Many of the fans of the TV fantasy epic Game of Thrones were disappointed when the final episodes aired in May, to the extent that an online petition to redo them garnered more than a million signatures.
It’s not clear how many Israelis were looking for a do-over in our local competition for the Iron Throne, otherwise known as the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, but overnight Wednesday, we got it.
“You wanted a new ending to Game of Thrones, no?” Blue and White cochairman Yair Lapid tweeted Thursday morning.
“It’s more like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Blue and White MK Orna Barbivai responded, reflecting the general mood out of the Knesset this week.
It seemed like the general feeling in the political field was one of utter incredulity after a week of wild ups and downs of the kind concocted by George R. R. Martin, author of the fantasy book series Game of Thrones is based on. We can take some comfort in the fact that at least there were no unexpected deaths.
HOW DID we get to this historically unprecedented situation, in which no coalition was formed and we’re going to a second Knesset election in a year, on September 17?
In the hours after the April 9 election exit polls were released, it seemed clear that, even though the Likud and Blue and White were tied at 35 seats, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would stay in office, backed by a solid, 65-seat, right-wing coalition.
But once the dust settled, all the soldiers’ votes were counted, and we got the final numbers, shrewd observers pointed out that the way those 65 seats were divided meant that Netanyahu needed all of the right-wing parties to get a majority. There was no path to 61; it was 65 or bust.
In the ensuing weeks, we saw how that empowered the potential coalition partners to make major demands of portfolios, budgets and policies. And they made it clear that many of those demands were do-or-die – though, at first, that was viewed as more of a negotiating tactic than anything else.
Netanyahu was, and remains, in a precarious legal situation, with Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit having recommended that he be charged with three counts of breach of trust and fraud, and one of bribery, pending a hearing. However, this did not play nearly as strongly into coalition talks as some pundits predicted, with a majority of the Knesset committing to staying together even if Netanyahu was indicted. They even seemed to support legislation that would grant all MKs, including the prime minister, immunity – more on that later.
Right after the election came Passover, and not long after that Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Independence Day, bringing one interruption after another. And when the first 28 days of talks were complete, Netanyahu had not signed even one coalition agreement – another historic first – and had to ask President Reuven Rivlin for the two-week extension allowed by law.
BY THAT time, it became clear that there were two big obstacles in forming a government: First, Netanyahu wanted the Likud to keep the Justice Ministry, but the Union of Right-Wing Parties said it would not join a coalition without heading the ministry.
And second, Yisrael Beytenu and haredi parties Shas and UTJ were at loggerheads over the issue of haredi conscription in the IDF. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman wanted to proceed with the bill that had passed a first reading in the Knesset last year, setting rising annual targets for conscription and economic penalties on yeshivot if the targets aren’t met, and the haredim wanted to scrap it.
Add to that the final piece of the coalition puzzle, Kulanu, whose leader, Moshe Kahlon, was offered what he wanted – the Finance Ministry – but refused to sign an agreement until the other parties did, so he could see how much their demands were going to cost, and the situation was becoming increasingly impossible to resolve.
As the May 29 deadline drew nearer, it became clear that the Liberman-haredi impasse was the crux of the standoff in negotiations. Liberman refused to negotiate unless nothing was changed in the bill, and the haredim were willing to budge somewhat, but wanted lower conscription numbers.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu decided he would rather drag the country into another election than risk that Rivlin would task someone else with forming the coalition, as is his prerogative according to the law.
In the hours before the Knesset voted to dissolve itself, Netanyahu and the Likud upped the pressure on Liberman with different tactics. They attempted to get MKs from Blue and White and Labor to switch sides and join the coalition. They threatened to launch a massive campaign in Russian in the next election.
And then, in a last-ditch effort, Netanyahu gave in almost entirely to Liberman and threatened the haredim instead. It almost worked – Shas and the non-hassidic bloc in UTJ resigned themselves to the final offer – but Liberman still said no. He wanted all or nothing.
NOW, ANOTHER election season has officially begun in Israel.
In some ways, it will be simpler than last time. The Likud primaries were called off, and several other parties also said they were going to keep the lists they ran less than two months ago. There are some mergers in the offing – the Likud started the process of integrating Kulanu into its list, and Ayelet Shaked may be on the way into the Likud from the New Right Party, plus Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg publicly offered to merge with the Labor Party – but none seems as dramatic as the shift caused by the formation of Blue and White or even the controversy sparked when Bayit Yehudi welcomed the Kahane-inspired Otzma Yehudit and formed the Union of Right-Wing Parties.
But the coming campaign will likely be as dirty as the last. We probably have not seen the last of “Gantz. Weak. Left. Netanyahu. Strong. Right.” And Blue and White will play the Netanyahu corruption card over and over again; in fact, it already started, with last week’s demonstration in Tel Aviv.
The last few weeks’ negotiations already gave Blue and White some useful ammo, in the form of a bill proposed by Likud MK Miki Zohar to bring back immunity for all members of Knesset, which was in place until 2005. Since Netanyahu is an MK, if this law passes he could not be indicted as long as he is in office, nor could several other officials who are in various stages of investigation and pre-indictment on corruption accusations. This includes UTJ leader Ya’acov Litzman, Shas leader Arye Deri and Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz and MK David Bitan of the Likud. This comes in addition to judicial reforms to which the entire Right agreed to, including the “override clause” that would allow the Knesset to repass laws struck down by the Supreme Court.
Plus, there will be the additional mudslinging between the haredim and Liberman, and Netanyahu and Liberman. The Likud and UTJ already blamed Liberman for preventing the formation of a right-wing government, and Netanyahu is reportedly considering announcing that he will not include Liberman in his next coalition, should he remain prime minister. Meanwhile, Liberman, standing before a banner declaring him to be “Right-wing AND secular!” on Thursday, accused Netanyahu of being the real leftist. Expect Liberman to campaign on being the defender of secular interests.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking to work on the 2020 state budget, and this year’s fiscal deficit is growing. As of February, it reached 3.5% of the GDP, compared to the government’s target of 2.9%. Experts predicted that by the end of 2019, it would reach 4% of GDP as a result of slowing growth and increasing expenditure. One of the ways for the government to shrink the deficit would be to raise taxes and decrease spending, but that’s not going to happen during an election campaign.
Now there’s the added expense of elections, which the Finance Ministry has estimated will cost NIS 475 million, with no budgetary source to pay for it. Plus, experts have estimated that having Election Day off will bring a NIS 2 billion loss to the economy. And September 17 will be the third national Election Day in a year, since municipal elections across the country took place on October 30, 2018.
In the end, there’s no guarantee that Groundhog Day won’t end up being the aptest pop culture comparison of all.
We could very well wake up on September 18 to a situation almost identical to April 10, as three polls this week – taken out by Jerusalem Post
sister publication Maariv
, Kan 11 and the Makor Rishon
weekly – indicated.
The polls showed the Right growing by several seats, partly because Yisrael Beytenu gained votes, but that Netanyahu would still need all of the right-wing parties to form a majority. Once again, they’d be able to make outlandish demands, and once again, there is a good chance Netanyahu would struggle to bridge the gaps between Liberman and the haredim.
We may have been given a shot at a new finale for Israel’s Game of Thrones, but it could very well end exactly the same as it did the first time around.
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