In less than two weeks (23 March), Israel will hold its fourth election since April 2019.
Since then the country has been “governed” by various interim governments with attenuated powers, and most recently by a dysfunctional “national unity” government which – while having the greatest number of ministers and deputy ministers in Israel’s history – can’t agree on anything, including a budget (which brought about the coming election).
Actual decisions, when they cannot be avoided, are taken by the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, unless he is prevented from acting by his “legal advisor” – who has become a bitter enemy – or the Supreme Court. The Corona epidemic has provided a fertile field for governmental ineptitude. For example, recently restaurant owners made an agreement with the Health Ministry about how many diners could be seated in their establishments and how far apart the tables could be. The owners then went about setting up for their scheduled opening this week, organizing, staffing, and buying food and other supplies – when the government changed the rules at the last moment.
Meanwhile, the election campaign is at its height, with plenty of negative campaigning on offer. There are basically two major divisions in Israeli politics today: one is the traditional ideological right-left divide, in which the issues include security, government programs and involvement in the economy, relations with minorities, the justice system, synagogue and state, and so on. It’s generally agreed that the parties that fall on the right side of the spectrum on these issues constitute a large majority, even 80 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
The other, of course, is the question of whether the next PM should be Netanyahu or someone else. Here, as in the previous three elections, the voters are almost precisely evenly divided. On one side is Netanyahu’s Likud, the Haredi and national religious parties, and (maybe) the Yamina party of Naftali Bennett. On the other is the center-left Yesh Atid party of Yair Lapid, the right-wing-but-not-Bibi parties of Gideon Sa’ar and Avigdor Lieberman, the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties, and the Arab Joint List. It’s hard to see how either side gets 61 seats, and it’s hard to see how some of these parties could sit together because of their ideological differences.
There are three possible outcomes: either Netanyahu puts together a weak coalition of close to 61, the anti-Netanyahu parties do the same, or nobody succeeds in making a coalition, in which case we start getting ready for election number five.
Netanyahu’s corruption trial has been put on hold until after the election, but it is to be expected that the pressure will be on him if he becomes PM again; he will try to get the Knesset to pass some kind of law that will protect him. As always, I will note that some of the charges against him make sense and others are entirely bogus. He says that the legal establishment is trying to frame him (in Hebrew, the word for both a criminal file and a purse is “tik”, so he can say “they sewed me up a tik”). So if he wins, we can expect a continuation of the subordination of important issues to his personal problems that has recently characterized his leadership.
On the other hand, if somehow the anti-Bibi parties manage to put together a government, it’s hard to see how it will be able to hold together with the left-wing Meretz party and the right-wing Gideon Sa’ar in it. The nature of the difficulties will depend on the precise coalition that is created and who ends up as PM, but regardless of the results of the election, a stable government doesn’t seem likely.
The campaign itself is both ugly and stupid. In addition to the negativity and personal attacks, the candidates are shameless braggarts, with Netanyahu the worst. His campaign ads consist of him saying over and over again, “whom do you trust to deal with [Iran, Corona, the economy, etc.], me or the other guy?” Every other word seems to be “I” or “me.” “I got the vaccines, I stole the Iranian nuclear documents, I improved the economy, me, me, me.” Of course he is right that he has had many accomplishments, but also many of the failures in handling the epidemic and economy were due to his inattention or his need to appease the Haredi parties that are essential to his coalition. And some of “his” accomplishments weren’t entirely his, such as the Mossad operation to steal the nuclear documents.
I think Bibi’s ads are emblematic of his approach to his job, which is to keep his cards close to his vest, personally micromanage everything of importance, refuse to delegate responsibility, and – above all – ensure that nobody else comes close to being able to replace him. Now given the added problems from his legal entanglement, I think the negative aspects of his personality and style outweigh his truly impressive intelligence and competence.
But who, indeed, could replace him? Not Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition, with negligible security experience, too far left for my taste, and few if any real accomplishments from his years in politics. Maybe Sa’ar or Bennett (my personal choice) but neither of them appear to have the votes. Sa’ar and Bennett, incidentally, used to be members of Likud, but quit after they were marginalized by Netanyahu because he saw them as threats to his leadership.
The politicians all like to say, in sepulchral tones, that nobody wants a (second, third, fourth, or fifth) election, but I don’t believe them. The elections are incredibly expensive. Estimates run to half a billion shekels ($150 million), and the government is paralyzed during the pre-election campaign and the after-election coalition-forming period (someday an enemy will decide that that is an even better time to attack than Yom Kippur). But after all, it’s not their money, and they love the opportunity the campaign gives them to brag about how great they are, to be interviewed on the radio and TV, to be the news themselves instead of having to do the boring, hard work of – for example – putting together and passing a budget. And then there is always the possibility of personal advancement, to become a government minister who is paid more than a plain MK and has a driver, a secretary, and an office!
What’s next? Unfortunately, the best I can hope for is another Netanyahu government, and that it will last for more than a few months. Bennett keeps saying that he will be PM, and all I can say is “from your mouth to God’s ear,” although I can’t imagine how it can come about. But the State of Israel has been the beneficiary of miracles before, so who knows?