seats, the poll showed... Both the United Right and New Right parties would receive six Knesset seats. The left-wing Meretz and Labor parties would receive four Knesset seats each, and the Arab Hadash-Ta'al would receive seven. Ra'am-Balad, the other Arab party, would not cross the electoral threshold.”
Meanwhile, the electoral defeat of the left in the last elections has some urging greater unity across the center-left spectrum. In a recent editorial, the Haaretz newspaper called on the Israeli Arab parties to reunite in anticipation of the next elections in September: “Although there are three months until the election, restoring confidence and getting the Arab public back to the ballot box won’t be an easy task. It would be careless to waste time on internal elections and conducting negotiations at a snail’s pace until the slates must be submitted in early August. It would behoove the four parties to set up the Joint List again during the coming weeks and to be attentive to their public regarding proper representation of their voters, putting up candidates who will contribute electorally to the slate and not just be mere decoration.... Such a move could expedite other unions and give a tailwind to the bloc defined as center-left, which could naturally lead to a rise in the voting rate for this bloc and perhaps a change in Israel’s political map.”
The editorial follows a similar call that Haaretz’s Uzi Baram issued in the run-up to the April elections, where he pointed out that “the demographic trends serve the right, religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox parties. Their power grows from election to election. This fact is what further strengthens the claim that the center and left cannot create any true change without cooperating with the Arabs.... Still, a clear majority of Israeli Arabs prefer Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi to Netanyahu and Yariv Levin, but they will continue to stay home and not go out and vote if Kahol Lavan and the left-wing Zionist parties do not campaign for the legitimacy of the Arab position in a Jewish and democratic Israel.”
Even though the newly created Blue and White Party had a better showing than Labor and its allies, it was not enough to challenge Mr. Netanyahu’s hold on the prime minister’s office. The upcoming elections give the party and its leaders a rare opportunity to hone their message and appeal anew to the Israeli voters. However, Jerusalem Post’s Shulamit Magnus believes electoral victory is possible only if “the Blue and White Party comes right out and says that what it seeks in this next election is a unity government with a Likud-minus-Netanyahu; a Likud which upholds all the statements and principles expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence; which stands for the rule of constitutional law, and for the separation of religion and state . . . . Only a broad-based government without those parties can lead a Jewish, constitutional democratic state, as you and we all know very well.”
Finally, there are those, like the Globes’s Norman Bailey who, rather than focusing on strategies for electoral success, bemoan the pathologies associated with the current electoral and political system that elevates the leader over the voter: “The most significant problem is that the members of the Knesset represent no-one but themselves. Their only constituents consist of their party leaders and colleagues. This results in campaigns and governments centered on individuals, not ideas or policies. Real problems of real people are simply ignored.... It also leads to pervasive corruption in the political class at all levels, and to such disgusting phenomena as convicted felons being appointed to the cabinet. Even more serious, the atmosphere of corruption spreads to society as a whole, with rampant fraud, thievery, lying, cheating, and a general attitude of screw the other if possible.”