Will this fourth election get us out of the political mess we’ve gotten into? And how did we get into it in the first place?
Decades ago, a comedy team named Laurel and Hardy coined the famous line: “that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
I can’t think of a more appropriate line for next week’s Israeli election – the 4th in two years.
This begs a couple of questions. Will this fourth election get us out of the political mess we’ve gotten into? And how did we get into it in the first place?
I’ll answer the second question first.
The root of the recent political instability began a year and a half before the first election held in April 2019.
In September 2017, the Supreme Court overturned the draft law that gave chareidim preferential treatment for deferments and exemptions from IDF service. This issue is actually less controversial than it used to be. Most secular Israelis are more concerned with getting chareidim into the workforce than the IDF, but the High Court had other ideas. It gave the Knesset a one-year deadline to pass a new draft law that would pass their muster.
That deadline came and went and the Knesset was deadlocked on the language for a new law. Even though Prime Minister Netanyahu enjoyed a comfortable 67-seat coalition, 10 of those seats belonged to Moshe Kahlon, a Likud rebel who split from the Likud to form his own party. The chareidi parties claim Kahlon reneged on a promise he made to them to recertify the old draft law in the event that the Supreme Court overturned it. Kahlon denied he ever made such a deal.
As calendar year 2018 drew to a close, the Knesset voted to disband and hold elections in April 2019.
We’ll call this election number 1.
Election number 1 featured the rise of Benny Gantz as a serious challenger to Netanyahu’s rule. Gantz was a former IDF chief of staff – a position known to be a stepping-stone to the prime minister’s residence. Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak both made that leap. Gantz figured he was in good company.
Election number one ended in a tie between Gantz’s Blue and White party and Netanyahu’s Likud. Each won 35 seats. Moshe Kahlon got cut down to size, winning only four seats. President Rivlin tasked Bibi with forming the coalition, however, Netanyahu soon found himself in another mess.
The only way he could form a 61-seat coalition was with the help of Avigdor Lieberman’s five seats. Lieberman was one of the authors of the new, tough draft bill that had failed to pass the Knesset. He made it perfectly clear there was no room for compromise.
Coalition negotiations raged for more than 40 days and 40 nights. Chareidi parties insisted on some modifications as a prerequisite for joining a coalition, but to Lieberman, the language he wrote was his version of Torah mi-Sinai. Every word was holy to him.
Without Lieberman, Netanyahu failed to form a coalition. The Knesset disbanded once again. Election Number 2 was called for September 2019.
This time, Gantz got one more seat than Netanyahu. 33 to 32. But the biggest spoke in the wheels was the rise of the Joint List – a coalition of Arab parties who won 13 seats, becoming the Knesset’s third-largest party.
Gantz built his career fighting the Arabs. He wasn’t going to sit with them in a coalition even if that’s only another form of warfare. Without the Arabs, Gantz couldn’t get to 61. So Netanyahu got a second chance, only to find himself beholden to Avigdor Lieberman once again. Lieberman played the obstinate Russian role to the hilt. He wasn’t budging.
So as the saying goes, if at twice you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.
Election number 3 was scheduled for March 2nd, 2020.
There’s another pithy saying that goes “Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results.” It’s sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein.
Fact-checkers contend Einstein never said that, but it is a fact that in 1952, Einstein was offered the position as president of Israel. He turned it down. Perhaps if he had accepted, he could have applied his genius to helping Israel develop a saner system of government. But that’s speculation on my part.
Back to Election number 3 – the one we’re still trying to get over. This time, Netanyahu won 36 seats. Gantz won only 33. But the Arab party got even stronger – winning 15 and Netanyahu’s natural right-wing coalition partners shrunk to 58 – three short of a majority.
By this time, the coronavirus pandemic was raging. Israel was in a state of emergency. Both major parties agreed to form a national unity government to tackle COVID-19.
This was Israel’s 4th national unity government in its 72 years of statehood. Two of them worked out pretty well. Two didn’t. This latest one was one of the two that didn’t.
As Shimon Peres once quipped: “In politics, suspicion is stronger than trust.”
Oh yes it is.
Gantz and Netanyahu were a lousy shidduch – even though they both saw pictures of each other before the match was made.
Bibi’s on trial now for breach of trust and bribery and Gantz never stopped reminding people that Bibi’s sole motivation was to extricate himself from the noose the prosecution set for him. For his part, Netanyahu did everything he could to keep Gantz under his thumb and out of the loop.
The two couldn’t agree on anything. Not on coronavirus, not on pushing forward with the Trump deal of the century, and not on a new budget either.
The government fell automatically when the Knesset failed to pass a budget in mid-December and now we’re facing Election number 4 – next Tuesday.
So now you’re up to date. We know when the mess we got into began. We know some of the guilty parties.
What we don’t know yet is whether election number 4 will be decisive.
This election, once again, is a referendum on Binyamin Netanyahu. Almost all the polls show an even match between parties that support Bibi and parties that support anyone but Bibi.
The final polls will be published Friday morning. The pollsters continue working right up to election day, but election laws prohibit them from updating the polls 72 hours before an election.
If you put the proverbial gun to my head, my prediction is Netanyahu will prevail.
Benny Gantz has been a tough opponent in Elections 1, 2 and 3 but polls show he might not even make it into the Knesset this time. No other opponent will even come close to the numbers that Gantz won. If Bibi almost made it to the top facing a strong opponent, he should be able to win when his opposition is splintered and weaker.
But that will only happen if Likud voters turn out in big numbers. Even if they do, the Likud will need help from their natural partners – the chareidim and the religious Zionists.
Netanyahu will also have to convince Naftali Bennett to play ball with him.
Bibi doesn’t make too many political mistakes, but I wrote a few months ago, after election number 3, that Bibi blundered when he cut Bennett out of his last government. In doing so, Bibi empowered and embittered a rival who’s gaining popularity. Polls show Bennett headed for his best showing since he first entered the Knesset in 2013 when he won 12 seats.
By the same token, if the ball does fall into Bennett’s court, and he becomes the new kingmaker, he will have to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors, Kahlon and Lieberman, who stubbornly stuck to their positions even when it was obvious it was getting them nowhere. If he doesn’t, chances are that election number 5 will be an even bigger mess than the one we’re already in.
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