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"Two Jews - three opinions" is an often quoted proverb and, like most stereotypes, it has some basis in fact. The forensic analysis of evidence, word by word, has been the basis of Torah study for centuries. However, in Israeli politics, the number of political parties and the range of positions they hold can be bewildering. The "Judean People's Front"; the "People's Front of Judea" etc, as famously parodied in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" are not without more than a grain of truth, either with reference to the time of the Roman Occupation or to the modern day.
President Reuven Rivlin will be given the official election results tomorrow (Wednesday) and, as head of state, it will be his very difficult task to find someone capable of heading a coalition government. Clearly, Prime Minister Netanyahu is the man in possession and the evidence suggests that he is in no mood to bring an end to his long career.
It looks as though Mansour Abbas, leader of Ra'am, is likely to become the first Muslim government minister since Raleb Majadele in 2009 and, indeed, part of Ra'am's message to Arab voters this year was that the party is willing to enter into coalition and bring Arab concerns to the Cabinet table rather than remaining in opposition. Ra'am has reportedly been in talks with parties of both left and right, with prominent rabbi Yitzhak Shilat speaking out in favour of the Jewish religious parties Shas and UTJ accepting Arab support and working to build bridges. On most social issues, the Haredi parties and the Islamists of Ra'am share similar conservative ideologies and, as Shilat says, there may be room for pragmatic cooperation.
Last week, the Religious Zionist party ruled out any cooperation with Ra'am, with the greatest stumbling block being the seeming impossibility of any alliance between Ra'am and the highly controversial Itamar Ben Gvir whose Otzma Yehudit party ran a joint campaign with the Religious Zionist Party. With Benjamin Netanyahu having unusually made considerable efforts to win Arab support in this election and having previously described Ben Gvir as "not fit" to be a member of Cabinet, much may depend on whether Religious Zionist leader Bezalel Smotrich can be persuaded to overcome his instinctive opposition to sitting alongside Abbas.
On the political left, Yair Lapid is the leader of the largest party, Yesh Atid. His efforts to head a coalition have been boosted by the support of Yisrael Beitenu's leader Avigdor Lieberman but the arithmetic involved in getting to a workable coalition is daunting, to say the least. One problem he has, is that the anti-Netanyahu bloc extends from centrist former Likud MKs such as New Hope's Gideon Sa'ar (who has indicated that he could support a coalition in which Lapid and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett rotate the Premiership) all the way through to the political far left such as Ofer Kassif of Hadash. It is almost impossible to see any way that such people and parties of such disparate views could ever form a strong administration. Conflicting reports suggest that Bennett has held discussions with Lapid, despite his pre-election pledge not to support a Lapid-led coalition as indeed did Sa'ar himself.
It's not over yet...
Highly appropriate for the time of year, “a plague on all your houses” appears to be the message from voters to Israel’s politicians, as the fourth election in two years ends in yet another stalemate. Arguably Israel's strongest leader since King David, Benjamin Netanyahu now faces the nightmare scenario of having no pathway to a majority without an astonishing volte-face from at least one political leader who has been calling on him to go. Even if the combined forces of Likud, United Torah Judaism and Shas can draw in support from Yamina and the highly controversial Religious Zionists, they are likely to fall short of a majority. Yair Lapid, the leader of the second-largest party Yesh Atid, has been quoted as saying that he will “do everything to create a sane government”, branding the Religious Zionists as “racists and homophobes”.
If the election comes down to pro-Bibi versus anti-Bibi, then it is difficult to see how Netanyahu can survive. Arguably the most powerful Israeli leader since King David, Bibi finds himself faced with former colleagues such as Gideon Sa’ar, leader of New Hope, who have left the Pharoah’s court and are committed to removing him from power. Although Naftali Bennett, leader of Yamina, has not ruled out working with Netanyahu, he has been vociferous in saying it is time to “fire the CEO”.
It is difficult to see how a fifth election would solve the problem. It seems obvious that voters are not ready to give any bloc a clear majority and that the solution must lie in parties and politicians finding ways of working together. So what collaborations are possible? With Likud by far the largest party, it is difficult to see how a Prime Minister from anywhere else could command a majority in the Knesset.
There is now a very powerful religious bloc, with Shas, UTJ and Religious Zionists having more than 20 seats between them. Rabbi Gerson Edelstein of UTJ has ruled out supporting a left-wing government, and both haredi parties have pledged only to support a coalition which will overturn the recent High Court ruling which recognises non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.
The Resurrection of election night is the political career of Benny Gantz, leader of Kachol Lavan (Blue & White). Pre-election polls showed Blue & White in danger of failing to cross the 3.25% threshold, with Gantz himself warning of the possible consequences should he not be returned. With around 90% of votes counted, Blue & White find themselves in fourth place and with a leader who will become Prime Minister in November unless the Rotation Agreement is overturned.
With turnout down among Arab voters, Joint List is set to see its number of MKs fall but its erstwhile partner of Ra’am may just finish above the threshold, with its leader Mansour Abbas having repeated his willingness to work with Netanyahu in a coalition. Ra’am is an Islamist party which had become frustrated with the Joint List’s perceived lack of concern for religious views on social matters. Another source of concern for Arab voters, which Ra’am seeks to offer an alternative to, is the refusal of Joint List to be part of the political mainstream: a place for an Arab party in a coalition can only be to the benefit of Arab communities. On many social issues, Ra'am is likely to be in agreement with UTJ and Shas, although any cooperation with the Religious Zionists would seem very unlikely due to RZ's approach to the disputed territories.
If we go on like this, it will soon be necessary to add one or two General Election dates to the annual calendar of Jewish holidays.
The Israeli Constitution consists of a series of Basic Laws1. The first of these, “The Knesset”, provides for a general election no more than four years after the previous one2, to take place during the month of Cheshvan (ie October or November). Interestingly, the Talmud refers to the month as “Marcheshvan”3, the prefix “mar” meaning “bitter” among other possibilities. In fact, you would need to go back to 1988 to find the last election to take place during Cheshvan, but there has been no shortage of bitterness as Israel holds its fourth general election in less than two years.
The final three opinion polls were published last Friday4 with, as always, a bewildering array of 37 parties5 jostling for attention. One thing is clear: there are a lot of people including, if polling is to believed, 51% of Israelis who do not want Netanyahu to continue as Prime Minister6 whilst there is no candidate who looks as though they are capable of matching Bibi’s popularity. Unless the polls are wildly wrong, Likud is certain to be the largest party and a coalition which did not include Likud would require cooperation between parties which are diametrically opposed on almost any issue other than their mutual desire for a change of Prime Minister.
Naftali Bennett’s Yamina (rightwards) party is in a strong position to finish third, with Bennett himself being a possible challenger should Bibi be forced out. His party is passionately opposed to any “two state solution”7 and it is difficult to see how he could avoid coming into rapid conflict with the Biden administration in the United States which is reportedly keen to make progress on that issue.8 Of course, that has been American policy for decades without having any noticeable effect on the ground.
As Jacob Kornbluh identifies in The Forward9 in his presentation of four possible scenarios, even if there were cooperation between opposition parties to force Netanyahu to resign, it is far from easy to predict what the ultimate outcome would be. Indeed, Kornbluh argues that, were the situation not resolved by November, there is at least an outside chance that Benny Gantz could claim the Premiership under the existing Rotation Agreement.10 It is a mark of how rapidly things change in Israeli politics that, when Gantz signed the coalition agreement he led the second largest party (Kachol Lavan – Blue & White) with 33 seats: less than a year later, they are struggling to stay above the threshold and are predicted to win around 4 seats. Indeed, you would need to go back to a Channel 12 poll last December to even find them on course to get into double figures.11