Naomi Chazan
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Brewing elections — Israeli style

The rising volume in Knesset debates is just one indication that early elections are brewing
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with MK David Bitan during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, November 27, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with MK David Bitan during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, November 27, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Binyamin Netanyahu’s announcement that his present government is here to stay until the next regularly scheduled elections in November 2019 is perhaps the best indication of his detachment from his political base. His coalition partners and fellow Likud members have been transmitting a totally different message. They don’t need the tens of thousands of demonstrators every Saturday night to remind themselves that public disgust with corruption at the top is boiling over. Nor do they have to examine the polls to register their decline in public opinion. Even Donald Trump’s historic recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has not made a serious dent in their mounting unease. This was compounded in the last week alone, not only by growing security concerns, but also by the social and economic fallout of the near collapse of Teva, Israel’s star corporation.

The political firmament is in turmoil. Participants on all sides of the party spectrum, with their unusually well-honed instincts, anticipate early elections and are preparing themselves accordingly. By putting into play all the familiar pre-election tools at their disposal, they are making it clear that at least they — if not their purportedly master-politician leader — realize that they will be put to the test at the ballot box sooner rather than later. Here is what they’re doing in a ritual that has traditionally turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The first sign of impending elections is the ratcheting up of demands on all sides. The prime minister’s acquiescence to the ultimatum given by the United Torah Judaism faction — led by resigning Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman — regarding halting public works on Shabbat has unleashed a series of requests from other coalition partners. These include more allocations for settlements, larger outlays for pet initiatives (notably Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s request for a substantial hike in the budget of his ministry) and Shas’s Aryeh Deri obstinate stand on transferring control over the opening of businesses on Saturdays and holidays from local authorities to his Ministry of the Interior. The Histadrut’s call for a national strike to protest the wholescale dismissal of Teva employees is another case in point, as is the Teacher’s Union prolonged — and ultimately successful — slowdown in support of pay hikes. Almost every day, more pressures, large and small, are made and met as the vulnerability of the present government becomes increasingly apparent.

The second indication of pre-election preparation — especially in coalition circles — comes in the form of increased handouts to the public. Just this past week, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon gave a refresher course in election economics with the announcement of an NIS 800 million reduction in import and purchase taxes. His colleague, prime ministerial hopeful and current Minister of Transportation Israel Katz, followed suit with the announcement of new benefits for users of public transportation. More subtly, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett tried to please his constituency by denying school access to human rights organizations (the veteran Association for Civil Rights in Israel) and peace groups (the Forum of Bereaved Families), after he had already denounced and closed the doors on Breaking the Silence. These examples are just the first trickle of what is likely to turn into a veritable flood in the coming months, culminating in the introduction of the next budget in early 2018.

A third manifestation of the lead-up to elections can be seen today, as in the past, in the legislative sphere. Last week provided an outstanding sample. It started with the adoption of an amendment to the Infiltration Law, mandating the involuntary expulsion of asylum seekers to third countries and the closure of the Holot detention center. It continued with the early morning vote on the change in the law expanding the jurisdiction of the Minister of Interior to local matters (generally dubbed the “grocery store law”). And it culminated in the adoption of a bill allocating state funding to primary campaigns (and granting additional funding to parties that do not hold internal elections for candidates to the Knesset) — no better sign of a lead up to an early foray to the polls.

These are just the first volley in a set of progressively more contentious proposals pending final approval. During the coming week the Knesset will vote on the (in)famous “Recommendations Law,” which will prevent the police from publishing its recommendations on investigations of public officials (like Prime Minister Netanyahu, Minister of Social Affairs Haim Katz and now coalition whip David Bitan). It will also try to vote into law the controversial bill on “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” and consider further legislative initiatives designed to appease segments of the coalition: a renewed effort to mandate death sentences for terrorist acts, further limitations on civil society organizations, and perhaps even changes in the appointment of presidents of the High Court. Each of these proposals tests government cohesion; failure to adopt one of these key pieces of legislation threatens to hasten its demise.

This helps to explain the coming into play of a fourth election-projecting technique: the dispersion of statements and positions designed to mobilize critical segments of the electorate. The most egregious example is Avigdor Liberman’s revived assault on the Arab community in Israel, this time advocating a boycott of their businesses: ”They have no connection to the State of Israel, and I call on the citizens of the State of Israel simply to boycott Wadi Ara. One shouldn’t go into stores or receive any services.” When queried on the blatantly racist nature of his message, he defended himself by pointing to a poll that showed that 93 percent of his party’s constituency supported his position. Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultra-right Bayit Yehudi party, followed — somewhat more subtly — in Liberman’s footsteps: “I don’t suggest to Israeli Arabs or to rioters to try our patience.” Yair Lapid, head of the predominantly secular Yesh Atid and a key contender to lead the next government, has abandoned his courtship of the ultra-Orthodox and reverted in recent weeks to an all-out attack on religious coercion. The newly-elected leader of the Labor Party, Avi Gabay, has increased his public appearances in an attempt to win over moderate right and centrist voters, without forfeiting the backing of too many of his party’s longtime supporters. The Joint Arab List has reacted strongly to diatribes against its base, laying the groundwork for their mobilization. So it goes with electoral rhetoric: louder, stronger, more blatant and decidedly partisan.

Inevitably, these measures have set in motion the activation of a fifth, far more personal, set of techniques — devoted entirely to self-promotion. These take on both positive and negative forms. If at all possible, the volume of tweets, posts, blogs and texts has increased beyond the regular steady stream. Backbenchers employ gimmicks to escape their anonymity: some become holdouts on major votes to gain some public visibility (Sharren Haskel of the Likud, for one); others submit outrageous proposals to attract attention (the list of suggested legislation from private quarters is indicative); and the noise level in Knesset debates has risen even more. Back-sniping is the flip side of these instances of near-rabid self-assertion. Every day someone floats an article announcing the appointment of a colleague/rival to some (usually ambassadorial) post far away from the political fray. Rumors of the impending demise of other competitors are circulated with abandon. Without outright gloating, the legal investigations of some members are highlighted and the credibility of others questioned. In the highly personal climate of Israeli politics, the decibels are rising to electoral heights.

The five ingredients of Israel’s pre-election toolbox are now being utilized to their fullest. When combined with intra-party preparations (membership drives, leadership elections, early campaign teasers), these initial flurries are well on the way to gathering momentum which will transform them, as in previous such circumstances, into an unstoppable electoral storm. Those who claim otherwise will find themselves completely unequipped to meet the oncoming electoral season and likely to suffer the consequences of their inaction.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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