With four elections in two years behind us, when Israel looks to the future – even the near future – things still seem murky. Going to the polls a fifth time still seems like the least outlandish outcome of last month’s election.
Yet politicians are trying to put together some kind of workable government, and there are all kinds of permutations out there that are like the world’s most confusing and consequential logic puzzle.
Some of the more reasonable ones, like a coalition of right-wing and haredi parties led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or a center-right coalition led by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, require politicians to break their promises, whether it’s New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar’s vow not to sit with Netanyahu or Yamina head and potential kingmaker Naftali Bennett’s promise that he won’t be in a government led by Lapid.
And then there are ideas of coalitions spanning the political spectrum from Meretz to Yamina, or Ra’am to Religious Zionism, about which “strange bedfellows” would be an understatement.
To try to disentangle Israel from this major snarl, The Jerusalem Post brought in former lawmakers from across the political spectrum to hear where they think things will be going and what they think needs to be done.
Another election in 2021
“We need to replace all the people in all the parties,” ex-Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov chuckled.
Ilatov was once Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s right-hand man who represented the party in multiple coalition negotiations. After a falling-out with Liberman, he’s doing business in the private sector, but is considering forming a party for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
He argued that “there is a problem in the makeup of the Knesset and the egos involved. Even if there is a coalition – it doesn’t matter if it’s on the Right or Left, or made up of both – it won’t hold. Sa’ar and Bennett can’t sit with Meretz or the Arabs for long. Netanyahu has the same problem with [Religious Zionism] and [Ra’am leader] Mansour Abbas.”
In addition, an anti-Netanyahu coalition would be so heterogeneous that the only thing holding it together would be its goal to send Netanyahu to the opposition, and therefore it would be doomed at the outset, Ilatov argued.
“There is legislation and processes that need to take place, and they are totally ideologically different, which is why I don’t see how they can have a coalition that lasts... even if they say they’re putting ego aside,” he stated. “Therefore, by this logic, there will be an election in a short time.”
The fifth election in two-and-a-half years will likely be in September, Ilatov posited, so that Netanyahu has the time to block Defense Minister Benny Gantz from becoming prime minister under last year’s coalition agreement.
Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir is not an ex-lawmaker yet, but the former tourism minister spoke to the Post on Wednesday, right after clearing out his Knesset office – packing up, among other items, dolls of Spider-Man, Batman, Yoda and Super Mario.
“I think there will be another election in 2021,” Zamir said. “I don’t think either side has the ability to build something. There is no coalition for Netanyahu and [Religious Zionist Party member Itamar] Ben-Gvir with Abbas; it’s a fantasy, and there is no opposing coalition without Bennett.”
From election to election, “instead of getting easier, it’s getting more complex,” Zamir lamented.
A compromise to save the small parties
Several of the former MKs said a fifth election will not happen because too many of the small parties are worried that they won’t make it past the 3.25% electoral threshold. As such, they will eventually make major compromises in order to save their political careers and not go back to the public empty-handed to ask for their votes again.
Ex-Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie said: “There’s a shared interest between the country and the citizens and the political parties that won’t pass the threshold next time. They passed this time because there was a moment of pity, along with anger over there being a fourth election.... The small parties know they were saved miraculously.”
Lavie, who is currently working on a follow-up to her best seller A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book focused on bnot mitzvah, called on the leaders of smaller parties – 10 of the incoming Knesset’s 12 parties have under 10 seats – to “act for the good of the public.
“With some flexibility, they can do it,” she said. “It’s clear that there are actors that need to try harder.”
World Likud chairman Danny Danon, a former ambassador to the UN and Likud MK, said that the fact that a fifth election would be bad for smaller parties “can be a place to think of creative ideas and interesting moves,” specifically highlighting Sa’ar’s New Hope Party, made up of former Likudniks.
Danon and former Bayit Yehudi MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli both called for there to be a right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu, with New Hope as part of the government.
“I think that the best thing for the Likud to do is focus its efforts on Naftali Bennett’s party [Yamina] and, after that, go to Gideon Sa’ar or try to break off parts of his party,” Danon said. “The pressure needs to be on the Right. Bennett needs to say clearly that he’s in the national camp and not going to the opposing side, and Sa’ar will have to pay real prices and compromise on significant things, because it’s the right thing to do now.”
Danon argued that relying on Ra’am to vote from outside the coalition or abstain on its formation will make it very hard to keep a right-wing government without New Hope intact.
Similarly, Moalem-Refaeli, who has moved from supporting Bennett to joining the Likud, called on Bennett and Sa’ar “to rise above personal issues and talk about significant issues. There are 66 seats for the Right even without Liberman.... That is the government that needs to be formed. It will be right-wing and do what we think needs to be done ideologically, in settlements, justice, economics – everything.”
A “real dialogue” between Netanyahu and Bennett and Netanyahu and Sa’ar can help them overcome their past political disputes and rebuild trust, she added.
“I’m not deluded; I still think the personal is political, but we have a golden opportunity. The Israeli majority is on the traditional Right, and the government needs to express that,” she stated.
Moalem-Refaeli spoke out against those who say that there will be a right-wing government if Netanyahu resigns.
“There is no arguing with the Likud’s 30 seats,” she said. “I don’t think any right-wing leader would want to remove the head of the largest right-wing party in ways that are not democratic.”
Danon also said that a government led by Bennett would not count as a right-wing government.
“He would have to reach agreements with Meretz and Labor on every vote,” he said. “It’ll hurt the national camp even if Bennett is prime minister for a short time. The national camp would be in the opposition.... He would be a prime minister in the hands of the left-wing parties.”
Ilatov was skeptical that even a relatively homogeneous right-wing coalition would have longevity, because of disagreements between Bennett and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich.
“They’re competing for the same voter base and there will be power struggles between them,” he warned.
A change coalition
Lavie said that the only way forward is with a right-wing or center-right leader, because the election results show a clear majority for the Right.
“This is a very difficult and complex situation.... What we need is political wisdom. It doesn’t seem to me that there will be a reality in which we crown a prime minister who isn’t right-wing. The public doesn’t want it.... Leaving aside yes-Bibi, no-Bibi, that is where we’re going,” Lavie said.
As such, Lavie suggested that only Bennett or Gantz, who she said “has a connection to the Right,” could form a coalition not led by Netanyahu.
“I think Lapid understands the reality in Israeli society,” she said. “It’s not a matter of giving up; it’s reading reality.”
Former Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On, now president of Zulat, a think tank on equality and human rights issues, said everyone who wants to remove Netanyahu from the premiership must support Lapid.
“The ‘change bloc’ is not homogeneous, assuming Bennett and Sa’ar are there, but they need to recommend Lapid as prime minister” to President Reuven Rivlin next week, Gal-On said. “If, after that, Lapid and Bennett reach an agreement on a rotation, fine – not that it’s my dream coalition. But they have to recommend Lapid.”
That being said, Gal-On argued that “it doesn’t make sense that party leaders with six or seven seats think they can be prime minister.”
Gal-On suggested that the coalition be ad hoc, with an agreement for a year and a half, at which point they can decide whether to renew it.
In order for the new coalition to last, it will have to focus on solving short-term issues, like COVID-19 pandemic response and passing a state budget, instead of “the kinds of things we haven’t found solutions for in 70 years,” Lavie said. “Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves in a fifth election.”