Tomorrow’s Election in Israel : A Guide for the Perplexed

By | Oct 31, 2022

Jewish politics and power

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1. It’s that time of the year

Tuesday is election day in Israel, which means it is time for our increasingly frequent guide for the perplexed, even though at this point, it would be hard to find anyone still perplexed, or even surprised, by Israel’s broken political system.

Heading into its fifth election cycle in three years, the political picture could not be any clearer: Israel is stuck. The upcoming elections are bound to end with the same outcome as the previous rounds, with two roughly equal-size blocs fighting to win over random members of the Knesset who can take them over the 61-seat bar, thus providing either Benjamin Netanyahu or Yair Lapid a chance to form another unstable government with an expiration date set in months, not years.

The latest polls show that the Netanyahu bloc, made up of the Likud, the far-right Religious Zionist Party of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the two ultra-Orthodox lists, is holding steady at around 60 seats. The “change bloc” led by interim prime minister Lapid—which includes his own Yesh Atid party and the center-right lists of Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman, as well as Labor, Meretz, and Mansour Abbas’s Raam party—has 56 seats. The four remaining seats go to Hadash-Ta’al, an Arab-majority party that both Netanyahu and Lapid have vowed not to take into their coalition.

With the race this tight, a shift of one seat to Netanyahu’s bloc could tilt the balance and pave Bibi’s way back to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, after his brief exile from power. But as things seem now, Israel, and those following Israeli politics from afar, should prepare for these following scenarios:

2. The no-winner scenario

This could be the likeliest of outcomes. Netanyahu comes in short of one seat, Lapid ends up with 56 seats, and neither side can lure a member or a list from the other side to cross the lines.

What happens then?

First, Israel goes through the legally mandated political dance in which the president provides one of the candidates with a chance to form a coalition. After several weeks, the candidate requests and receives an extension. Then, the other side gets a chance. And an extension. Two months later, Israel will be just as far from forming a new coalition as it was on the morning after the election.

With no other solution in sight, a new election will be set, the sixth in a row.

It’s an awful outcome for all those who care about Israeli democracy. It’s also bad news for Netanyahu, who will have to spend at least another three months out of power, waiting for the next round of elections to perhaps save him. But it would be really good news for Yair Lapid. As long as there is no new government, he remains prime minister and his outgoing cabinet remains in place. True, there are some legal limitations to what a caretaker government can do, but all in all, not so bad for a candidate who came in second to remain at the helm for another few precious months.

3. The Benny Gantz scenario

This one has a lot of what-ifs.

What if the Netanyahu bloc does reach 61 seats, with the Likud, the Religious Zionist Party and the ultra-Orthodox? Building a coalition with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s far-right party as a main partner won’t be easy for Netanyahu; there will be an international price to pay, as the United States has already hinted it would not view favorably giving power to these types of extremists. It will also be a horrible coalition to manage, since Netanyahu will have to give in to at least some of his new partners’ demands, which could include anything from annexation, tougher measures against West Bank Palestinians, limitations on the freedoms of Arab citizens of Israel, anti-LGBT measures, reversal of anti-corruption laws and much more.

Back to the what-ifs.

What if Netanyahu reaches out to Benny Gantz, who is polling at around 12 seats, with an offer he can’t refuse? “For the interest of the country,” Bibi might say to Gantz in this hypothetical conversation, “save me from Ben-Gvir. Step in instead and spare the nation from a government that is dependent on far-right extremists.”

Would Gantz agree?

So far, he has been clear that he’ll never enter a coalition with Netanyahu, and so has Gideon Saar, the former Likud member who is now No.2 on Gantz’s list.

But never say never. If there’s anything Israelis have learned about Gantz in his not-so-many years in politics, it’s when an opportunity comes his way, he usually takes it.

4. The Arab party scenario

The final days of the campaign have seen a sudden surge in enthusiasm among Arab-Israeli voters. While at first all predicted a lower than usual turnout, things may end up differently. A higher turnout could result in at least 12 seats for the Arab parties, or even more.

Lapid is already in a coalition with Raam, the pragmatic Islamic party led by Mansour Abbas, and would be glad to have them back in his next government. It is also clear that there is no way that Balad, a nationalistic party that refuses to cooperate with Zionist lists, will enter Lapid’s coalition. 

But what if Lapid flips on Hadash-Taal, the list made up of moderates like Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh, alongside members like Aida Touma-Sliman, who recently drew wall-to-wall criticism after referring to Palestinian terrorists as “martyrs”?

It would be a hard sell for Lapid and may cause other members of his coalition to drop out, but stranger things have happened—and this is the only path Lapid has for actually forming a new government.

5. The dark horse scenario

Ayelet Shaked, the politician once described as the right wing’s great hope, is still around. The secular young woman who had set out to breathe new life into the Orthodox, male-dominated, moderate right wing is polling below the threshold needed to enter the Knesset. Her partnership with Naftali Bennett in the “change coalition” that ousted Netanyahu has not been forgotten, nor has it been forgiven by right-wing voters. But still, if she miraculously pulls off a surprise win, Shaked and her newly formed party would hand Netanyahu the majority he needs. It would make Bibi happy, and it would rehabilitate Shaked. But based on all polls conducted in recent weeks, that’s not going to happen.

6. Bonus: The Mastriano family show

With all due respect to Israeli politics, we do have elections coming up here too.

On Saturday, I attended a rally held by Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. A friendly crowd of nearly 1,000 participants welcomed him in Manheim, a town in Lancaster County, a staunch Republican stronghold.

At a brief news conference following the rally, I asked Mastriano for his response to claims of antisemitic undertones in his campaign related to his focus on the “elitist” Jewish school his rival, Josh Shapiro, attended, and to his former association with Gab, an online platform known for hosting violent antisemites, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

His response, or rather the lack thereof, went viral, reaching more than a million views within a day, and stirring intense social media conversations. Before Mastriano could say a word, his wife Rebbie (Rebecca) stepped to the microphone and offered her take. Rebbie Mastriano’s money line: “We probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do,” adding that she and Doug have donated to evangelical organizations operating in Israel and have visited themselves multiple times in the last five years. 

The next day, I showed the clip to a Jewish activist in Philadelphia. Her jaw, quite literally, dropped. According to Pew, 80 percent of American Jews consider caring about Israel an essential or important part of their Judaism, and almost 60 percent ”personally feel an emotional attachment to Israel.” It is interesting to note, however, that more evangelical Christians than Jews believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people.

Regardless, many Jewish Americans watching the clip felt a clear sense of outrage and understood the comment for what it was: a Christian conservative woman telling them they are not good enough Jews.

But the vibe in the room in Manheim was quite different.

Mastriano, his team and the many supporters who stayed in the hall to watch the news conference left feeling that the couple had done a pretty good job in addressing the issue of antisemitism. No one gasped, no one felt a need to explain. A couple of people attending the rally quoted Rebbie Mastriano’s comments when speaking to me after the event.

Mastriano has a Jewish problem. That is clear by now. But perhaps this moment can help educate the others who have no idea that telling Jews how to be Jewish is at least a tad offensive.

Opening image: Haim Zach/Government Press Office/(CC BY-SA 3.0) / David Denberg (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) 

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