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FRIDAY FEATURE – Third Time Not the Charm

Friday Feature

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6 Mar 2020
FRIDAY FEATURE – Third Time Not the Charm
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were euphoric at their unexpectedly strong showing in Israel’s third round of elections on Monday, but by week’s end the reality has set in that the nation is still locked in the same political quagmire that has dogged the public here for the past year. But unlike the inconclusive ballot results in April and September of last year, this time Netanyahu is now under criminal indictment and a majority of Knesset members may have the leverage to use that fact to deny him another term in office.
 
The official results will only be released this Monday, but the outcome is already clear. Thanks to a late surge, Netanyahu bested the rival Blue & White party by a surprising margin of 36 to 33 Knesset seats. But his allies on the Right can only muster 58 votes, three short of the 61-seat majority needed to form a ruling coalition and provide him immunity from prosecution. That also means the Center/Left parties, while probably unable to forge a coalition among themselves, still have enough mandates to block Netanyahu’s path to power.
 
Given a closer gap of only one or two Knesset seats, Netanyahu had his sights on several members on the opposing side that might be persuaded to join his camp with promises of cabinet positions or committee chairmanships. But all the likely targets rebuffed those efforts this week, Likud dropped a seat as the votes were tallied, and the entire strategy collapsed on Thursday when Avigdor Liberman announced that his Yisrael Beitenu faction would support a bill to bar an indicted MK from serving as prime minister.
 
Whether such a proposed law can be passed by a transition parliament and survive judicial scrutiny remains an open question that could take months to resolve. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin may also refuse on his own to hand Netanyahu a mandate to form a government due to the indictments, taking the political crisis to yet another level. But what was once considered only hypothetical is now an urgent legal quandary that will only deepen and prolong the year-long standoff.
 
Liberman is trying to pressure Likud to dump Netanyahu, pick a new leader and enter a secular, Zionist government of national unity with his party and the Blue & White list, led by former general Benny Gantz.
 
In response, Netanyahu can be expected to stand firm once more and force Liberman to decide between joining either him or a Left-leaning government supported by the (Arab) Joint List, which Liberman has always rejected. This is otherwise known as the “Bibi or Tibi” option.
 
This, of course, is the same dilemma that has been confronting the Israeli electorate for 17 months now. The drama is far from over, but here are some observations and conclusions to be drawn so far as this third attempt to resolve the political impasse has not yet been the charm many hoped for.
 
Netanyahu is a Political Maestro
Despite being under criminal indictment on counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu still managed a last-minute surge which propelled Likud to its highest-ever number of Knesset seats. A full third of the nation believes “only Bibi” can deliver the goods. He demonstrated as much just days before the election, when he dashed off to Uganda for a secret breakthrough meeting with the new leader of Sudan, until now one of Israel’s staunchest enemies. This came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s gift of a very pro-Israel peace plan, and Vladimir Putin’s release of an Israeli backpacker from the Russian gulag. Will he get another chance to work his magic?
 
Israeli Voters are not Budging
I have visited or lived in Israel for nearly forty years, and in that span I have witnessed the political pendulum swing back-and-forth, left-to-right, many times. And it always seemed Israelis were very malleable in their views and also could be very forgiving, as they ran off leaders like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon only to embrace them again years later. But for now, the pendulum appears to be stuck. Very few have changed their minds and switched parties in three straight elections now. Will they get a fourth chance to do so?
 
The ‘Lot’ Falls on Liberman
If you want to identify exactly who is at fault for Israel’s current political meltdown, start with ‘kingmaker’ Avigdor Liberman. After spending ten years at Bibi’s side in Right-wing governments, he suddenly decided after the April 2019 elections to challenge the religious status quo, triggering a second and eventually a third election. For most Israelis, Liberman raised a valid point, that the ultra-Orthodox parties have been granted too much power and privilege for far too long, but he may not be the best one to champion this cause. And while most Israelis are standing put, he is shifting at will. Consider that after the first elections last year, he completely ignored the criminal probes against Netanyahu and demanded that UTJ and Shas finally compromise on the haredi draft bill. After the second elections, Liberman wished Netanyahu well in beating the pending charges and simply refused to sit with the ultra-Orthodox. This time, however, Liberman has decided to ditch Netanyahu as if he just learned of the corruption cases. Hardly a principled stand. Even so, Liberman could end Israel’s political misery in an instant, but will he?
 
Pride and Patriotism
At the heart of Israel’s political problems right now is a basic human trait we all struggle with – pride. The leaders of the political parties all think their path is moral and just and the right one for the nation. They each have set ‘red lines’ and will not move. Gantz will not sit with Netanyahu in a government, Liberman will not sit with the ultra-religious or the Arabs, and Netanyahu is resisting all pressure to step down. Everyone is waiting for someone to take the lead by humbling themselves and seeking a compromise for the good of the whole nation. We will see in coming days who that might be, as a fourth election would be unthinkable.
 
Results of Third Israel Elections on 2 March 2020 (Unofficial)
Likud – 36
Blue & White – 33
Joint List (Arab) – 15
Shas – 9
United Torah Judaism – 7
Labor-Gesher-Meretz – 7
Yisrael Beitenu – 7
Yamina – 6
 
David R. Parsons is an author, attorney, journalist and ordained minister who serves as Vice President & Senior Spokesman of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

 

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