The election buzz

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh creates a stir by saying Israeli-Arab parties would consider joining a coalition.

By MARK WEISS
August 29, 2019 13:19
The election buzz

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh addresses the Knesset: Odeh has suggested, for the first time, that Israeli Arabs would be willing to join a government coalition. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)



With the election no one wanted only a few weeks away, the campaign to date has been lackluster and the polls have been remarkably steady.

With mostly Israelis either abroad in August or busy keeping their children/grandchildren occupied, the last thing on peoples’ minds has been the election on September 17.

The launch of the party campaigns and key policy speeches have been largely ignored, and the usual posters covering traffic intersections along with party pamphlets in the mailboxes have been conspicuous by their absence. Even the social media campaign has been sluggish.

Some analysts have predicted that if the level of voter apathy continues, then the Election Day vote could yield one of the lowest voter turnouts ever. Only two sections of the population are likely to come out in significant numbers: the haredim, and the ideologically-motivated right-wing electorate, particularly among the West Bank settler community.

Most parties have deliberately saved their efforts (and money) for the fortnight before the vote, and it remains to be seen if this last-minute push will energize the so-far dreary campaign.

The polls have shown little movement of significance, and certainly almost no shift between the right/religious and center/left/Arab blocs.

The Likud and Blue and White remain in a close race, polling around 30-32 seats, representing a loss of about five seats for each party in comparison with the April vote.

The right-wing bloc still has an advantage over the center-left by about 57 to 53-54, but both blocs fall short of a 61-seat Knesset majority.

Yisrael Beytenu continues to hold the balance of power with about 10 seats, and party leader Avigdor Liberman has made clear his preference for a unity government comprising Likud and Blue and White together with Yisrael Beytenu, but without the ultra-Orthodox and what he terms the “messianic” right (a code word for the right-wing union led by Ayelet Shaked, rebranded in August as Yamina).

According to polls, some 60% of voters say they intend to vote for the same party they voted for in April, and about 17% of the electorate are still not sure for whom they will vote.

The most popular post-election outcome is a Likud-Blue and White unity government, but even this option is only favored by 26% of the electorate.

Benjamin Netanyahu remains the most suitable choice for prime minister, despite the graft charges hanging over his head, according to 39% of the electorate, compared with 23% for Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. No other candidate received more than 5%.
Two Election Day scenarios – both unlikely, but still possible – could lead to a decisive shift in favor of the right-wing bloc.

The first involves Labor-Gesher failing to cross the electoral threshold. The party, led by Amir Peretz, is polling between four and six seats, and any late shift by Labor voters to either Blue and White or the Democratic Union – the other significant left-wing party – could plunge the party below the four-seat minimum for Knesset representation.

The second scenario involves either of the small right-wing parties – Otzma Yehudit, led by followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, or Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut – gaining enough votes to enter the Knesset. Both parties are polling at around the 2% mark, significantly lower than the minimum 3.25% threshold, representing a collective loss of about five seats for the right-wing camp.

A more likely scenario is that at the last minute a significant number of the potential voters for both these smaller parties will decide to shift their support to either Likud or Yamina, boosting the overall number of Knesset seats for the right-wing bloc vote.

Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu insisted that the next coalition will be headed by the Likud and comprised of its “natural partners” of right-wing and religious parties. However, during a visit to Kiev in mid-August, the first cracks appeared in this strategy, in a possible indication that such a narrow alliance may no longer be feasible.

The prime minister now says he would welcome parties that are not right-wing in his coalition, as long as all the right-wing parties join first. The Likud was quick to clarify. “All governments want wide coalitions,” the party said. “Netanyahu wasn’t agreeing to a unity government, and he did not refer to specific parties.”

When Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh indicated in late August that he would be prepared to join a center-left coalition, some commentators viewed it as a potential game-changer, bringing to an end the permanent place in the opposition for Israel’s Arab parliamentarians.

However, Odeh’s bold initiative was quickly shot down by both Blue and White and members of his own party.

Gabi Ashkenazi, No. 4 on the Blue and White list, said that the possibility of forming a government with the Arab parties was not on the table.

“We draw a distinction between the Arab Israeli public that is present and is eager to integrate, but we won’t be able to sit with the Arab parties that don’t recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

Odeh said he would weigh joining a center-left coalition if certain conditions were met, such as revoking the Nation-State Law, ending the “occupation,” and renewing talks for a two-state solution.

“The ball is in Gantz’s court, but he has not returned it – he is the intransigent one,” Odeh said in a television interview after Blue and White rejected his overtures. “Apparently he refers to me as ‘an Arab’ – and that is racism.”

Odeh’s move was made without prior consultation with any of the other Joint List candidates, including representatives from his own Hadash faction.

Balad and Ta’al, two of the Arab factions that make up the Joint List, quickly ruled out joining a Blue and White-led coalition. Ta’al leader Ahmad Tibi said that entering the government was not an option. “Gantz is going for a unity government with Likud, and we will be a fierce opposition to such a government, while looking to increase our influence.”

The Likud warned that a coalition headed by Gantz would be supported by “terrorist sympathizers.”

The Likud was also quick to criticize the surplus-vote sharing agreement signed between Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu.
“Anyone who wants Yair Lapid and Gantz as prime ministers should vote for Liberman, who has joined up with the Left,” Netanyahu said, stressing that Liberman has already said he will recommend Gantz for prime minister.

The Likud and Yamina signed a similar vote-sharing agreement as did Shas and United Torah Judaism and Labor and the Democratic Union.

With the likelihood of an obvious coalition emerging on the night of September 17 unlikely, speculation is already rife over what needs to happen to facilitate the formation of the next government.

Will there be a move in the Likud ranks to replace Netanyahu as leader in order to pave the way for a unity government with Blue and White? Will Blue and White split, with some of its Knesset members agreeing to join a Netanyahu-led government? Will Netanyahu be able to tempt at least some of the Labor-Gesher faction to join his coalition with generous ministerial portfolios?

Watch this space!


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