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The Israeli Elections, Take Two

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The final results won’t be published before Friday, and it’s likely that there will be movement in the realm of one or even two Knesset seats for some of the parties. But from the looks of things this morning, it appears that we have spent four months and hundreds of millions of shekels, allowed the normal running of government with all its urgent issues to come to a halt for the better part of the year, and endured the incalculable coarsening of an already-quite-coarse public discourse in order to get… basically the same results.

OK, that’s a bit doom-and-gloom-y. If the current numbers hold, things are slightly worse for the right than they were in April. Likud has a few less seats, the United Arab Party has a few more (and its leader, the dynamic and impressive Ayman Odah, is likely to be the next head of the opposition), both Zionist left parties have lived to fight another day (my party, Meretz, is better off by one seat, though the merger with Ehud Barak’s party means that some good people on the April list are no longer in the Knesset), the far-right and Kahanist blocs have been left out entirely, and the slightly-less-far-right parties, who up until a few years ago were dreaming of running the country, have been voted into irrelevance. But the bottom line remains the same: neither Netanyahu nor Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White, have a clear path to the 61 MKs they need to form a coalition. Avigdor Lieberman, a corrupt opportunist who has never lived up to the many promises he’s made to the people who vote for him, remains the keystone of any possible coalition, and has made it clear that he will not join Netanyahu’s “natural” coalition, with the religious parties and far-right. But at the same time, Lieberman is unlikely to join a coalition that includes the Arab parties (nor are they likely to be willing to join him, or Blue and White for that matter). There’s a very good chance we’ll be doing this all again in January.

So why am I, nevertheless, cautiously optimistic? Because last night’s results feel like the beginning of the end for Netanyahu’s stranglehold on Israeli politics. The most important thing to remember about both of 2019’s election campaigns is that they were only ever about one thing. The reason we went to elections in April and September (instead of waiting for the regularly scheduled ones in November) is Netanyahu’s looming court cases. This has been even clearer the second time around, as the publication of some of the prosecution’s evidence against Netanyahu has made it obvious that the cases against him are airtight. If he ever makes it into a courtroom, his political career is over (he may or may not go to prison, but Israeli law incorporates the concept of Disgrace, which prevents people convicted of certain crimes from serving in public office for seven years post-conviction; the man is 70, you do the math). He has therefore spent the last several years breaking every conceivable norm, and allying himself with increasingly deranged and disreputable political partners, in his pursuit of a legal loophole to protect him from prosecution. The holy grail until the beginning of 2019 was an immunity law that would make it impossible to indict the prime minister. When it became clear that such a law couldn’t be passed with the current Knesset, Netanyahu went to elections in the belief that he’d end up with a more congenial one. The goal was to get this Knesset, and the immunity law, in place before the hearing that will determine whether Netanyahu can be stripped of his parliamentary immunity and an indictment served against him (currently scheduled for two weeks from now), thus ending the prosecution’s case against him.

Enter Lieberman. He is, by any rational standard, a failed politician, but he’s not stupid, and more importantly, he has grasped a point that many other center-right leaders who thought they could launch themselves into independent political power (and maybe even the prime minister’s office) by acting as Bibi’s kingmakers have missed: it never works. One after the other, these leaders—Naftali Bennet, Moshe Kachlon, Yair Lapid—have ended up being devoured whole by Netanyahu’s machine, their voters cannibalized and their political careers in tatters (Lapid has survived the best; he is no. 2 in Blue and White and there is officially a rotation agreement between him and Gantz, in which they would trade off the prime minister’s job after two years; but it’s noteworthy how silent he was throughout the campaign, and how often the idea of yanking the rotation agreement has been raised in the public conversation).

When Lieberman was offered the same deal, he balked. And he had the perfect pretext to do so. One of Netanyahu’s ploys in seeking to avoid prosecution was to partner ever-more-strongly with religious and far-right parties, and to give them freer reign in imposing religious legislation and religious controls over public services—most prominently, introducing religious content into the syllabus of public schools. This is one of the few things a right-wing prime minister can do that will genuinely enrage the majority of secular (Jewish) Israeli voters. The people who yawned at his obvious corruption, clucked their tongues at his indifference to ten years of rocket fire over the country’s southern cities, and allowed him to fulminate about Iran, have been incensed by the growing interference of religious fanatics in their private lives. Lieberman seized on this—the immediate pretext was an upcoming law regulating the conscription of the Ultra Orthodox, though it’s notable that this law hasn’t been mentioned at all during the campaign leading up to September. Suddenly raising the standard of a secular warrior, he introduced the possibility of a secular coalition comprised of Likud, Blue and White, and himself.

That coalition now seems like the only path towards a stable government. Which doesn’t mean that it is going to happen. Though Likud was already making noises this morning that of course the only way a partnership like this could work would be with Bibi as prime minister, it’s obvious to everyone that Gantz and Lapid won’t agree to this. And either way, Netanyahu will make the immunity law his condition of joining, which Gantz has already ruled out. What this means is that the future of the country probably depends on enough people in Likud—a party that Netanyahu has spent a decade emptying of anyone of substance and stacking with lickspittles whose single-digit brain cells are nevertheless sufficient to recognize that they have no existence without him—deciding that enough is enough and making a separate deal with Gantz and Lieberman. On the other hand, there are already five Likud members whose only action in the Knesset last spring was to vote themselves out of job, so you have to wonder how many people in the current party are willing to let Bibi take them on another round of this losing game.

Of course, other things might happen. Gantz might be able to form a coalition without Likud (there are already voices calling Odah to back down from his categorical rejection of such a proposition). Lieberman might back off and agree to Netanyahu’s original coalition with the religious parties. President Rivlin might do something unexpected. But the important point is that Netanyahu is significantly weakened. He pulled out all the stops during this campaign when it came to vicious incitement, attempted voter suppression, and inflaming his base. He even brazenly violated election law several times yesterday, and it still didn’t do him any good. Anyone watching him must realize that he’s not going to get a better result if he tries to go to another election, and either way, the hearing is next month. Though I won’t swear that this is the end of the road for him, it feels like something has changed.

To be clear, the best case scenario going forward still won’t involve a significant movement to the left or progress towards the end of the Palestinian occupation. But nobody knows what Israeli politics look like without Bibi, and in the vacuum he leaves behind, interesting things could happen. As I said, I think this is the beginning of the end, but it also could be the beginning of the beginning.

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