Israel’s polity is gearing up for new elections, even though its society is still reeling from the aftereffects of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a government following his party’s solid showing barely four months ago. The dilemma is clear: the Likud under Netanyahu and its partners on the right cannot form a government and, should they succeed, it will likely be ungovernable given the personal, ideological and religious tensions it would contain. The Blue and White agglomeration of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, along with the parties to its left, would be hard put to knit together a coalition; if they manage to do so, they will find themselves under constant assault from a new, unrepentant, opposition. The last elections resulted in a political deadlock, leaving Israel more heavily polarized than ever.
The next elections will be an exercise in futility unless all those involved find a way to break this seemingly intractable stalemate. The option of conducting the same campaign as earlier in the year and expecting different results simply does not exist. For those who did poorly in the April 9th ballot the need for change is most obvious. Those who did relatively well face the equally difficult challenge of deflecting more pointed and relentless attacks and adjusting accordingly. With all the sense of déjà vu that accompanies the September reelections, they are, indeed, all about change.
The working assumption today is that political survival (or revival) depends on altering — if not upturning — key premises that have stood at the core of Israel’s politics in recent years. This means critically examining its main components, rethinking longstanding truisms regarding priorities and directions, as well as rearranging the alliances that contributed to the divisive paralysis within Israel’s political system today. Here are some areas that require immediate attention and may lead to different results.
- Party reconfiguration. The two large blocs, Likud and Blue and White, appear to have a vested interest in expanding their support base. They are determined to gobble up as many satellite parties as conceivably possible and weaken potential partners. The Likud has already incorporated Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party. It is doing all it can to woo Haredi and national religious voters in order to grow electoral support and, by denigrating its current bogeyman Avigdor Lieberman — a non-partner in any Netanyahu-led coalition — further increase its numbers. Ironically, success might signal another failure: the larger the Likud cut of the electoral pie on the right, the fewer the prospects for coalition construction come September 18th. The same logic holds for the hodgepodge Blue and White coalition whose internal differences are fast becoming more visible. The quest for a larger support base leaves little room for inter-party alliances on the day after — unless it makes clear that all Israeli parties committed to democracy are legitimate partners in its future government.
To succeed in the elections and in coalition formation it is therefore necessary to break the two-camp construct that emerged from the April 9th ballot. This means — in stark contrast to current conventional wisdom — the construction of at least five — if not more — distinct blocs. Besides the Likud and the Blue and White party (right and center), the national-religious ultra-right could explore further means of consolidation (the new, chastened, Naftali Bennett — like Lieberman a Netanyahu castaway — is already working in this direction). The Arab parties, severely punished by their voters for the split in the Joint List, are hoping to do the same. The remnants of the left (Labor and Meretz) know that a partnership is key to survival — perhaps including Arab parties: they must do more to make it happen.
Taken together: party diversification rather than homogenization is the best response to deadlock: two large binary blocs do limit choices. The formation of new and different electoral combinations (with appropriate leadership changes) without which no government can be formed, let alone rule, is therefore critical for governability as well as for electoral victory.
- Agenda reformulation. The previous elections were, by all accounts, among the most vacuous in Israel’s history. They focused on the relative merits of the candidates, ignoring both their records and their programs. The repeat elections threaten to replicate the same pattern, with mild shifts in topics and emphases. The Likud will no doubt present itself as the main purveyor of religious tolerance, while skillfully manipulating the powers granted by its extended incumbency (including ministerial reshuffles) to maintain close control over events and hence over salient topics. Its ultra-Orthodox allies (Shas and United Torah Judaism) will probably, in these circumstances, lower their profile for the duration, while the United Party of the Right will continue to argue with everyone over issues of religion, nationalism and the state. With the opposition expressing varying degrees of antipathy to religious coercion, the focus of attention is on the verge of focusing, once again, on pet peeves rather than essential issues.
How convenient for the current coalition and its leader. A veritable respite from the knotty problems of judicial review, checks and balances, democratic robustness and, of course, economic uncertainty, Arab-Jewish relations and, yes, the unsustainability of the ongoing limbo on matters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum.
Substantive ambiguity could work once, when the public debate revolved around the political survival of Binyamin Netanyahu. But scarcely four months later, with Netanyahu scheduled for a hearing pending indictment a few weeks after the elections, this question is less consuming: election-weary citizens are clamoring for greater clarity on matters related to their safety, wellbeing, solidarity and identity after his tenure. Those who present a cohesive vision — and hence choice — stand a better chance of success at the polls than the parties which, once again, continue to be content reacting to the hegemonic agenda.
- Tactical makeover. The last elections were the most confrontational and off-putting in Israel’s already tumultuous political history. No trick, lie, deception or electoral shenanigan was shunned in the drive to debunk opponents of the prime minister. On election day, the most underhanded techniques — including camera surveillance in voting booths in the Arab community — were employed to deter voters from the polls. To add insult to injury, the coalition negotiations that followed involved outrageous payoffs and even outright bribes to potential breakaways in an unrequited quest for the magic 61 needed to patch together a new Netanyahu-led coalition. Just the thought of the recurrence of such a spectacle sends shudders throughout much of the electorate.
The still vivid memory of this display of repulsive political machinations begs the question: how does one respond to the bullies and combat their techniques? The majority today — especially in opposition quarters — is inclined to diverge from their previous reluctance to bite back, arguing that this is the only way to confront such ruthlessness. Others insist that mudslinging and hardball tactics play into the hands of their originators and reinforce their message.
There is a difference between assertiveness and stooping to new lows in electioneering. The former exudes a firm steadfastness; the latter fear and perpetual chaos. Most Israeli citizens yearn for resolve coupled with respect. Those able to offer such a combination will find themselves at a distinct advantage not only at the polls, but also in the critical days after.
- Civic Reengagement. Elections, more than perhaps any other political ritual, are very much a matter of mood. The first national plebiscite of 2019 was ridden with sectarian strife and high emotions. The results have unleashed a mixture of disgust and indifference. The mere thought of participating in a rerun is repugnant to many — especially when at the end of the tunnel all they see is more of the same. Without rekindling citizen involvement, however, that is exactly what will happen. And in polarized situations, it is an electoral truism that low participation rates favor extremists.
How, then, can citizen interest be reignited, and participation enhanced? There are, at the moment, no simple answers. What is clear is that raising voter turnout is a necessity — not only in Israel’s Arab community where participation was a paltry 49 percent, but throughout the country (in Tel Aviv it barely scraped 68%, whereas in B’nei Brak and Beitar Illit it soared to well over 80%). The best way to arouse passion among the skeptics and the disenchanted is therefore to offer real hope — to make it known that they have it in their power to build something different, decent and equitable. No incentive for partaking in the political process is more empowering than the reinforcement of this sense of efficacy which comes from accountability. No task for those seeking a break with past patterns is more urgent.
The forthcoming elections are, truly, a make or break proposition. If they are handled the same way as their predecessors, they will perpetuate stagnation in the deepest sense of the term. If they are conducted otherwise, they might yet become the harbinger of constructive change. Decisive answers now to the strategic, tactical, structural and psychological challenges of reelections will determine their outcome and what lies beyond.