In a front-page, above-the-fold column in Thursday’s New York Times International Edition, veteran columnist and former Middle East correspondent Thomas Friedman compared the political crises facing Israel and the United States.
He made the usual comparisons between the populism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former US president Donald Trump. He also juxtaposed the “Never Trump” Republicans in the US with the “Anyone but Bibi” parties on the Right in Israel, writing that both faced infighting that harmed their ability to create a broad-based alternative.
Friedman used such comparisons to support his thesis that the US and Israel are equally polarized in a manner that will threaten their ability to thrive in the century ahead. He warned that just like the Cold War in the US, the Arab-Israeli conflict had a “huge binding effect” on Israelis with no replacement to “cement national solidarity” in Israeli society.
“What is playing out in Israel is the same political fragmentation/polarization that is hobbling America: The loss of a shared national narrative to inspire and bind the country as it journeys into the 21st century,” Friedman wrote.
The months ahead in Israeli politics will test Friedman’s thesis. Is Israel really as fragmented as the US, where the tension between the two sides has torn apart families and made politics taboo in public discourse for more than a dozen years?
Or are Israelis actually more united than ever on key diplomatic, security and economic issues and divided merely on the personality politics that has been the major focus of all four elections of the past two years – victims of an electoral system that encourages deadlock?
If Israel goes to yet another election in the fall and – unlike the other races – it’s not just about Netanyahu, Friedman could be proven somewhat right. An Israel Democracy Institute poll found that more than 80% of Israelis believe a fifth election is on the way.
But there remain at least six options for preventing additional elections and stopping influencers around the world like Friedman from pitying our political quagmire. Each (listed in chronological order) has its obvious drawbacks and problems, but they remain possible solutions.
1. Netanyahu/Bennett/Smotrich/Sa’ar/haredim government
This 65-MK coalition is Netanyahu’s preferred solution. In Tuesday’s Likud faction meeting, he said what Israel needs is not just the strong, stable, right-wing government he has talked about before every election but also a “homogeneous” one.
It requires persuading New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar to give up his Bibi boycott at least for a short period of time, something he and his allies in the party emphatically ruled out yet again to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
But what would happen if the current situation with Iran spirals out of control while Netanyahu still has the mandate to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin? It was a lack of influence on security issues that pushed Sa’ar to retire from politics in 2014. Netanyahu could still repent for the way he has treated his underlings before his time is up.
2. Netanyahu/Bennett/Smotrich/haredim/Ra’am government
Netanyahu has been paving the way for such a government for the past year. His rather hopeless efforts to seek the Arab vote were intended to legitimize future political cooperation with MK Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am (United Arab List) Party. There would be 59 MKs in this minority coalition, backed from outside by Ra’am’s four.
Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich left no wiggle room in ruling out cooperation with Abbas. Knowing the precedent of Netanyahu sending National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to religious-Zionist Rabbi Haim Druckman to get Yamina leader Naftali Bennett to back down from an ultimatum, Smotrich purposely backed himself into a corner.
But Smotrich will face unprecedented pressure to prevent what he and Netanyahu will call the left-wing government that could be created if he does not back down by the May 4 deadline. Bringing about a coalition with Meretz and Ra’am when there could have been a purely right-wing government with Ra’am on the outside won’t raise his right-wing credentials.
3. Barkat/Bennett/Gantz/haredim/Sa’ar/Smotrich government
This scenario could come into play as early as this weekend. Netanyahu could decide following his meetings with Smotrich and Bennett on Thursday night that there is no chance of either of the options above.
Netanyahu could instruct his closest political ally, Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, to announce on Monday that the election to replace Rivlin as president will take place on Monday, May 3, the minimum three weeks for the race. A source close to Netanyahu told the Post this week that he knows for a fact that there is a majority in the new Knesset to elect Netanyahu and to change the law to shift the vote from secret ballot to open to guarantee his victory.
A Panels Research poll taken for 103FM Radio found that MK Nir Barkat would be the most likely candidate to win a snap primary in the Likud that could be held meanwhile. Barkat could receive the next mandate from Rivlin and easily form a 73-MK coalition with the Likud’s traditional allies as well as New Hope and Blue and White.
4. Supreme Court intervention
The Supreme Court ruled last May that Netanyahu could form a government despite his criminal indictment, but that was before witnesses began to be called in his trial.
There are two standing Supreme Court petitions that could prevent Netanyahu from forming a government or force him to suspend himself during his trial. Rulings are expected if the Supreme Court judges see Netanyahu has a government to form.
It is unlikely that they will end Netanyahu’s career, but it is not out of the question. If so, the Barkat-led government listed above comes into play.
5. Bennett/Lapid/Gantz/Sa’ar/Liberman/Labor/Meretz/Ra’am government
This 62-MK option is currently the most likely. Sources close to Bennett said his current cooperation with Netanyahu in forming a government was intended to make Smotrich the fall guy for the end of the prime minister’s career and legitimize him forming his own government afterward with Lapid.
If there is any coalition that could prove Friedman wrong about Israel being polarized, it is this one, with eight parties from across the political spectrum. Including Shas and United Torah Judaism instead of Yisrael Beytenu for a coalition of 71 also remains possible.
Such a coalition would have to prove that it could deal with more than ruling out Netanyahu and handling the aftermath of the coronavirus. It would have to be the government of healing that Rivlin urged, before he made himself a more polarizing figure by boycotting events with Netanyahu at the Knesset.
6. Parliamentary intervention
The Bennett/Lapid government has difficulty forming, but once one of them receives a mandate, his party takes over the powerful Knesset Arrangements Committee and could depose Levin as Knesset speaker.
Passing a bill making it illegal for a prime minister under indictment to form a government would free Shas and UTJ from obligations to Netanyahu in future elections and allow them to join the coalition.
If the bill is passed during the second mandate of Bennett or Lapid, whoever among them did not officially receive the mandate from Rivlin can go to the Knesset with a majority of 61 MKs and form a government with the other.
A diverse, pluralistic government would be formed, defying Friedman’s doomsday predictions and enabling Israel to continue to thrive in the century ahead.