How it really was! Winners and losers in the Israeli election

Now the question is whether Gantz or Netanyahu can form a coalition sufficient to form a stable government.

Avigdor Liberman at the Maariv/Jerusalem Post election conference on September 11 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avigdor Liberman at the Maariv/Jerusalem Post election conference on September 11
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The big winner in Israel’s recent election is the people of Israel. I’ll explain why farther down in this column.
There are also some big losers. Let’s begin with the obvious ones, ranked by the number of votes their leadership garnered. We ignore those who did not cross the threshold to enter the community of the Knesset. For this, there is even a precedent in the Torah, outlining those who should not be counted in the community (Deut. 23:3).
The ranking loser is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “How are the mighty fallen!” He lent his name to the left-wing Meretz, creating a strange amalgam of a millionaire ex-chief of staff with a socialistic group of last-gasp dreamers of a two-state solution. From my private “sondages” (French for soundings, as explained in my previous column, “Fool or prophet – the coming September election”) people voted for Meretz in spite of Barak. The combined list went up one seat, from four in April to five.
Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz is also a loser for bringing in Barak, while Stav Shaffir, who jumped ship from Labor to Meretz, apparently was no particular addition to the failed party.
The next big loser was Amir Peretz. He is not perceived as a potential national leader, and Labor only retained its six seats because the wily old politician convinced Orly Levy-Abecassis – a true representative of the periphery and disadvantaged – to link her fate with Labor. It is a very fair assumption that without her, Labor would just about cross the minimal threshold needed to enter the Knesset.
Coming in as a two-time loser is the arrogant hard-right Ayelet Shaked. Convinced she is a potential prime minister, Shaked and Naftali Bennett overplayed their hand in the April election and did not cross the required 3.25% minimum of the votes cast, ending up with a big zero. This time the ménage à trois of Shaked/Rafi Peretz/Betzalel Smotrich actually drove voters away from the once proud religious Zionists. The Jewish Home party collected eight seats in April, and with the previously lost votes of Bennett-Shaked should have landed 10 seats. But the insistence of Shaked to lead the Yamina (Rightward) bloc and the blathering of Smotrich actually diminished the bloc.
The combination of a secularist and a woman heading the list was too much for some of the more conservative religious voters to swallow, while Smotrich’s ignorant trumpeting of his hope for a return to the “halachic” times of the kings David and Solomon drove away the middle-of-the road old-school religious Zionists. In one “sondage” the idea of voting for Smotrich actually brought tears to the eyes of long-time religious Zionists who longed for the moderation that once typified the original Mafdal party of religious nationalists. Thus the combined Yamina sank to seven seats.
Bennett and Peretz raced to rid themselves of Smotrich, submitting a missive to the speaker of the Knesset – the very day after the election – to announce they were breaking up the temporary electoral bloc they had created with Smotrich. This move brought a quick response for the dethroned queen, who wanted the group to continue at least with its present seven members including Smotrich. This shows her as a cold political analyst ready to stay together with Smotrich to maintain the bargaining power of seven rather than just five Knesset members.
The Big Loser
Ignore the spinmeisters. Ignore Benjamin Netanyahu’s pitiable call for unity with the people he was just vilifying as “leftists” and Arab-lovers. Forget about the pathetic pundits who stand on their head to prove Bibi won. Here are the hard facts. In April, Netanyahu’s Likud by itself garnered 35 seats in the Knesset. The shrinking Moshe Kahlon-led party, unaptly name Kulanu (“All of Us”), held four seats. An odd far-right pro-marijuana group named Zehut (Identity) led by a rather unusual personage called Moshe Feiglin did not enter the Knesset, but pulled in enough votes to elect two or slightly more members of Knesset but did not reach the minimum. Simple arithmetic: 35+4+2 (hypothetically) = 41!
Flailing, frightened before the election he had himself called, Netanyahu pulled Kahlon into the Likud, and offered Feiglin a cabinet seat in a future Netanyahu-led coalition if he would withdraw from the race. A true man of principle, Feiglin withdrew Zehut from the election. As we said, 41 seats in April – 31 in September. Let’s discount Feiglin and speak of a certain 39 seats for Likud plus Kahlon in April and 32 in September. That’s a big loss – 20%.
Netanyahu lost about 20 of every hundred Likud voters. If we include Feiglin’s two, the percentage of Likud lost votes is even higher – about 24 out of every hundred.
But that ain’t all. As Avigdor Liberman put it on September 20, the “Joint Arab List should send Bibi flowers for Shabbat.” His anti-Arab rhetoric brought an additional 10% of Arab voters to the ballot box, and thus gave their bloc a bonus of three seats. Clearly the public, Jewish and Arab, see through Bibi’s shtick. This time it boomeranged.
Now, in a voice he had to clear a few times, Netanyahu called for a unity government with the man he had described as unfit for the office of prime minister just a few hours earlier.
Paradoxically, Blue and White gained 30,000 votes in September as compared with April, yet lost two seats. It is of course possible that right-wing attempts to delegitimize Benny Gantz may have worked, since Blue and White did diminish to 33. In face of these attacks, Gantz kept his cool and displayed statesmanlike solidity, refraining from spins and mud-slinging. Ultimately this gave his party the plurality. As for the spin that he lacks political, diplomatic and economic experience, let’s look at the various fields he has led.
Diplomacy: Gantz served in Washington for four years as Israel’s military attaché. As such he presided over a sizeable staff dealing with relations with the US armed forces, negotiating and acquiring military hardware, and always dealing with the highest levels of the US Army as well as suppliers of the hardware Israel wanted. In his later staff positions, he conducted relations with NATO and other armies.
Economics: To handle allocation of resources is a requisite in all senior command positions, and certainly for the deputy and later chief of staff. In such capacity one requires intimate knowledge of, and responsibility for, major parts of our defense budget of about 70 billion shekels. The exact portion directly included in the IDF budget is classified, but I assume it is the largest single item in our national expenditure. Furthermore, the skills needed to navigate between the competing demands of senior commanders is a lesson in applied politics. This experience is bolstered by his academic achievements: Gantz has two MA degrees, one in Political Science and another in National Resources Management.
Governmental politics: In his highest military positions, Gantz often attended meetings of the security cabinet and of the full cabinet. As one of Israel’s chief strategists, how he delivered his analyses and recommendations was of major and at times decisive importance.
Now the question is whether he or Netanyahu can form a coalition sufficient to form a stable government.
That brings us to the other winner of the election, Avigdor Liberman. His speaking for a secularist, anti-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) public brought his Yisrael Beytenu party (Israel-Our Home) up to eight members from the previous five. But his demand for a “secular” government excluding the ultra-Orthodox based on his party, Blue and White and Likud may turn him into a loser.
Though he sees himself as a kingmaker, without whom neither Gantz nor Netanyahu can form a coalition, he may be overplaying his hand. His constant calls, almost dictates, to President Reuven Rivlin to bring Netanyahu and Gantz together, and, as it were, bang their heads together until an agreement is reached – well I, for one, find it overweening and strident. Of course, if Liberman succeeds, he could also name his price….
There is no point in playing theoretical games as to whom the president will choose to make the first attempt to form a coalition. In my previous “dramatically” entitled article, as our editor-in-chief dubbed it (“Fool or prophet”) I actually was referring to a Talmudic dictum: Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children. (Bavli, Bava Batra 12b).
The “dramatic” title was really to show I could not take myself too seriously. Thus I will not take the risk of prophesying that eventually the Likud will (or enough members will) abandon Netanyahu. This process would give Gantz – supported by Labor, Meretz and the Joint List – enough backing whether from within or outside of a coalition, and a serious chance to become prime minister.
The penultimate biggest winners are the pollsters, who this time proved to be close in all their predictions.
And the biggest winner of all are the people of Israel, who have shown, whatever the ultimate outcome, that the Netanyahu period is over. As a few former supporters said to me, ranging from a first-time voter to old-timers, “Enough. It’s time for him to go.” No nation rests on the shoulders of one man, especially one whose brilliance is offset by his flaws.
As a nine-year-old great-grandson of mine exclaimed when he woke up early the day after the election and heard the results: “Democratia!” Democracy!
The writer wishes to thank those attentive readers who corrected his misspelling of “bated breath” in his previous column. He takes politics seriously, following philosopher Karl Jaspers’ teaching that ultimately politics deals with questions of life and death. Comments: