More Gridlock in Israel

Ari Lieberman, Neither side is willing to budge after dubious election results.

Israelis went to the polls on Monday, the third general election in less than a year, and the emerging results have produced more gridlock. Early polling data suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and his natural coalition partners were heading toward victory, but that assessment proved to be premature.

Israel’s parliamentary system of democracy is an arrangement that lends itself to dysfunction and abuse. Small, special interest parties can utilize their narrow agendas to extort, blackmail and create political chaos and stalemate.

While Likud did have a good showing and secured the most seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament or Knesset, the bloc of center-right, rightwing and ultra-orthodox parties could only manage to muster 58 seats. Sixty-one seats are needed to form a government.

As things stand now, Likud has 36 seats, the ultra-orthodox parties (Shas and UTJ) secured 16 seats and a smaller right-wing nationalist party (Yemina) secured 6 seats for a total of 58. Likud’s main rival, the center-left Blue and White party headed by ex-general Benny Gantz, secured 33 seats. Its left-wing allies (Labor-Gesher-Meretz) managed to get just 7 seats, for a total of 40 seats.

The Arab and Communist parties, which merged to form one party known as the Joint List, received 15 seats. The Joint List is anti-Zionist and its members have more in common with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas than they do with the State of Israel. Consequently, no mainstream Israeli party would ever form a coalition with the Joint List.

That leaves us with one final party, the “Yisrael Beiteinu,” or “Israel Our Home” party headed by an ex-Moldavian bouncer named Avigdor Lieberman. This party acquired 7 seats. Lieberman lives in the Judea district (the southern portion of the West Bank) in a community called Nokdim. Some would refer to his community as a “West Bank settlement” and would refer to Lieberman as a “settler.”

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Lieberman’s politics are center-right, which would make him a natural ally of Netanyahu. He’s hawkish on military matters but is also staunchly secularist. This places him at odds with Netanyahu’s other allies, the ultra-orthodox parties.

In addition, personal relations between Netanyahu and Lieberman, which were once cordial, have turned acrimonious. The two had a falling out in 2018 over what Lieberman described as Netanyahu’s capitulation to Hamas and his inadequate response to Hamas rocket fire from Gaza. Liberman also disagreed with Netanyahu’s decision to allow Qatari cash to flow into Gaza. This was Lieberman’s pretext to quit the Netanyahu-led coalition, which precipitated the instant political gridlock.

Snap elections were held in April 2019, but Lieberman was unwilling to join with any coalition forcing yet another general election in September. September’s election produced results similar to April and consequently, with neither side willing or able to form a coalition, more gridlock. Adding to the complication, In November 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on fraud, bribery and breach of trust charges stemming from three separate criminal probes. He faces trial later this month on those charges.

Lieberman is demanding a government of national unity with both major parties joining and forming a broad coalition but excluding the ultra-orthodox. The idea seems sensible given the nature of the challenges, foreign and domestic, facing Israel and nobody wants to have a fourth election. But Gantz is refusing to join a coalition with an indicted prime minister at the helm. He is now seeking to pass a law through the Knesset barring Netanyahu from forming the next government. This law would have the support of 62 Knesset members (including Lieberman and the Arab bloc) but it is far from certain that a transitional parliament can legally pass such a law, setting the stage for review by Israel’s High Court of Justice.

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Netanyahu, a savvy statesman who is extraordinarily popular in Israel, and is the nation’s longest serving prime minister, is refusing to step down. Israeli law does not require an indicted prime minister to leave office. In fact, he may continue to serve until found guilty and all appeals are exhausted. Netanyahu may seek to entice three members of the opposition to defect, but that possibility seems beyond remote. If neither major party is willing to compromise, Israelis will be headed toward an unprecedented fourth election, and that would be catastrophic for Israel’s political stability and world standing.

So, with Iran seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, Hamas and Hezbollah building up their arsenals, and a reasonably decent, Trump-formulated Mideast peace plan dangling in limbo, Israel remains mired in political gridlock. Many in the United States have described the American political system as a dirty business with backroom dealings, insults, recriminations and backstabbing as the norm. But Israeli politics makes U.S. politics look tame and orderly by comparison.