Round 2: Israelis face another election, with more uncertainty

Fasten your seat belts because we may be heading for a period of unprecedented turbulence in Israeli politics.

Can he win again? Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Can he win again? Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israelis head to the polls on September 17 for the second time this year, with little enthusiasm and a great deal of foreboding, fearing the result will usher in a new period of political uncertainty.
Barring a last-minute upset, the likely result is deadlock with neither the right-wing/religious bloc nor the left/center/Arab parties able to achieve the magic number of 61 seats for a Knesset majority.
According to the polls, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, which has appealed to the secular, right-wing electorate throughout the campaign, will hold the balance of power. His party is the only one polling significantly different numbers in comparison with the April 9 election: surging from five Knesset seats to a projected 9-11.
According to pollster Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, who is advising the Democratic Union during the current campaign, we are witnessing trends and voting intentions very similar to the April election.
“The main difference from April is that Avigdor Liberman is getting – in almost all polls – double the number of seats,” Scheindlin said. “The right-wing bloc hasn’t changed, but he’s taking his seats presumably from people who used to vote either Moshe Kahlon or Likud.”
Whereas Liberman was considered in the past part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s natural right-wing/religious bloc, he now advocates a three-party unity government, compromised of Likud and Blue and White, together with Yisrael Beytenu.
“To be very clear, our target in the coming elections is to establish a national unity government without Orthodox parties and without radicals,” Liberman said, in an apparent reference to the right-wing Yamina headed by Ayelet Shaked and the smaller far-right parties.
A number of significant developments occurred as the campaign entered its final stages in early September.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz indicated that he would not contact either United Torah Judaism (UTJ) or Shas for coalition talks after the election.
“We are against blackmail; we will contact Likud to form a government that is based on the secular majority in Israel,” he declared. “Prime ministers have surrendered to the blackmail of sectoral parties instead of worrying about what the majority needs,” he added.
The statement marked a clear policy shift as Gantz had earlier met with ultra-Orthodox residents of Bnei Brak in an effort to keep all options open ahead of post-election coalition talks.
Likud and Haredi figures accused Blue and White of inciting and being motivated by hatred of the ultra-Orthodox, of dividing Israeli society, and having been taken over by Yair Lapid, No. 2 on the party list, who has repeatedly campaigned against the influence of the religious on Israeli society.
UTJ CHAIRMAN Yaakov Litzman and senior UTJ leader Moshe Gafni said that “the cat was out of the bag,” and that Gantz’s efforts to hide his position regarding the ultra-Orthodox parties had now been exposed.
“After he has tried for a considerable period to conceal his opinions, and even did everything to separate himself from his partner Yair Lapid, today it is clear that there is no difference between them,” Gafni and Litzman said in a joint statement.
“It is very hurtful and saddening that Gantz is being dragged by Lapid and Liberman and has chosen a path of hate, arrogance and division just to seek votes,” said Shas leader Arye Deri.
Netanyahu’s main challenger: Blue and White leader and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz ( Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Netanyahu’s main challenger: Blue and White leader and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz ( Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Liberman claimed that Gantz’s announcement was a ploy worked out by Blue and White together with UTJ to take votes from Yisrael Beytenu. “Both the Haredim and Blue and White want to weaken Yisrael Beytenu,” he said.
An Israel Democracy Institute poll found that 39% of Jewish voters favor a unity government, compared with 32% favoring a right-wing government led by Netanyahu, and 15% who are in favor of a Gantz-led center-left government.
Arab Israelis’ first preference is a center-left government with Gantz at the helm (38%); 17% seek a unity government, and no less than 42% are either undecided or are not in favor of any of the above.
Liberman’s claim that he will only join a unity government after the election is met with disbelief by 54% of the general public.
The main obstacle to a unity government remains the opposition by Blue and White to any coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Moshe Ya’alon, No. 3 on the Blue and White list, made it clear that the party will not be entering a coalition led by Netanyahu.
“If he creates a coalition, he will immediately have a hearing in the beginning of October and then there may be an indictment,” he said. “In the past two years, we have here a prime minister who sacrifices everything to escape the trial bench.”
The Likud, realizing that achieving an overall majority for the bloc this time around may be a mission impossible, pushed for legislation to place cameras in polling stations on Election Day. The controversial campaign followed unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud in Arab towns and villages.
“It will be absurd if we don’t win because the election was stolen at the ballot box,” said Netanyahu. “We find that unacceptable.”
Likud MKs argued that it was only due to fraud that the Arab Ra’am-Balad party managed to pass the threshold in April, resulting in Naftali Bennett’s New Right failing to gain parliamentary representation, and thus sealing the fate of the election.
Gantz said that the prime minister’s campaign for cameras in Arab polling stations was designed to prepare public opinion for a rejection of the election results.
“Netanyahu is laying the groundwork not to accept and respect the results of the election,” said Gantz. “Netanyahu is trying to delegitimize an important democratic procedure. It’s a dangerous process.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit came out strongly against the initiative saying it was impossible to implement so close to polling day, and warning it would lead to chaos.
Criticizing the Likud legislative effort as “aberrant and flawed,” Mandelblit warned that it would undermine “the exercise of the fundamental right to vote, and also the implementation of the legal obligation to conduct free, secret and equal elections.”
He added that there would be nothing to stop Knesset members passing the law in the next Knesset under the normal parliamentary process.
The opposition claimed the entire purpose was to whip up anti-Arab sentiment in order to energize the Likud base after a lackluster campaign, and was similar to Netanyahu’s infamous claim on Election Day in March 2015 that the “Arabs are coming out in droves” – a comment for which he later apologized.
According to Avraham Diskin, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University’s political science department, four factors will determine the outcome of the election: movement between the blocs; if Otzma Yehudit passes the threshold; which party wins the most seats; and voter turnout.
In the last election, the failure of two right-wing parties to pass the threshold – the New Right and Zehut led by Moshe Feiglin – led to a loss of about six seats for the right-wing bloc. Netanyahu realized he has to prevent a similar scenario this time round if he wants to remain prime minister.
President Reuven Rivlin says he will do all in his power to prevent a third election (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)President Reuven Rivlin says he will do all in his power to prevent a third election (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
At the end of August, Feiglin agreed to withdraw from the campaign in return for a verbal promise for a ministerial portfolio if Netanyahu forms the next government, and a bill to ease restrictions on medical cannabis. Both Labor and the Democratic Union asked Mandelblit to check whether the agreement constituted “election bribery.”
Right-wing politicians urged Otzma Yehudit to follow suit to prevent the formation of a left-wing coalition. However, despite intense pressure, Otzma Yehudit refused to follow Feiglin’s example and insisted on staying the course, urging the prime minister to stop attacking the party.
“I told Netanyahu’s office that nothing will happen if Likud or Yamina don’t get an extra seat,” said Itamar Ben-Gvir, Otzma Yehudit leader. “The four seats of Otzma are those that can establish a right-wing government.”
He may be right. Throughout the campaign, polls showed that the far-right party supported by followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane would fail to pass the 3.25% threshold required for Knesset representation. But a couple of polls in early September predicted the party would win just enough seats to enter the 22nd Knesset. However, most polls still predicted the party would fail to pass the threshold.
“This is one of the most crucial issues,” explained Diskin. ”We are talking about four Knesset seats because they are close to the threshold. If they fail, half will go to the left-wing bloc. This could mean the difference between 59 and 61 seats for the right-wing bloc.”
Ayelet Shaked also urged Otzma Yehudit to pull out.
“If Otzma Yehudit runs, there won’t be a right-wing government,” she warned. “Otzma Yehudit running in recent elections is a chronic problem. They always claim they’ll make it past the minimum electoral threshold, and they wind up burning 30,000-100,000 votes,” she said.
Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IN AN effort to cipher votes from the other right-wing parties, Netanyahu vowed to apply “Jewish sovereignty” over all the settlements in Judea and Samaria.
“We are building new homes – we won’t uproot anyone,” he declared during a visit to a school in the West Bank settlement of Elkana to mark the start of the new school year at the beginning of September. “There won’t be another Gush Katif, there won’t be any more uprooting and, with God’s help, we’ll apply Jewish sovereignty over all the settlements.”
According to Labor-Gesher Chair Amir Peretz, “Netanyahu is a danger to the Zionist and democratic vision, and for the sake of narrow political interests, he is willing to integrate two million Palestinians who will be given social rights at the expense of the state, and in the end, will have the right to vote for the Knesset.”
In the last few days of the campaign both the Likud and Blue and White are expected to attempt to woo votes from the smaller parties within their respective camps, arguing that president Reuven Rivlin is likely to turn to the largest party to form the government.
The failure of the left to unite in a single party also raises the possibility of either Labor or the Democratic Union failing to pass the threshold. Both parties have dropped as low as four or five seats in some of the polls during the last few weeks – far too close for comfort.
“There is always a danger of small parties not passing the threshold,” explained Scheindlin. “The question is which bloc has too many competing parties for the number of voters in those blocs. Are there enough voters to the left of Blue and White who are not prepared to vote for the Arab list to sustain two separate parties passing the threshold? For anyone who is right-wing but not a Likud supporter, are there enough of those voters to sustain all the right-wing parties?”
The question of voter turnout has taken on added significance because there is no doubt the Israeli voter is suffering a degree of election fatigue, and the September vote has failed to ignite passions. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 39% of Israelis are following the September election to a lesser extent than they followed the one held in April. If this voter apathy results in more people staying home on September 17, who will this hurt the most?
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“It generally depends on who doesn’t turn out,” said Scheindlin. “The last election saw a major gap between Jewish and Arab voters, and the Arab vote could drop again. Israeli Arabs are 13 to 14% of the adult population, and should be getting 15 or 16 Knesset seats but they are not. They only got 10 seats combined last time with a turnout of only 49%.”
Diskin confers that the Joint Arab List are the most vulnerable party when it comes to low voter turnout, but predicts the Likud will also suffer if there is a decrease in the numbers voting in the poorer neighborhoods and the development towns.
Netanyahu is also concerned that a large number of Russian-speaking voters who voted Likud in April have now switched their allegiance to Yisrael Beytenu.
In an effort to stem the flow, the prime minister planned to fly to Sochi for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin the weekend before the election. The last time the prime minister met Putin was in April, five days before the previous election, when he thanked him for his help in returning the remains of IDF Sgt. Zachary Baumel to Israel.
The Russian vote comprises 12% of all those entitled to vote – 770,000 people – equal to 15-16 seats, and is the most fluid group among all the Israeli demographic sectors. The Russian-speaking electorate is not a homogenous group, but voters from the former Soviet states have been prone to change allegiance in significant numbers in previous votes.
It remains to be seen if Netanyahu’s trip to Sochi will be enough to prompt a last-minute return to the Likud for wavering Russian-speaking voters.
The April election was the first time in Israel’s history that an election failed to result in the formation of a government, forcing Israelis to the polls for the second time in less than six months.
Amir Peretz sports a new look – without his trademark moustache (Credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)Amir Peretz sports a new look – without his trademark moustache (Credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
President Reuven Rivlin has stated that he would “do everything he could to prevent the possibility of a third election,” which could theoretically be called if no party leader manages to cobble together a working coalition after the September vote.
“I think, like all citizens… that we have to make an unrelenting effort that there will be no third election,” he stressed.
Some commentators believe that if the chosen candidate fails to form a government within the allotted 28-day period, the president this time will immediately task another candidate with the job, without offering the customary 14-day extension.
Rivlin admitted he was “surprised” by Netanyahu’s move to initiate another snap poll after the April vote in a maneuver that prevented Benny Gantz being given the opportunity to form his own coalition.
On October 2, two weeks after the election, the Attorney General will conduct a pre-trial hearing for Benjamin Netanyahu who is facing charges in three separate corruption cases.
The prime minister hopes to avoid a trial by winning the election and pushing through legislation granting him immunity. If he fails to do so, there is a danger he may try to undermine the legitimacy of the election, primarily by claiming that his initiative to place cameras in Arab polling stations was blocked by his opponents, inside and outside of the Knesset.
Either way, fasten your seat belts because we may be heading for a period of unprecedented turbulence in Israeli politics.