Israeli Elections Round Two
1. Israeli elections watch
In two weeks Israelis will—again—head to the polls for take two of the 2019 elections. There’s no good reason for this political do-over. Nothing has really changed since April’s elections, and the results should be pretty much in line with those that led to the current stalemate.
For Israelis, another close election could mean either four more years of Netanyahu or a historic upset, leading to either a victory for Benny Gantz of Blue and White or to a national unity government, most likely one that will mark the end of the Netanyahu era. All will depend on coalition building, on political machinations, on showing the skill needed to outsmart your rival in luring smaller parties to join your bloc.
For American Jews, and for the issues they care about in Israel, neither scenario will not make much of a difference. Politically, items on the agenda of American Jews don’t move the needle in Israel. Most fall clearly in the basket of liberal causes: the demand for religious pluralism and equality for all Jewish denominations; fighting anti-democratic and nationalist trends in Israeli society and politics; and battling to preserve the two-state solution as the only way out of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In terms of Israeli party politics, these are issues fit with three parties, all from the center to the left: Labor, or what’s left of it, Blue and White, and the Democratic Camp, a recently-created hybrid list made up of Meretz, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Labor firebrand Stav Shaffir. Even within these three parties, issues relating to American Jewry are hardly mentioned. Sure, members of the Jewish community can count on Meretz and Labor to support opening the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer and to vote against Orthodox-only conversion laws, and most members of Blue and White will also join, but that’s about it. None of them will make it a top agenda item, because it simply makes no political sense.
2. Is Avigdor Lieberman the unlikely savior of liberal American Jews?
One thing has changed since the April elections: the emergence of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s potential next kingmaker.
Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, has now rebranded itself as the leading force against Orthodox monopoly in Israel. Lieberman derailed Netanyahu’s previous coalition-building efforts because of his demands from the ultra-Orthodox parties and has since discovered this strategy to be a political treasure trove. It turns out that by running with a decisive anti-Orthodox agenda, Lieberman can not only hold on to his base—Russian speaking, right-wing leaning voters—but also bring in a whole new constituency of centrist Israelis who feel fed up with what they see as privileged ultra-Orthodox Israelis and the parties representing them in the Knesset. Suddenly, Lieberman is polling at 9-10 seats and has positioned himself as an indispensable partner in any future coalition. Bibi can’t do it without him, and neither can Gantz.
So Lieberman is now the leading defender of secular Israelis, but does that mean he will also take on the issues American Jews have with Israel’s Orthodox religious monopoly? In recent years, Lieberman has sided with American Jews on two key issues: He spoke out against Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise and against conversion laws aimed at excluding Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism.
As a major player in any future Israeli government, Lieberman will likely keep on fighting for these issues, and will probably be in a stronger position to do so.
This is where this newly founded alliance between American Jewry and Lieberman will end. The former defense minister remains as hawkish as ever on security issues, and as a settler himself, he is no ally to liberal Jews seeking a promise for a two-state solution. Lieberman, who in the past had advocated for “voluntary transfer” of Israeli-Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state, is also an unlikely partner for the community in its struggle to maintain equal rights for Israeli Arabs.
This doesn’t mean that Lieberman’s ascent won’t benefit American Jews.
His anti-Orthodox positions are geared at helping his own constituency, not addressing concerns of the American Jewish community. But on specific issues, he may give a needed boost to Jewish Americans’ very small and extremely weak political presence in Israel.
3. Polls in Israel are looking very tight
An average of recent polls puts the Likud and Blue and White in a dead heat, each with 31 seats of the 120 up for grabs. Looking at the likely political blocs, Bibi has 55 seats on his sides to form a right-wing coalition and Gantz, too, has 55 for a center-left bloc. Which leaves both sides short. The key rests with Lieberman, now polling at ten seats, to decide who gets to have him as a coalition partner.
But while the numbers seem to suggest Bibi may be in trouble, the election day reality could be slightly different. Netanyahu is known to have a strong finish. When push comes to shove, he has proven his willingness, to play dirty (suggesting, for example, that Labor voters “forgot what it means to be Jewish,” warning against Arabs “heading to the polling stations in droves” and recently accusing a TV station that ran news stories critical of him of producing an “anti-Semitic” drama series.)
Bibi’s 55 seat bloc also seems much safer than Gantz’s. Netanyahu is leaning on a coalition made up of right-wing ultra-Orthodox parties. Gantz needs to rely on the Joint List, a majority-Arab party, which has been excluded from most previous coalitions.
4. A Trump last-minute gesture?
Maybe all that Bibi needs to get across the finish line is a little boost from the man in the Oval Office?
Donald Trump demonstrated the last time around that he can do just that. Pulling out a last-minute recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Trump helped Netanyahu drive home the message that only he enjoys a unique relationship with the leader of the free world.
In this round, with time and options running out, Trump’s gift could take the form of a joint defense pact to be announced before the elections. It would be yet another largely symbolic gesture, but one that could further cement the idea that Netanyahu’s alliance with Trump is too important to throw away, even if voters feel they’d like to see change after 10 years of Netanyahu’s reign.
But banking on Trump may be risky. Just as likely as he is to provide Netanyahu with another public gesture, he also might go ahead with a major rapprochement move toward Iran, topped by a one-on-one meeting with Hassan Rouhani. The optics of such a meeting could be devastating for Bibi, pulling the rug out from under his claim of no daylight between his views and those of Trump.
5. Counting Jews
As America moves closer to election season, it’s time to look once again at the “Jewish vote.” Frank Newport at Gallup just published a thoughtful analysis worth looking at. It has all the relevant numbers to understand that: a) Jews remain Democratic, b) Jews despise Trump, and c) in the national picture, the Jewish vote makes no difference.