The Israeli Elections Just Got Interesting: Netanyahu’s Indictment and the New Center-Left Alliance

Josh Dean
Josh is a Master's student in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. A graduate of Oxford University, where he studied Hebrew and French, Josh has worked at the Knesset in the office of Isaac Herzog and has volunteered for various NGOs.

A little over a month ago, I wrote of an atmosphere of resignation in Israel among Netanyahu’s political opponents leading up to the Israeli parliamentary elections on April 9th. The smattering of center-left parties seeking to rival Netanyahu’s Likud at the ballot box were divided across a range of tickets, unable to put their egos aside and form a joint bloc capable of presenting a veritable challenge to the incumbent prime minister. The long-reigning Israeli leader’s tenure looked, therefore, set to extend even further. The question was not who will be the next prime minister, but rather “Who will be the next Bibi [Netanyahu]?” as Israeli comedian Tom Aharon quipped. But a lot can change in a day of Israeli politics, never mind a month. As political alliances shift rapidly, the announcement of Netanyahu’s indictment on fraud and corruption charges has further destabilized the already-turbulent atmosphere leading up to the April elections.

 

The Center-Left Alliance

Leading up to the February 21st deadline for parties to submit their respective lists for the Knesset elections, no major news had emerged offering hope of an alliance between any of the various centrist and center-left parties opposing Netanyahu. Given Israel’s electoral system of proportional representation, in which the largest party gains the right to form a coalition before any other, no party alone was able to pose a serious challenge to the right-wing Likud party led by PM Netanyahu. The polls had these parties, from Hosen Le-Yisrael of political newcomer Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Avi Gabbay’s Labor Party all polling in the mid-to-low teens (or even lower in the case of the Labor Party), way behind the Likud, which was consistently projected to score in the low-thirties.

That all changed, however, in the early hours of the morning of February 21st when after extensive talks, Netanyahu’s main rival and former IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, emerged with Lapid, announcing that they had united their parties to form a new centrist bloc, Kahol Lavan (Blue and White). At the launch event for their new political vehicle, Gantz proclaimed: “Today we are changing the face of Israel”. He vowed to put an end to a decade of Netanyahu leadership in which, Gantz argued, Israel had lost its way and gone down a path of division and extremism.

Before the Gantz-Lapid merger, it appeared that the biggest obstacle to political alliance on the center-left had been the big egos of politicians like Lapid, who had consistently insisted that they would not accept a number two position. Incidentally, this was exactly the kind of egotism that the head of the center-left Ha-tnuah party, Tzipi Livni, had been calling for before Gantz rejected her offer to enter into a political union, and she subsequently announced her retirement from Israeli politics. Yet Gantz and Lapid’s alliance provides a framework to somewhat circumvent this issue of egos. Should their joint slate win, the Gantz-Lapid agreement stipulates that Gantz will serve as prime minister for the first two and a half years, and Lapid will then take the prime minister’s chair for the remainder of the term. The prospect of former late-night talk show host Lapid gaining the prime minister’s office is likely to turn more than a few stomachs, given his reputation for lofty yet superficial rhetoric and his tendency to flip on fundamental issues. But the Kahol Lavan alliance’s most influential factor for Israeli voters is sure to be the plethora of former military and security officials among its list of most senior members. In the closed list system under which Israel elects its parliament, voters select only an individual party, with the party’s list ranked in order of priority of candidates for election to the Knesset. The Kahol Lavan list counts three former IDF Chiefs of Staff among its top four candidates: Benny Gantz himself, Moshe ‘Bogi’ Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi. The perception of a candidate’s ability to deal with national security issues is a decisive factor in domestic Israeli elections, and the high number of former security officials in the Gantz-Lapid alliance further elevates the challenge it poses to Netanyahu’s Likud, which tends to paint the left as overly dovish and inept on national security issues.

In many ways, the current situation mirrors the 1999 Israeli elections. Then too, Netanyahu was the incumbent prime minister, and Israeli military stalwarts lined up behind a former IDF Chief of Staff – on that occasion, Ehud Barak – to knock Netanyahu off his perch. Barak won a comprehensive victory, and the experience was a defining political trauma for Netanyahu, who fell from the top post in government after just three years. Yet, the Netanyahu of today is far more experienced than the Netanyahu of 1999. Likewise, the Israel of today is also not the Israel of twenty years prior. Faced with a familiar challenge and armed with experience, Netanyahu is attempting to head off the Gantz-Lapid challenge before it can gain too much momentum.

 

The Far-Right Alliance

With the Kahol Lavan alliance jumping ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud in a range of polls as the single largest party following its inception, Netanyahu knew that he could not simply sit by. The greatest vulnerability, however, for the new Gantz-Lapid political merger is that the  same polls placing it as the overall frontrunner also indicate that it lacks the number of seats it would need in coalition with other left-of-center parties to form a majority governing coalition. Forming a majority in the 120-seat Knesset requires a minimum of 61 members, but the polls project that center-left parties would secure just 59 seats. The party with the highest overall vote tally wins the first opportunity to form a coalition, but if right-wing parties manage to hold onto 61 seats, Kahol Lavan could prove unable to form a governing coalition. If it fails, the party with the next highest vote share, likely to be the Likud, would gain its own opportunity to form a coalition. Therefore, instead of attempting to ally his own Likud party with another on the mainstream right – no small task given the differences between the many religious right-wing parties and the secular Likud on the role religion should play in society – Netanyahu instead decided to pressure two smaller far-right national religious parties into an alliance of their own. These two parties, The Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), share the Likud’s hawkish national security stance, and are confident that a Likud-led coalition would be willing to entertain some of their demands for expanding the significance of religion in the social sphere. On their own, both risk falling short of the 3.25% threshold of overall votes required for a party to gain any seats in the Knesset. Together, they could secure at least five seats in the parliament, helping prop up another Netanyahu government and decreasing the seats available for left-wing parties to capture. Those five seats could well be decisive in tipping the balance away from the center-left with whom Gantz and Lapid hope to form a majority governing coalition, in favor of the right-wing parties with whom the Likud seeks to build its coalition.   

Netanyahu managed to concoct this unusual political alliance in a frenzy of eleventh hour negotiating before the deadline for submitting candidate lists to the Central Elections Committee. The Otzma Yehudit party in particular is a strange partner for the Likud: it is even further to the right than the Jewish Home Party, itself a far-right ultra-nationalist movement that views Jordan as the existing Palestinian state and advocates Israeli annexation of the West Bank using biblical justifications. Otzma Yehudit, whose ideological father is the late U.S.-born Rabbi Kahane, was legally removed from the Knesset for its racism in the 1980s (then known as Kach). Its major policy points include advocating the forced transfer of Palestinians from the West Bank, which they regard as the holy Jewish territories of Judea and Samaria, to the surrounding Arab states. It also calls for a ban on intermarriage between Israeli Jews and Arabs of all nationalities. In 1995, the movement called for the assassination of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the basis of a biblically-inspired justification for a Jew to kill his coreligionist if he is set to give up part of the Jewish Holy Land. Tragically, that call for assassination was answered.

The gravity of Netanyahu’s political scheme in instigating the merger of the Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit parties is also visible in the uncharacteristic dissent of one of the Israeli PM’s longest-standing and most influential backers: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Standing at the forefront of the Israel lobby in Washington D.C., AIPAC has maintained its support for Netanyahu throughout the past decade despite Israel’s march to the right, prompting other American-Jewish organizations to rescind their support for the Israeli leader. Yet, in an unprecedented statement in late February after the Netanyahu-brokered alliance between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit was finalized, AIPAC condemned Netanyahu’s move as an attempt to reintroduce a movement that AIPAC views as “ racist and reprehensible” into the mainstream. The situation looked serious when even Netanyahu’s closest backers began speaking out in condemnation, but factors beyond Netanyahu’s control were yet to thicken the political mud in which he had mired himself.

 

The Attorney General Issues Indictment Against Netanyahu

For over two years, Netanyahu has been under investigation for corruption charges in four separate cases (Cases 1000, 2000, 3000, and 4000). These include charges that Netanyahu accepted lavish gifts in return for political favours and attempted to illegally manipulate media coverage in his favour. A year ago, the Israeli police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted. After months of speculation, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, himself a Netanyahu appointee, announced on February 28th his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust relating to Cases 1000, 2000, and 4000. The long-awaited announcement was a political bombshell, arriving just five weeks before the Israeli elections and introducing the possibility that Netanyahu may become the second consecutive Israeli prime minister to be imprisoned, after Ehud Olmert. Any potential conviction is still a long way off, but the immediate political ramifications are potentially decisive in a close-fought race between Netanyahu and the opposition led by Gantz and Lapid. The announcement also means that, even if Netanyahu were to win the elections on April 9th by successfully forming a governing coalition, he could still be forced to resign. That would be the outcome if the pre-indictment hearings between Netanyahu’s lawyers and the Attorney General, which will take place over the next three to twelve months, result in a final indictment decision, enabling Israel’s High Court of Justice to enforce Netanyahu’s resignation.

It was not long after the announcement before Netanyahu’s main opponent, Benny Gantz, called upon the PM to put country before personal pride and resign. Significantly, Gantz and Lapid also categorically ruled out any coalition with the Likud while Netanyahu was at its head, allaying fears that Gantz would seek the position of Defence Minister in a Netanyahu government should he be unable to form a governing coalition himself. Netanyahu, meanwhile, came out defiant as ever, yet visibly shaken. In a speech the same evening as the Attorney General’s announcement, Netanyahu bullishly insisted upon his innocence while framing the announcement as the culmination of pressure heaped on the Attorney General by left-wing politicians and the media. “They’ve spilled and continue to spill my wife’s blood… They’ve put my family for the past three years through seven circles of hell,” Netanyahu proclaimed. According to Netanyahu, the timing of the announcement just weeks before the elections reveals its political nature. For their part, right-wing parties have offered their continued support, maintaining that all are innocent until proven otherwise.

 

The Home Stretch to Elections

There is no doubt, then, that the previous month has been a whirlwind in the history of Israeli politics. With another four weeks until election day, the increasingly bitter fight between Netanyahu on the one side, and Gantz and Lapid on the other, is sure to intensify. Over the weeks ahead, we can expect Netanyahu to double down on his accusation that Gantz is yet another left-wing former general masquerading as right-wing before the Israeli public. Gantz’s left-wing tendencies, Netanyahu argues, would be sure to repeat the ‘Oslo disaster’ should he be elected – a reference to the Oslo Accords, which brought mutual recognition between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, but subsequently led to one of the most violent periods in the history of the conflict. In this vein, Netanyahu is likely to play on the fears of the Israeli public vis-a-vis national security in order to ensure his re-election, a tactic on which he relied heavily in the elections of 2015. During the final days of that campaign, Netanyahu claimed that his main opposition, the Zionist Union, was bussing in Israel’s Palestinian citizens to vote for the Left. The Likud also produced a campaign video depicting Islamic State fighters armed to the teeth on their way to Israel in a pick-up truck. Fearmongering, then, is one of the essential weapons in Netanyahu’s campaign arsenal – one he is not reluctant to use when he feels his electoral chances are in jeopardy. This was precisely the situation in 2015, when Netanyahu was trailing in the polls until the final few days of the campaign. If we can learn anything from recent political history, it is that Netanyahu will seize any tool available to claw his way back to victory. 

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