It’s looking like Benjamin Netanyahu could break into a home, steal the family jewels and leave the toilet unflushed – and the victims would often still vote for the Likud. A little like Trump, who boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and pay no price at the polls.
An overpowering despondency in the Israeli “center-left” stems from awe at such powers of hypnosis combined with a sense that the right is invulnerable as it drives the place to ruin. But in fact, the right actually struggles with a pair of vulnerabilities personified at present by the somewhat clownish duo of Avigdor Liberman and Moshe Kahlon.
First up, the Great Haredi Vexation. Without the 16 seats of the ultra-Orthodox parties the right has but 49 Knesset seats, well short of the 61 out of 120 needed to rule. With such a hand they extort the right to deny their children education in sciences and to have their youth dodge the military draft, as well as huge subsidies enabling adults not to work. Meanwhile, the country’s non-Haredi majority is forced into constant vigilance against the mission creep of “religious coercion” — potential commerce bans on the Sabbath, segregation of the sexes, various oppressions of women, conservatism of every kind.
Second is the Great Populist Paradox. Right-wing support is strongest among the country’s less-educated, less-prosperous, more state-dependant classes. Yet the Likud’s policies harm them in three ways: by diverting funds to the settlements (a sector subsidized almost as much as the Haredim); by harming the economy in general, which hurts the poorest most; and by implementing neoliberal policies of small government and untrammeled capitalism. The latter has been especially true in the days of Netanyahu, who is seen by many as a sort of Israeli Republican (his English and command of facts are both way better than with many in that crowd). In Israeli political parlance these are called “social” issues.
The two problems come together with public transport on the Sabbath, banned in most of the country on account of the Haredim. This affects most dramatically people living in the periphery communities who have fewer private resources to get to the parks, beaches, and centers of entertainment. These are also the hard core of soccer fans who face religious pressures to move the games to a day other than the one when they are free to attend.
So Likud must always be calculating what to do to keep this contradictory coalition together. And that’s where these two fellows come in, with critical roles designed for the parliamentary system in which a prime minister needs a majority coalition always made up of more than one party — but generally also aligning itself in two clear blocs: the right and the religious here; the left (or “center-left”) and Arab parties there.
Kahlon’s role has been to keep “social” voters in the fold of the right. As a descendant of Libyan Jews he was useful to the Ashkenazi leadership of a party whose base is heavily Sephardic. He’s a regular guy who never projected much conviction, pretended a little to oppose the 2005 Gaza pullout when there was profit in that, and made his name by breaking some monopolies in mobile telephony as communications minister a few years ago.
Then he bolted Likud under some pretext and emerged, ahead of the 2015 election, with a new party called Kulanu, claiming to be in nobody’s pocket, a member of no bloc, driven by “social” issues only. Quite a few leftist saps with a social conscience backed him, and about a second after balloting ended so did the pretending: Kahlon dutifully handed Netanyahu his 10 seats, without which the right had no majority.
As finance minister he did little of note but did have one function: to act as the lone ray of ethical light in a benighted coalition, blocking attacks on public broadcasting, the courts system, liberal activists and such. Cynics suspected that this too was positioning , creating a repository for rightists who had not yet lost their minds, to keep them somehow within the fold while enabling them to “punish” Likud. Indeed, his election slogan referred to himself as “the sane right” – a slightly comical suggestion that the others were not sane, or that in his own sanity there is an irony worth noting. But it’s not so funny now.
Kahlon has said many times that he would not serve under a prime minister who has been indicted. Netanyahu faces three counts of bribery and breach of trust (pending a hearing that has been delayed to the fall by the acquiescent attorney general, after farcical maneuvers including Netanyahu’s lawyers refusing to accept the investigation materials and then quitting after he refused to pay them, leaving the impoverished millionaire without representation as he seeks financial aid). The law technically enables a prime minister to continue to serve, just as it enables a U.S. president to hide his tax returns or profit from office; such things were once inconceivable, but no longer. So his ethical stance made Kahlon just a little bit special.
Now it comes to the test. Before the election Netanyahu denied insinuations that if reelected he would try political maneuvers to escape the long arm of the law. He said the hearing would enable him to present his side and the charges would collapse. The truth is that Netanyahu has had long hours with investigators already and the hearings are pro forma, almost never changing a thing. But enough of the public bought the spin to enable Likud to tie the opposition Blue & White party at 35 seats apiece. Just like with the Kahlon about-face in 2015, once voting ended the truth came out: Netanyahu apparently plans myriad machinations to bolster parliamentary immunity and save himself from prosecution.
Netanyahu may have gone a bridge too far with the so-called “override clause” in which a (simple) Knesset majority could overturn any Supreme Court decision — like a decision forcing the Knesset to remove his immunity. It would mean an end to judicial oversight of the executive, which has been a key thing keeping Israel in the civilized family of nations, and preventing, inter alia, the prosecution of Israeli officers at the Hague. Even normally cynical Israelis — like the lawyers’ associations and journalists — are genuinely infuriated about this. It smacks of the mafia and would make Israeli democracy look more like Turkey’s or Russia’s; not serious, vaguely sinister.
Having fooled the voters once Kahlon crashed in 2019 to 4 seats. What will he do with them?
Liberman’s role has been to draw right-wing voters who hate religious coercion, and deliver them, after pretending to bargain hard, straight back to the right-wing bloc. He is now at loggerheads with the Haredi parties whose demands have gone through the roof and if accepted would take Israel a few more steps toward Iran. He is making a principle out of opposing Haredi insistence on scrapping even a minimalist military draft bill-in-the-waiting (which has been demanded by the same Supreme Court).
The former bar bouncer presents himself as a thug and an ultra-nationalist, but not a stupid one. Although he is himself a West Bank settler, he frequently speaks of a need to partition the country to preserve the Jewish majority — so much so that he has proposed jettisoning Arab-populated bits of Israel proper (with the pre-1967 borders). That, oddly, places him pretty much in the center-left, in policy if not in temperament. Without his 5 seats there is no government. What will he do with them?
Both “leaders” have so far held out, and Israel is in the unprecedented situation of there being no coalition agreements with any party just days before Netanyahu’s deadline to present President Rivlin with a majority. If by Tuesday Kahlon and Liberman are still holding out, many scenarios could happen. These include handing a chance to form a coalition to another Likudnik willing to take on Netanyahu, or to Blue & White leader Benny Gantz, or to either member of the dynamic duo. Governments led by minority swing-parties are unheard of in Israel, but not in Europe.
Some will call you a sucker for even considering their tough bargaining is anything but more lies. But I was there, at the Herzliya Conference in Dec. 2003, when Sharon became something of a leftist. Few believed him but I sort of did, because evacuating Gaza made so much sense even as a way to hold on to the West Bank.
The Israeli establishment and “elites” burn white-hot with desire to be rid of Netanyahu, perhaps even more than they wanted to pull out of Gaza. They will accept any way to make it happen, however ridiculous, and be grateful. Many Likudniks, quietly, would be as well.