Editor's Notes: Why is Israel really going to new elections?

While this turn of events is bad, there was something refreshing watching Liberman stand up for a principled cause, in this case the haredi draft bill.

WILL THEY laugh again in a few weeks? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: REUTERS)
WILL THEY laugh again in a few weeks? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An American friend called me this week. In 2016, he said, Russia interfered in the US elections and Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate. In Israel’s 2019 elections, he told me, Russia again interfered, although this time there is no need for an investigation. Avigdor Liberman is to blame.
While Liberman is from Moldova – a part of the former Soviet Union but not officially Russia – it is a nice analogy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was presumed to have won the April 9 election, but Liberman stole the victory away from him.
Liberman’s decision not to join Netanyahu’s coalition – a decision that caused the country to go to new elections – is historic: it is the first time in 71 years of statehood that Israel has had to repeat an election due to a failure by the chosen party leader to form a government.
In principle, the fact that the country is now heading back to elections – just six weeks after the last one – is bad. It will not only lead to an increase in the national deficit, it will more significantly create complete governmental paralysis.
Already a month before elections were called on December 24 the government was in stagnation. With a new vote set for mid-September, the earliest a government will be formed is the end of October, meaning that it won’t really start working until November. That means a full year of no reforms, no big initiatives – nothing.
While this turn of events is bad, there was something refreshing watching Liberman stand up for a principled cause, in this case the haredi draft bill.
The April 9 election was about one single issue: are you for Netanyahu or are you against Netanyahu. Likud ran a campaign claiming that only Netanyahu can keep the country safe, while Blue and White ran a campaign charging that he is corrupt and needs to be sent home.
There was no talk about the issues that Israelis really care about – social equality, matters of religion and state, the lack of civil marriage, education, health and more. It was just about Netanyahu.
Standing up and insisting that the IDF’s version of the draft bill be passed without any changes might have been an excuse by Liberman to simply stick it to Netanyahu. But even if that were the case, he took a principled and overdue stand that is ultimately for the betterment of the State of Israel.
FOR TOO LONG, this country has been ruled by a haredi minority. This one group has controlled all matters of religion and state while holding the government hostage, either by preventing public transportation for millions of people who depend on it, or preventing the creation of a civil marriage option for the nearly 450,000 Israelis who might have served in the IDF and risked their lives for Israel, but cannot get married since their father is Jewish but not their mother.
Israelis who care about these issues should actually be happy that someone is finally standing up for them. They might be upset that the nation is again heading to elections, but there is importance in seeing a politician take a principled stand and fight to prevent the “haredization” of the Jewish state. That is an important issue.
Let’s also be honest: had Liberman joined the coalition, it would have been unstable and short-lived anyway. With 16 seats, the haredi parties were hungry for more power and had no problem showing it – they wanted more control to further restrain the government’s ability to run a modern state. The Eurovision on Shabbat? Even in Tel Aviv you could forget about it.
Netanyahu was obviously furious. Not only did Liberman deny him a clear-cut victory, but he also put him in greater legal danger.
The prime minister’s pre-indictment hearing is scheduled for October, just a few weeks after Election Day. Netanyahu will likely try to postpone it once again, but it is not clear that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit will agree. He has already postponed once; a second time might be too much.
All of this means that Netanyahu might not have enough time in a new government – if he wins – to pass the legislation he will need to help him evade an indictment: an immunity bill and/or the law that bypasses the High Court.
This legislation is probably one of Netanyahu’s greatest vulnerabilities right now. During the last campaign, he was asked if he planned to pass an immunity bill after he won. He rejected it outright, claiming that it was not something he was working on or even planned to work on. But then, after elections, it became his singular focus. Some of the party leaders who met with him in recent weeks claimed that the passing of an immunity bill was the one item that he spoke about. It was supposed to be his “get out of jail free” card.
But now the public knows that this is what he ultimately desires. The government he forms is just the vehicle that is meant to bring him immunity. What type of government it is, what it does, how much it costs – that is all secondary.
Subordinating all matters of religion and state to the haredim? That’s also not important, as long as Shas and UTJ vote for immunity.
THE THING is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In different circumstances, the best government for Israel would be one having Likud together with Blue and White. This would have been a government of just two parties, with 70 Knesset seats. Without an ideological difference, it would have been a stable government, capable of enacting the reforms this country desperately needs. It also would have been a government supported by the nearly 2.5 million people who together voted for those two largest parties.
But why didn’t that happen? Not because of differences of opinion over the way to handle the threat posed to Israel by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, or the upcoming Trump peace plan. It happened because of one person and one person only: Netanyahu.
Blue and White will not sit with a prime minister whom the attorney-general has already decided to indict, a position shared by Labor – as proven on Wednesday when Avi Gabbay rejected Netanyahu’s generous offer to join his coalition.
Remember, that once upon a time Netanyahu called Ehud Olmert’s continued premiership illegitimate – and Olmert had not yet been indicted but was only being investigated. Here, there is already a decision to indict.
This was Netanyahu’s primary problem in the coalition talks. The haredim as well as Liberman and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP) knew that Netanyahu was vulnerable due to the indictment, and so they all took advantage. The haredim demanded hundreds of millions of shekels; URP refused to back down from its demand to receive the justice portfolio; and Liberman wanted three portfolios as well as the draft bill without any changes.
Another Likud leader who had received 35 seats would have had other options to form a coalition, and could have played one against the other. This time, Netanyahu had no alternate move and his potential partners knew it.
ALL OF THAT, though, doesn’t really matter. In the end, the question will come down to whether Netanyahu’s rivals will succeed this time in moving voters across the camps – from the Right camp to the Left. In the last election, Blue and White did a great job cannibalizing Labor and climbing to 35 seats, but it pretty much failed to attract right-wing voters, even with Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon among its ranks.
Will they be able to do it now? I’m doubtful. Party chairman Benny Gantz doesn’t seem hungry enough to want victory. Over the last few weeks, the public has barely seen or heard from him.
He gave a speech in the Knesset and spoke at the demonstration last Saturday night – but otherwise he has for the most part not been found. Between May 9 and 13, for example, he didn’t publish a single tweet. On the 17 he posted one tweet, and then nothing until the 20. That’s not how the leading opposition figure is supposed to be acting.
When asked why he was being quiet, party sources said that he was waiting to be officially appointed as head of the opposition. But why? With 35 seats, Gantz was the de facto opposition head – but while he was being quiet, Netanyahu was busy selling the country to the haredim while working to enact a judicial revolution. Where was Gantz? Apparently waiting.
This style will not work. During the last election, Gantz simply seemed to not want to win. He often appeared exhausted, while Netanyahu – 10 years his senior – was running from event to event while tweeting, posting on Facebook and meeting the public.
If Gantz wants to stand a chance, he needs to shake up his campaign. The truth is that he can learn a thing or two from his partner Yair Lapid, whose speech at the rally on Saturday night – “we will not let him” – electrified the crowd.
Whatever happens in the September election, 2019 looks like it is going to become known as the “lost year” for the State of Israel. It is not the fault of one single individual or one political party but rather, I think, of the entire country. We have come to expect so little from our political leadership. It is time for that to change.