Five Things to Know This Week: Israeli Elections Edition
1. For American Jews, partners in Israeli politics are all but gone
Jewish Americans used to have an easier time relating to Israeli politics. Leaning heavily to the liberal side, members of the Jewish community sought to translate their American political affiliation to the most similar form they could find in Israel: left, but with an added sense of hawkishness, or in other words—the Labor party. From Golda to Rabin and Barak, Labor was a safe home for most American Jews. Some sided with Meretz on the left, and an active minority of Conservative Jews showed support for Likud or the settler parties.
Tuesday’s election results prove that for most American Jews, there is no longer a natural political ally in the Israeli Knesset. Labor, with six seats, has practically disappeared. Meretz is minimized to four seats. The longtime alliance between American Jews and the Israeli center-left has very little to stand on.
Blue and White, Benny Gantz’s centrist party which will have at least 35 seats in the next Knesset, has so far done very little to address issues of concern for American Jews: Its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be a tad less confrontational than that of the Likud, but it’s still a far cry from the pro-peace agenda shared by a majority of American Jews. Gantz has expressed support for religious pluralism in Israel but most members of the new party have little to say on diaspora issues.
For the next four years (or less, depending on how strong a coalition Netanyahu forms), many in the Jewish community might feel they’ve lost their Knesset partners. True, ties between conservatives and members of the Likud have never been stronger, and it is also worth noting that the Ashkenazi Haredi party has emerged stronger than ever, to the relief of many ultra-Orthodox American Jews. But the liberal majority of the Jewish community will have to face a new reality in which it does not have a natural partner in Israeli politics. Netanyahu, a leader American Jews have developed a growing distaste for, is about to become the country’s longest serving prime minister. The center-left is in survival mode. The issues and values championed by the mainstream of American Jewry are almost wiped out of the Israeli political agenda. Now try filling up those Birthright trips.
2. Can Bibi use his 5th term to mend ties with U.S. Jewry?
Yes, he can. And no, he won’t. Netanyahu is more powerful than ever. On the world stage, his strong standing is almost unprecedented. Inside Israel, he is so popular that voters were willing to overlook three looming criminal indictments and vote overwhelmingly for him and his allies. If Netanyahu wishes, he could use his power to patch up relations with the American Jewish community. It would take some work, perhaps even require broadening the coalition, but advancing religious pluralism and democratic values and demonstrating some openness to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is possible.
Political reality indicates this isn’t about to happen. The Haredi parties, with their strong election showing, will try and block any attempt to make changes on issues of conversion and Western Wall prayers. Bibi is not likely to pick a fight with them. Right-wing coalition members, including the United Right party which hosts Kahanist members, are going to play an even more powerful role in Netanyahu’s next government. And the entire right-of-center makeup of the coalition ensures that progress toward peace will be limited at best. In short, alienation between Netanyahu and the American Jewish community can only be expected to worsen, with no political incentive driving the Israeli leader to change course.
3. Peace plan, annexation, or both?
With elections out of the way, it’s now time to roll out Jared Kushner’s “deal of the century” for Middle East peace. The White House has promised it would present the plan in the near future and according to reports, everything is ready, including videos depicting the wonderful life Palestinians can expect once the “deal of the century” is enacted.
Details of the plan, however, are still vague. In a Tuesday Senate hearing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to commit to a two-state solution, indicating perhaps that the peace plan will fall short of calling for an independent Palestinian State. Even more telling is the fact that Pompeo and other administration officials have kept silent regarding Netanyahu’s recent pledge to annex all or part of the West Bank if he wins the elections. One possible conclusion is that the Kushner plan will allow for a limited Israeli annexation of settlement blocs in return for some sort of self-rule arrangement for Palestinians in the rest of the area. Needless to say that for Palestinians, this would be a non-starter.
4. What’s next for Netanyahu?
Benjamin Netanyahu, seen until Tuesday morning as embattled, struggling for his political survival and running a hysteria-based campaign, is now marching proudly toward his fifth term as prime minister of Israel. There’s a reason the crowd at the Likud victory party Tuesday night chanted “he’s a magician.” Netanyahu truly is. At least politically. His ability to turn a desperate electoral situation into a major victory against all odds, proves Bibi is the alchemist of Israeli politics, turning dirt into gold time and again.
Here’s what to expect in the next few days:
First, Netanyahu will need to wait for the final vote count. Absentee ballots include mainly military votes and have traditionally strengthened the Likud and its right wing bloc.
Then, a visit to President Rivlin, who will assign the task of forming the next government on the candidate who has the best chances of getting 61 seats for his coalition. It’s going to be Bibi.
Then come a few weeks of coalition negotiations. These always turn out to be harder than expected, with manufactured crises and last-minute dramas, but will clearly end with the swearing in of Netanyahu as Israel’s next prime minister.
One of Bibi’s first tasks will likely be using this new coalition to pass some kind of immunity law that would help him avoid or delay indictment in three criminal cases he is facing. It won’t be easy to get the votes behind such legislation, but they don’t call him King Bibi for nothing. Netanyahu, who has yet to announce his intention of passing an immunity law, is likely to use Tuesday’s election results as a moral justification for the move, stating that all allegations against him were well known before the elections and still a majority of Israelis chose to back him, therefore prosecuting him out of office would defy the will of the people.
5. Why did we not see it coming?
Because polls, as always, were off. Not by much, but enough to miss the solid right wing bloc. Also, because many in the U.S. tend to look at Israeli elections through the prism of American elections, missing the complex process of coalition building and the importance of political blocs rather than that of individual politicians. It may sound like a complicated system, but then, have you ever tried to explain the electoral college system to non-Americans?