Editor's Notes: Can the public trust Netanyahu’s unity offer?

I write this with sadness. Unfortunately, discrimination and racism have become normalized in Israel.

By
September 19, 2019 23:23
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz speak in 2013. One of them

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz speak in 2013. One of them will likely be asked to form the next government. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

At about 2 a.m. on Tuesday night, it was time to go home. The paper had been sent to print about an hour and a half earlier, and the website was fully updated. Our team of reporters was still out in the field at the different party headquarters waiting for Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz to deliver their remarks.

When I got downstairs to the entrance of The Jerusalem Post office building, the security guard was doing his usual thing, reading over a page of Talmud. This particular guard usually does the overnight shift and uses his time to prepare Daf Yomi, the daily page of Talmud taught in classes around the world. We started chatting about the election, the exit polls, and the uncertainty that was to come. He asked me what I thought would happen.

“Hopefully, there will be a national unity government,” I said.

With a painful look on his face, the guard told me how there are places in the country where they are signs: “No haredim [ultra-Orthodox] allowed.” He said that people look at him as if he doesn’t work (he does) and didn’t serve in the IDF (he did), just because of the black kippah on his head. He held Avigdor Liberman, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid responsible.

It was a feeling of disenfranchisement, delegitimization and not belonging in a country that is meant to be your home.

It reminded me of what I had watched on Facebook just hours earlier, when Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, visited the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem (up the block from our office), stood on a chair, took a megaphone, and yelled out to the cheering crowd that Arabs were voting in growing numbers in the North. If something didn’t change, he warned, the Right would lose the election.

It was shocking to see. First, this is Jerusalem. There are Israeli-Arabs and east Jerusalem Arabs who work in the Central Bus Station, and pass through there in the thousands on a daily basis. What if some of them were there and heard the prime minister?
Then I imagined that Netanyahu was a prime minister in a European country, standing in his capital city’s central bus station and warning his supporters that too many Jews were voting in the North. What would the world do? Would it stay silent? Would it not condemn that prime minister?

I write this with sadness. Unfortunately, discrimination and racism have become normalized in Israel. We see it in the way the Arabs are treated and perceived, even if they are no less citizens of this country than I am. We see it as well in the way haredim are spoken about and ostracized.

Is this what Israel has become? Is this what Israeli elections have turned the country into? Mudslinging, xenophobia and alienating? I certainly hope not.

Ironically, Netanyahu’s attacks on the Arabs had the opposite effect than what he had originally intended. His goal was to lower the turnout of Arab voters to at least what it was in April (49%) or lower. His attempt to push legislation through the Knesset that would allow the installation of cameras at polling stations was meant to do just that.

The opposite happened. Instead of lowering the Arab turnout, his constant attacks on Arab-Israelis increased their motivation to vote. On Tuesday, some 59% of Arab voters showed up at polling stations, an increase of 10 percentage points over April.

What did that do to the outcome? Well, in Israel, the number of votes needed per seat in the Knesset is calculated based on the voter turnout. A party needs 3.25% of all votes cast to get into the Knesset, and then each seat has its numerical value.

What that means is that if the turnout had been lower, it is possible that the approximately 1.1 million votes Likud received would have been worth more than just 31 seats in the next Knesset. In other words, by attacking the Arabs, Netanyahu might have cost his own party some seats.

Now though the question is, what comes next? Is it possible to turn this stalemate into a coalition, or is Israel destined to go to a third election?

It will depend on how cynical Israeli politicians are prepared to be. We got a first taste of that cynicism on Thursday, when Netanyahu released a video calling on Gantz to meet with him right away to form a national unity government.

“I propose we meet as soon as possible, without preconditions, to cooperate in establishing a broad unity government,” Netanyahu said. “There is no reason to go to another election. I am against it.”

Sound familiar? The reason is because it is a line that Netanyahu has used in the past when calling on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to enter into negotiations with Israel.

In September 2016, for example, Netanyahu said: “I’m ready to meet with Abu Mazen at any time, without preconditions, for direct talks,” adding that this was something he had said 100 times.

When he said it about Abu Mazen, Netanyahu did so to kick the ball over to the Palestinians and reveal their intransigence and rejectionism. He wanted to show that they were the side that was refusing to meet and refusing to negotiate.

Now he is using the same tactic, just this time it’s with Benny Gantz. Netanyahu understands his political conundrum very well, but he does not want to be seen as the side that is turning down a unity government (even though he declared a number of times throughout the campaign that he would not form one). So what does he do? He offers to meet Gantz and start negotiations today. Now if Gantz says no, the public will believe he is the bad guy, not Bibi.

Netanyahu wants to prepare the public for a third election. His offer does not seem like  a sincere attempt at unity but rather a plan how to avoid it.

If he had really wanted a unity government, why didn’t he try to meet with Gantz already on Wednesday? Why was his first move after the election a meeting with the leaders of Yamina and the haredi parties (Shas and UTJ), getting them to sign an agreement that all four parties stick together no matter what? That is not how you start negotiating unity with a clean slate.

What is amazing is how just days earlier, Netanyahu accused Gantz of planning to form a government with the Arabs, of being hacked by the Iranians, of being weak on terror, of being inexperienced, and every other possible name in the Likud playbook. Now, suddenly, he wants to sit with him in the same government. Are we supposed to just forget all of this, as well as the front page of Israel Hayom – the Sheldon Adelson-owned pro-Netanyahu newspaper – which showcased a column written by the prime minister at the beginning of August with the headline: “There will be no unity government”?

Gantz is not looking like he will fall for this so easily. His negotiation team for potential coalition talks is made up of two people who know Netanyahu well, maybe even too well. The head of the team is Yoram Turbowicz, who served as chief of staff for Ehud Olmert during his premiership from 2006 to 2009. At the time, Netanyahu was head of the opposition. The other member of the team is Shalom Shlomo, who served as Netanyahu’s chief political adviser and is still close to a number of key Likud members as well as people around the prime minister.

Gantz’s starting point will be that he has no problem with Likud, just with its leader who is facing down three indictments on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. If Likud replaces its leader, Gantz has said in the past, he would have no problem forming a unity government with it. If Likud refuses to do that, Gantz said on Thursday, he is still prepared to form a unity government but that he would need to go first as prime minister.

As the head of the biggest party, he has a good argument. Netanyahu will have to spend the next two years fighting his legal battles, and if he comes out clean, he can then return and serve as prime minister. If not, then someone else from Likud can.

Assuming the two fail to agree to a unity government, the ball will be in the hands of President Reuven Rivlin, who by October 2 – the same day as Netanyahu’s hearing before the attorney-general – will have to hand off to someone the mandate to form a coalition.
Interestingly, this time around, both Gantz and Netanyahu want to be second to receive that mandate, not first. The reason is simple: whomever goes first will have a difficult time forming a coalition. Netanyahu might have 55 seats with Yamina and the haredim but that is still six short of 61, and without Blue and White, Avigdor Liberman or Labor he does not have a government. All three of these parties will have an interest in waiting on the sidelines for when Gantz gets the mandate second.

It is true that then, too, Gantz will not have enough seats for a coalition, but he will have a case to make to the Likud leadership and the public: Netanyahu has failed twice. Now is the time to oust him, to choose someone else and to join Blue and White in a unity government. Will the top Likudniks go for it? That remains to be seen.

The same is true the other way around. If Gantz goes first and fails, Netanyahu will receive the mandate from Rivlin. If that happens, Gantz will be weaker (after just failing) and will be under immense public and party pressure to join Netanyahu so Israel can avoid a third election.

And the last option is the most obvious: All efforts to form a coalition fail, and Israel indeed heads to a new election in February or March, meaning, by the way, that in the best-case scenario, Israel will not have a functioning government until May or June 2020.
Whatever happens, two important steps need to be taken to move ahead. The first is that the parties need to realize that this is no longer about them but about the country. There are ways out of this political stalemate, and with a little flexibility both Blue and White and Likud can find a solution.

The second step is that no matter who ends up prime minister, this country has to find a way to heal. Divisive rhetoric like we heard throughout this campaign cannot be allowed.

We might have a number of political parties, but we only have one State of Israel.


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