Published in The Jerusalem Post, March 15, 2019.
The unpredictability, exaggerations and enigmas of this Israeli election campaign…. and some predictions too.
- Deja vu
Think that this Israeli election campaign is uniquely interesting? Not really. We’ve been here before.
In 1999, the Prime Minister (Netanyahu) was behind in the polls. His defense minister ran against him. A “centrist” party of former military generals ran under the slogan “neither right nor left.” A party called “Gesher” headed by a “Levy” ran up the political middle. Arye Deri was under criminal investigation while heading Shas. Avigdor Lieberman was hovering below the threshold. National religious parties formed a temporary union.
In 2015, the Zionist Union campaign slogan was “Just not Bibi.” (The party was led by Bougie Herzog and Tzipi Livni who are now out of politics, and the party they headed is deceased). In 2019, the replacement Blue-White party slogan is “Just not Netanyahu.” Will that slogan work better this time?
In 1996, the then-deputy foreign minister challenged and won an election over the reigning prime minister. The latter had also served as defense minister, finance minister, immigration minister, director-general of the defense ministry, and was responsible for building the nuclear reactor in Dimona. He was behind the much-ballyhooed Oslo Accords.
That was the relatively-inexperienced Benjamin Netanyahu defeating the very-experienced Shimon Peres. So, upsets are possible. And the polls are so unreliable.
Furthermore, it’s impossible not to notice how topsy-turvy the 2019 campaign has been. Consider: When the campaign started just 60 days ago, Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked were still in the Bayit Yehudi party. Tzipi Livni and Avi Gabbay were colleagues, and there was a party called the Zionist Union. Benny Gantz was deliberating whether to become Yair Lapid’s number 2 in Yesh Atid.
The big story was Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the defense ministry; who remembers that? Legalization of marijuana was a focus of kooky campaigns only, not mainstream political party campaigns.
All of which goes to say that anybody who thinks he/she can predict the outcome of this election campaign is crackpot crazy. (The only person who could surely beat Netanyahu is Nikki Haley, but she’s not running).
The main rival campaign messages place Israel on a precipice, as if the very existence or the “soul” of Israel is at stake. Blue-White: “The country is being torn apart; everything is failing. Bibi will lead Israel off a cliff.” Likud: “Israel has never been in better shape in all spheres: defense, diplomatic, economic. The Left will lead Israel off the edge of an escarpment into disaster.”
Maybe both are exaggerating?
The campaign has become a referendum on Netanyahu. Is it wise to again entrust him with defense, diplomatic and economic leadership of this country; or has he become too divisive and demagogic, been in office too long, and his formulas gone stale?
Challengers have focused on Netanyahu’s “crookedness and criminality.” But Attorney General Mandleblit’s announcement of pending indictments against Netanyahu for bribery and breach of trust haven’t moved the electoral needle much; there has been no sizeable skid in Netanyahu’s poll numbers.
I suspect that most Israelis have long factored the allegations against Netanyahu into their electoral calculations, yay or nay. The press has harped on Netanyahu’s alleged corruption for years, and Mandleblit didn’t really reveal anything beyond the already-well-tread stories regarding gifts and media manipulation.
- Blue-White Enigma
The hybrid thing-a-ma-jig formed by Gantz and Lapid alongside Bogie Yaalon, Gabi Ashkenazi and Avi Nisenkorn remains an enigma. Other than calling-out Netanyahu for sleaze and anti-democratic rot, Blue-White’s identity is unclear.
Blue-White can’t be a right-wing party, because the hard-left Ofer Shelach, Yael German and Michael Biton are on its list. It can’t be a left-wing party, because Yaalon and Tzvika Hauser are on its list.
It can’t be a capitalist, free-market party, because Histadrut boss Nisenkorn is slated for a “senior economic post.” It can’t be a socialist party, because Lapid is its number two.
It can’t be a clean politics list because the darkest political street-fighter Ashkenazi is number five on the list. (And if this aspersion isn’t immediately clear to you, you need to bone-up on your Israeli politics).
The contradictions leave Blue-White leaders hewing to motherhood and apple pie affirmations; stuff like “Israel will never leave the Golan” and “We will return Israel to the people.”
But credit Blue-White with the best video ad of this campaign, so far. It depicts Netanyahu as too busy with criminal defense matters and with attacks on the legal establishment to deal with health care, traffic jams, national security and other pressing issues. It is a biting and funny video that resonates.
There are no women in the top five spots on either the Likud or Blue-White lists (nor in most of the other parties too). The unlikely prize for respectable female representation goes to the newly-formed New Right party. Not only is it led by a male-female partnership, but Shaked appears before Bennett on the party logo. And nearly all its leading candidates are female: Alona Barkat, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, Shirley Pinto, Caroline Glick and more.
It is a near certainty that the Ultra-Orthodox parties will be part of the next Israeli coalition government (and the one after that, and after that…) whether the government is headed by Netanyahu or Gantz. So how does Gantz intend to actualize the liberal dream platform on matters of religion and state that Blue-White has promulgated? The party promises to recognize some form of civil marriage, enact friendlier conversion procedures, open stores and allow public bus services on Shabbat, legalize surrogacy for all gay couples, build a grand egalitarian plaza at the Kotel, and draft haredim into the IDF. The platform is unrealistic in the extreme.
- Post vote predictions
On the day after the vote, April 10, President Rivlin will look for every opportunity to give Gantz and not Netanyahu the first crack at forming a government, even if the national-right bloc of parties seems to have a 61-seat parliamentary edge. His excuse: The pending indictments against Netanyahu.
Also on April 10, the Labor party will decapitate itself and boot-out Gabbay. The Union of Religious Parties will disband, with Bayit Yehudi expelling Otzma Yehudit representatives.
Blue-White will splinter into five or more pieces if that list isn’t asked to form the next government; and it will sizzle with hard-to-reconcile tensions even if it is.
If Likud fails to form the next coalition government (or is forced to play second fiddle in a Gantz-led government), Netanyahu will be toast, and Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett will make their move back into Likud.
- Post vote challenges
The new coalition government, any coalition, will be forced to slash spending and raise taxes, because outgoing Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon has run-up a big budget deficit. Election campaign promises made by all sides of the political spectrum will go mostly unfulfilled.
Israel’s enemies will be tempted to test the new government, with Hamas ramping-up Gaza border riots in order to squeeze concessions from Israel, Qasem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps saber-rattling from the Syrian Golan, and Mahmoud Abbas challenging Israel with violence in Jerusalem to scuttle President Trump’s peace plan.
- Trump card
Speaking of the Trump plan, its most likely immediate result is formation in Jerusalem of some sort of broad coalition government (Bibi-Gantz, or Gantz-Likud). That’s the only way Israel will be able to respond positively to the American plan.