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One of the major news stories to follow in 2019 will be the newly called for elections in Israel. I will try to provide a “lay of the land” as of today, but lots will happen over the next few months.
Israeli elections will be held on April 9, 2019 following the announcement that all six coalition parties were dissolving the government. The coalition heads decided to go to elections because they couldn’t reach agreement on the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill -- legislation addressing a judge’s order that could mean all members of the haredi Orthodox community are subject to the military draft.
Although it is very early, there is general, wide-spread consensus that Benjamin Netanyahu will win the election and continue to serve as prime minister. Netanyahu has said that he would like to form the same coalition that he currently heads. If Netanyahu wins, it will be his fifth (fourth consecutive) term as prime minister, and he will become the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, surpassing Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Let us not forget that poll figures can change dramatically. Nonetheless, if you break the results into blocks (essentially, the right vs the left), the results have remained almost identical, with the right-left split being around 55%-45% respectively. In other words, the (often significant) moves have mainly been withinblocks. For this reason, it is reasonably safe to assume that Netanyahu will once again lead a right-leaning block after the elections (current polls show the “right” getting 63 seats and the “left” with 57).
One Israeli political commentator referred to these elections as being equivalent to American mid-term elections. The comparison is that the Prime Minister (equivalent to the U.S. President in the analogy) remains the same, and the elections really just determine what sort of Knesset/Congress he will need to deal with.
Of course these elections are being held under the shadow of the investigations into the Prime Minister and potential indictments. However, surprisingly, this will have little impact. Netanyahu is, in fact, likely to highlight the investigations as a “witch hunt” and continue to claim his innocence. This plays well for his base. In practice, the chances are that the attorney general will decide whether or not to indict Netanyahu after the elections. If a decision is announced before the elections, then, by law, the Prime Minister is entitled to a formal “pre-indictment hearing” before a final decision is made. Such a hearing would almost certainly not take place before elections. Likud’s current (and potential future) coalition partners have said that they would not refrain from joining a Netanyahu-led government before a hearing takes place.
Current coalition partners have their own internal opportunities and challenges. Habayit Hayehudi appears to be strengthening, and Naftali Bennett remains popular. United Torah Judaism, the Haredi Ashkenazi party, currently has severe internal problems. The party’s two factions, Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael, are deeply divided. Shas, the Sefardi Haredi party, is also in a difficult position, with leader Arye Deri once again being investigated on corruption charges. Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party is also in a difficult position, since he has served as finance minister the past four years with limited success.
The picture of how the opposition will look is far less clear. Avi Gabbay, the relatively new leader of Labor, has not managed to see his party’s polling numbers improve. There is talk that five Labor MKs plan to leave the party and join Meretz. Yair Lapid remains a stronger leader on the center/left, but he too has not managed to significantly improve his polling numbers.
The former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz announced he was forming a new party, Hosen L’Israel (Israel Resilience Party), and could win 10-16 seats in the Knesset. His entry into the race would almost certainly damage Lapid’s numbers significantly. Ehud Barak has also said that he would consider re-entering politics in order to unseat Netanyahu. Former Likud defense minister, Moshe (Boogey) Ya’alon, announced that he is also forming a new party. While he remains fairly firmly on the right in terms of security and diplomacy, he is considered a liberal in other areas, and has strongly opposed many of the government’s actions that seem to have been less democratic.
There is significant grassroots pressure on the left for some or all of these parties and leaders to form a united front against Netanyahu. However, with so many “big personalities” (and therefore egos), it is difficult to see any of the above leaders being willing to accept anything other than a “number one” slot, significantly diminishing the changes of a united opposition. In any event, polls also indicate that even if there was one party that united all of these figures, that party would still not beat Netanyahu.
Whew! Get all that? The Israeli governmental system, with all the parties and the need to build a coalition, make each election quite interesting. But, following the election, what will happen with social and economic needs in Israel? US-Israel relations? Israel and the rest of the world? Security needs? Diaspora-Israel relations? The potential for a peace process? Will it be more of the same or will we see something different?
And all of this as we mourn the passing of Amos Oz ( z”l ), one of Israel’s greatest writers. He was also among the country’s most vocal left-wing activists and supporters of a two-state solution. He famously said, “There are no traitors, only those unafraid of change.” May his memory be for a blessing.
Next week, I look forward to sharing some thoughts and ideas for 2019 and beyond for our Jewish community.
Shabbat shalom and best wishes for a safe, healthy, and happy new year.