Spinning out of control

I am sure that most Israelis, like me, are sick of elections. Yet again, we have a result that is no result at all, just another stalemate. Since both the right and the left will try to form a government in this stalemate, each side has begun to spin the results in such a way as to make its claim look reasonable and its opponent’s claim, ridiculous.

Personally, I am having a lot of trouble stomaching the spin and prefer to lay out the situation as it really is. Part of doing so is understanding where the spin comes from, which I will try and do as non-judgmentally as possible (for both sides). As I am myself center-left — I voted for Kachol-Lavan (KL, Blue and White) all three times, and will do so for the fourth election if there is one—I will start by deconstructing the spin on my own side.

The Center-Left (KL): The main claim on the center-left is that Bibi lost. This is not false per se but it isn’t exactly true either for two different reasons.

First, on a party level: The Likud did better than any other party, receiving 36 seats, with KL getting only 33. In that sense, Likud beat KL. Moreover, since Likud did worse than KL in the 22nd Knesset elections, it is a meaningful statistic that they did better than KL in this one. To be clear, KL did not lose popularity; they received 69,076 more votes than last time. Instead, Likud went way up, receiving 238,717 more votes than last time. Thus, if any party can be said to have won this round, it is Likud.

Moreover, note that throughout the campaign, KL has said that they need to be the biggest party, and if that it would be unprecedented for a party to be the largest by a significant margin and for some other party to form the government, yet this is what they are planning to do now. That doesn’t make it illegitimate, but at the least we must admit that it is a reversal of previous rhetoric.

Second, on a block level: All the parties in what we call the right wing block—it is really 2 blocks, the right wing and the Chareidi (see my “Israel Has Six Parties… Sort of,” if you want to understand the blocks)—explicitly support Netanyahu as prime minister. More importantly, the three parties that are not Likud are all willing to join a coalition with Netanyahu’s party, thus giving him 58 seats. Admittedly, this is not enough to form a government, but let’s look at the alternative.

The problem here is that there is no left block; the three parties that would in theory be joining KL have mutual overlaps with KL, but not with each other, except on the desire to replace Netanyahu as prime minister with someone else. The weakest link here is that Avidgor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, cannot possibly sit with the Joint List (the Arab parties), nor does it really fit well with Meretz (part of the current Emet party). It does overlap with Meretz insofar as the desire to stop religious coercion, but when it comes to the Palestinian question, Yisrael Beiteinu is hawkish, pure and simple.

It thus appears that Gantz may have enough to back him as prime minister, but not enough to form a government. This is something that, strategically, KL cannot say out loud, but it does seem like a pretty serious problem.

The Center-Right (Likud): The Prime Minister put all his eggs in the basket of winning 61 seats. It seemed quite improbable at first, since for most of the time KL was beating Likud in the polls by a couple of seats, but Bibi did an amazing job at getting lukewarm supporters to leave their homes and vote Likud. Even so, it wasn’t good enough and he doesn’t have the numbers. If we were to follow what happened in the previous 3 elections, what we would see is Bibi be given the mandate from the president. He would then fail and Gantz would be given the mandate. He would also fail and we would ridiculously be headed to fourth elections.

This is bad for Bibi since the trial against him will start shortly. The longer he waits to get a government the harder it will be to beat the conviction clock with an immunity-for-the-PM law. (Of course, I don’t know if he will be convicted or not, but if he wasn’t worried about it, why all the push for immunity?) But it is also bad for the country and the other parties, since we will again have a transitional government.

To avoid another election, the four parties who will not support Netanyahu are considering passing a law that someone who is under indictment cannot be given the mandate from the president to form a government. They are also considering passing the important law about limiting a prime minster to two terms, which would also make it impossible for Netanyahu to be given the mandate. Netanyahu’s spin on this is doubly problematic.

First, he claims that Gantz is trying to “steal” the elections. Admittedly, I don’t disagree with my friends on the right, that the idea of passing these laws now, for the 23rd Knesset, is less than palatable, considering elections were run on the assumption that Netanyahu would be Likud’s choice if they won. I prefer the suggestion of the Maariv op-ed columnist Ben Caspit, to set these laws up to take effect in the next election (Knesset 24). Nevertheless, what these four parties are proposing is not “stealing.”

Assuming making such a law in an interim government is legal, which the Supreme Court might have to decide, then it is simply democracy, palatable or not. Moreover, the laws themselves are perfectly good and reasonable, and in other situations—like when it wasn’t his own head on the chopping block but someone else’s—Bibi has expressed support for both.

Bibi’s second spin is to paint this as an example of outsiders taking over Israel—and by outsiders, he means Israeli Arabs. He made this point by comparing the amount of Jewish party votes each candidate would get, and ignoring Arab party votes as irrelevant. Thus he beats Gantz 58 to 47. But, contrary to popular opinion on the right, the vote of Arab citizens counts, and if the Joint List decides to support Gantz—I don’t know if they will—he will have 62 seats not 47.

Moreover, as many pundits have already noted, it is virtually certain that if, let’s say, the Ta’al party were to break off from the Joint List and support Netanyahu, Ahmed Tibi would be Israel’s culture minister tomorrow, so the dismissive attitude toward Arab MKs is not only offensive but cynical.

We are left with a quandary. No one candidate for Prime Minister has enough support to form a government, and this is leading not only to an endless cycle of elections, but to a toxic atmosphere of mutual recriminations that is leaving honest analysis behind and literally spinning out of control.

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of TheTorah.com and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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