Alan Edelstein
Alan Edelstein

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Israeli coalition negotiations

It’s spring-time and the Passover break. The Jerusalem sky is a beautiful blue and, after a couple of days of terribly dirty air coming off of the desert last week, the air is crisp and clear.

With over half of the adult population vaccinated and infection rates falling dramatically, Israel has been opening up. Restaurants, hotels, and other venues are open to those with Green Passes. Parks are packed, and stores are busy.

In addition to recounting and identifying with our forebears escape to freedom and the beginnings of our nation, this Passover many Israelis feel a sense of modern-day liberation as we take steps toward some semblance of “normal” life. This feeling of liberation feels good.

The pall on the party is the feeling that we are still captive to a stalemated political system and a dysfunctional government. We’ve been through four elections in two years, and the latest election left us with no clear path to a governing coalition.

We have an indicted prime minister who just won’t get the hint and go. He is tangled in conflicts as his government’s justice system prosecutes him. He attacks his own law enforcement officials and his Attorney General. He is willing to see the government paralyzed, the nation operate without a budget, and the people endure another election as he continues to cling to office.

In his effort to bolster his prospects, he opened his coalition and the doors of the Knesset to an avowed racist party, disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane who, along with his Kach party, were long shunned by Israeli parties and politicians across the spectrum. After some legislative and judicial give-and-take, the Knesset voted to ban Kach from Israeli elections.

The country needs to be liberated from this debacle. The people need to be freed from the jaws of stalemate and dysfunction. If voting is the criterion, Israeli democracy works. Too much. We need a conclusion.

The party leaders are using the holiday break to discuss, to probe, to connive, to make and consider offers, and to pressure. It is difficult to see how a lasting coalition that can govern effectively will emerge. The old saying “If you don’t like how law or sausage is made, don’t watch how either is made” applies equally to Israel’s coalition formation process.

In the meantime, there is some good, some bad, and some ugly:

Heartening:

Despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s best efforts, with intentional or unintentional support from Benny Gantz, Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas, Barak Obama, the U.N., John Kerry, and the Israeli left itself, there still is a significant amount of support for the center, center-left, and left. Between Gantz’s Blue & White (8 seats), Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (17), Meretz (6), Labor (7), there’s 38 seats.

While nowhere near the 61 needed to form a government, 38 is nothing to sneeze at. If you toss in the Joint List (6) (made up of three parties: the Arab-Jewish Communist/Socialist Hadash, the Arab nationalist Balad, and the Arab nationalist/secular Ta’al), which most likely would not join a coalition but could support it from the outside, you have an even more impressive bloc of 44.

Also heartening:

There are two parties on the right, many of whose members previously were Likud members and leaders, who, for both principled and personal political reasons, have pledged not to join a coalition with Likud so long as Netanyahu leads it. Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and Liberman’s Israel Beytenu each won seven seats. That puts the anti-Bibi coalition at 58.

Somewhat baffling:

Naftali Bennett, leader of the to-the-right-of-Likud Yamina party. Bennett’s transparent ambition to be prime minister seems to be as strong as Netanyahu’s. He somehow thinks that winning seven seats entitles him to the position.

Not having committed to which side he would join or not join, and his sole criteria seeming to be becoming prime minister, it is difficult to know where Yamina will wind up. It is also difficult to conceive of Yamina teaming up in any kind of lasting, productive coalition with the likes of Meretz, Labor, and the Joint List, but more tangled relationships have been made in the name of political ambition.

Best line of the post-election wrangling:

When Benny Gantz, as leader of what was then a large, four-party bloc, abandoned his central pledge not to join a coalition with Netanyahu, he thought he had a rock-solid agreement with Netanyahu to rotate the prime minister’s position in the fall of this year. The only “out” in the agreement was if a budget was not passed.

What prime minister would deliberately deprive a country of its budget, thereby hampering planning and initiatives vital to the country, for the sake of escaping an agreement to give up the PM’s office? Gantz, who arguably bought the deal for noble reasons and who did prevent some destructive actions while in the coalition, apparently was the only breathing Israeli who did not realize that Bibi Netanyahu was the PM who would be quite willing to sacrifice the nation’s budget and to go to the fourth election in two years in order to remain as PM and to hopefully stay out of prison.

Just to provide extra comfort, Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardic religious Shas party, a long-time Netanyahu partner, assured Gantz that he would step up if Netanyahu were to renege on the deal. So when Netanyahu reneged on the deal, Deri, a once-convicted Minister of the Interior who is again serving in the Netanyahu government as Minister of the Interior, did and said. . . . nothing.

So, when the prime minister tried to entice Sa’ar into coming back into the fold by promising him a rotation to the PM’s office, Sa’ar’s response was: “Only if Deri guarantees it.”

Very distressing:

Under Israel’s proportional representation system, a party that does not reach the threshold of 3.25% of the vote does not enter the Knesset and its votes are lost to that party and to any bloc that they may have helped form.

Bezalel Smotrich is the leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party. He favors Israel being “run according to the Torah and Jewish law,” but he says that he recognizes that “we can’t because there are people who think differently from us, and we have to get along with them.” He is anti-gay. He has called Reform Judaism a “fake religion.” He supports segregation of Arab and Jewish women in maternity wards.

As offensive as these views are, there are two other parties that are arguably even more repugnant: Noam, whose principle focus seems to be advancing an anti-gay agenda, and Otzma Yehudit, the party referenced above which was inspired by Meir Kahane and whose leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, has or had hanging in his living room a picture of Baruch Goldstein, who gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron in 1994.

Fearing that Noam and Otzma Yehudit would not receive enough votes to clear the 3.25% threshold, thereby “wasting” right-wing votes, Prime Minister Netanyahu offered incentives so as to encourage the two parties to join Smotrich’s Religious Zionists.

Proving once again that no standard is too low to violate in his own self-interest, Netanyahu has now assured that the heir to Meir Kahane, the man for whom former right-wing prime minister and Lehi leader Yitzhak Shamir would leave his seat when he rose to speak, will be seated in the next Knesset. He could very well be a minister.

Encouraging, potentially a game-changer:

Israel’s Arab parties have traditionally refused to join governments, although they have occasionally supported governments “from the outside” (This was the case during Yitzhak Rabin’s peace efforts.) The Arab parties did not want to support Zionist governments, and the non-Arab parties did not want non-Zionist parties in their coalitions.

This may be changing. Arab parties have historically based their identities, their campaigns, and their Knesset rhetoric on ideological, nationalistic, anti-Zionist programs. A common rap on their Knesset members has been that they have been more interested in touting the cause of the Palestinians than fixing the streets and stopping the violence in Arab communities.

There is now a crack in that concrete. In a bit of irony, Ra’am, a conservative Islamist party led by a guy whose last name is Abbas, broke away from the Joint List and declared that it will consider being part of a coalition that provides real, solid benefits to its communities. Mansour Abbas is putting delivering for his community over ideological points and cheers in the anti-Israel hotbeds of Europe and North America.

Netanyahu and Abbas played some political footsie during the campaign. Despite perceptions among some American Jews, the Likud has provided bigger budgets and other benefits to Arab communities than any governments before it.

When pressed toward the end of the campaign, Netanyahu declared that he would not form a coalition with Ra’am because it is anti-Zionist. Within hours after the votes were tabulated, one of his chief allies was saying “well, maybe.” However, Smotrich of the Religious Zionists, an essential partner of Likud, has essentially said “over my dead body.” Even if all of Netanyahu’s supporters would accept Ra’am, it is likely that going in with Smotrich and his allies is a bridge too far for Abbas.

That leaves the anti-Bibi bloc for Ra’am to possibly support. There, too, some of the right-wing partners have objections and problems, and visa-versa. And some of the left-wing parties will have a problem with Ra’am’s anti-gay and other very conservative views. Nevertheless, the leader of a conservative Islamist Party possibly being the key component in selecting the next Prime Minister amounts to an earthquake on the Israeli political landscape.

I am writing this on Thursday evening. In a few minutes Abbas will be speaking on national television, and all of Israel is waiting to hear what he has to say. Who woulda thought? Basically no one.

Sad:

While to the right when it came to military matters and the territories, the Likud Party was always a party strongly supportive of due process, individual rights, the judicial system, a vibrant free press, and democracy. The late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who led Likud and its predecessor party since the founding of the State, was a stickler for the law. Many bitterly opposed his political views. Few questioned his ethics and morality and his commitment to Israel and the Jewish people.

The Likud Party that Bibi Netanyahu has led for 22 of the last 28 years is a badly recognizable ghost of Menachem Begin’s Likud. Many of its leaders dedicated to its long-time principles have left it. Talented potential challengers to Netanyahu have been forced out. Menachem Begin’s own son, former Knesset member Benny Begin, is no longer a member.

Those remaining in Likud rally around Netanyahu regardless of the crimes he is charged with, the promises he makes and breaks, the attacks he leads, and the intrigue and shenanigans he engages in. Party members viciously attack opponents and target the judicial system, law enforcement, the media, and pretty much anyone else that dares criticize Netanyahu or, as some of his supporters refer to him, Bibi Ha-Melech (King Bibi).

President Reuven Rivlin, a Likud member longer than many Likud members have been out of diapers, recognizing the current stalemate, the continued dangers of an unstable government, and the looming possibility of another election, recently urged Israeli parties to consider “out-of-the-ordinary coalitions, collaborations that cross sectors, working in a serious and dedicated way for the good of all of Israel’s citizens.” Likud Party leaders attacked him.

Also sad:

Bibi Netanyahu is a very smart, talented politician. He served bravely in the IDF. He played a key role in Israel’s transformation to a hi-tech, economically vibrant country. He kept the country financially sound and safe during his record-setting tenure as Prime Minister. He fostered relations with African countries, and he created game-changing breakthroughs with Gulf states. He got Israelis vaccinated against Covid faster than any other people on earth.

Now he is embroiled in a corruption trial. He conflates the interests of the country with his own self-interest. He may have deluded himself into thinking that only he can protect Israel and, therefore, any means is justified in the ends of remaining Prime Minister. He attacks the institutions of the state in order to maintain his position.

He has done nothing to move Israel toward some kind of separation from the Palestinians. To the contrary, he has moved Israel closer to one-state in which we will be forced to choose between a Jewish or a democratic state.

No one trusts his word.

Ironic:

The prime minister has called upon Bennett and Sa’ar “to come home. . . to the right” for “the benefit of all the citizens of Israel,” seemingly forgetting that Sa’ar’s six seats were built on a platform rejecting Netanyahu.

Prediction:

A fool’s errand. But never count Netanyahu out. He’s smart. He’s desperate. He’s persistent. He’s determined. He’s got more lives than the proverbial cat.

About the Author
Alan Edelstein was a lawyer and lobbyist in California for 30 years. He currently lives in Jerusalem and Sacramento, California and consults on governmental affairs, communications, politics, and business development. He blogs at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com. Inquiries regarding speaking engagements: ae@edelsteinstrategies.com
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