In case you have forgotten — or, even better, never knew — the April 2019 Israel national election resulted with Benjamin Netanyahu’s reigning Likud and Benjamin Gantz’s opposition Blue and White party each getting 35 seats. (Polls predict the same again for a third time in a year. As anti-Semite Ilhan Omar tweeted in another context, it’s all about the Benjamins, baby.) The “Old World Orthodox” Shas (Sephardic Charedi) and the “Old World Orthodox” United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazic Charedi) each got eight. The Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) — National Union — Otzma bloc of Religious Zionists joined to get five seats. And Moshe Kachlon, a moderately conservative Sephardi running on his own “Kulanu” social-services party, got four. That totaled 60 seats for the religious right, only one single seat short of a majority government in the 120-seat Knesset.
Moreover, the Naftali Bennett–Ayelet Shaked New Right (Yamin Chadash) party, running on its own independent slate, got 3.22 percent of the vote, falling short of the election threshold by only an infinitesimal 0.03 percent. (With dozens of parties contending, any party that attracts fewer than 3.25 percent of the total vote is eliminated.) That lacking 0.03 percent saw the Israel Electoral Commission throw out 138,598 right-wing votes that would have comprised the difference between a solid religious-right coalition government of 62 or 63 seats without needing to woo Avigdor Liberman’s capricious “Yisrael Beiteinu” Russian Immigrants party — or the year-long mess that has ensued. Meanwhile, Moshe Feiglin, yet another right-winger who decided to form a party, also fell short, wasting another 118,000 mostly right-wing votes, comprising 2.74 percent of the total. Three more seats down the drain. All those 256,000 right-wing votes wasted and lost by those two parties that scored below 3.25 percent. There could have been a right-wing religious coalition that had as many as 64 to 66 or more seats. All blown.
One national election do-over in September after another now on March 2 has cost Israel’s national budget a fortune. The Israeli government has been in limbo for a year. With coronavirus floating around, medical care challenged in other ways, Hezbollah terror and Iranian dangers in the north from Syria to Lebanon, incessant and continual Hamas and Islamic Jihad (which in reality are the same thing) rocket-firing and balloon-bombing in the south from Gaza, and disastrous winter hurricane-style flooding in the north and central regions, it may have been nice for Israelis to have had a government in place.
I blame the mess on Israel’s most brilliant political strategist and tactician: Prime Minister Netanyahu outsmarted himself in each election, both in April and again in September. As they say, he was too smart by half.
In the first election, in April 2019, he not only wanted to win a majority coalition bloc by having all parties in his orbit do adequately, but he also was driven to see his party come out with more seats than the main party leading the weaker left bloc. Even if the other party had won more seats, his right-wing bloc is much stronger than their left-wing bloc. But he wanted to be tops. In order to win that larger seat contingent, Netanyahu attacked and strafed natural allies Bennett and the New Right party, slicing some of their votes his way. So he got an extra seat for Likud, and he ended up costing them just enough votes to knock them under 3.25 percent and out of the Knesset. Consequently he ended up with no government instead of having a 62 to 63-seat majority coalition. And yet, during the year’s stalemate, Netanyahu ended up appointing Bennett to be his defense minister anyway. Think about that.
In the second election, the one in September, he erred in cajoling Moshe Kachlon to close down his own independent Kulanu party, which had won 4 seats in April, and have it be absorbed into Likud. Kachlon had gotten only 3.54 percent of the vote in April, so that razor-thin result left him and Netanyahu unsure of what might transpire in September. They both felt that a merger would ensure that Kachlon’s votes would not be lost. But the merger hurt the religious right because many of Kachlon’s voters were Likud backers who consciously did not want to vote for Bibi, though they would be happy to have a Likud government. Just as America has RINO “Never Trumpers” who will not vote GOP as long as Trump is there, so it is that Israel has LINO “Never Bibis” who will not vote Likud until Netanyahu retires. Before Kachlon agreed to fold his separate party into Likud, his independent slate gave the “Never Bibis” a way to vote Likud but not Bibi. Alas, once Kachlon merged his party into Likud under Netanyahu’s chairmanship, those votes were lost, just as “Never Trumpers” in America vote for Hillary. So Netanyahu’s extra-cleverness in engineering the merger with Kulanu cost his coalition four seats in the September do-over.
There is no question that the right-wing and religious votes are there, enough for 64 to 66 seats out of 120. The first election was less than a year ago, and the population of Israel has not changed that much.
As in America, Israeli democracy these days has devolved into character assassination and investigations into each other’s alleged crimes and defalcations. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been indicted by the attorney general and faces a trial. The trial begins on March 17, two weeks after the election. In Israel, there is no grand jury of 23, just an attorney general, a Lone Ranger with a chip on his shoulder, who unilaterally decides whether or not to indict a politician. Major American jurists appealed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit not to indict Bibi because the charges were every bit as political as was the Democrats’ Trump impeachment. Yet, as in America, the indictments came anyway. The system is out of kilter.
Benny Gantz rejoiced over the indictments, campaigning on the theme that, by contrast, he is Mr. Clean whose ethics are beyond reproach. That resonated until two weeks ago when the Israeli Justice Department announced that they now have opened a major investigation into apparently corrupt dealings by Gantz’s Fifth Dimension Corporation. Gantz was its CEO, and it collapsed into bankruptcy — but not before it engaged in all sorts of shady multi-million-shekel arrangements with the government. The company had sought a 50-million-shekel contract to supply a high-tech product to the police department. There was supposed to be public bidding. Yet the police gave the contract to Gantz’s company secretly without the public tender. Fifth Dimension further falsified information on its proposal about itself as a company, its length in business, and the proffered product’s readiness. Gantz’s company ultimately received the contract and a 4-million-shekel advance even though it later emerged that the product did not yet even exist. It then came out that his entire company was being financed primarily by one shady Russian investor who soon afterwards got wiped out financially overnight when the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Russia and certain shady Russian dealers. That sent the mysterious Fifth Dimension into bankruptcy. They should have let in the sunshine. Instead, they vanished, up up and away.
With Gantz’s best defense to that corruption being that he did not know anything going on all around him in the company where he was CEO, he now is floundering to convince voters that he still is best suited to be prime minister, the CEO of Israel. And then there is yet another looming mess, the Harpaz Affair, which puts Blue and White’s co-leader, Gabi Ashkenazi, in the middle of a sordid effort to control the choice of Israel’s military chief of staff.
The votes are there for a religious-right coalition to lead Israel. We know it from April 2019. Polls show that the religious-right bloc stands right now at 58 or so seats. If the polls are off by even a single seat or two — and Israeli polls usually are incorrect, always to the detriment of the right and religious — then it yet can be possible to hit 60 or 61 seats in the third round, without Avigdor Liberman.
And who is this Avigdor Liberman whose party holds just enough votes to make the coalition government that it refuses to join? Not John Galt. Liberman is an immigrant to Israel from Russia who was close to Netanyahu, ran the prime minister’s office, and served in his cabinet. And then came the egos. So Liberman left Likud and formed a party that appeals to older immigrants in Israel from Russia. There are a million of them, and Liberman attracts 170,000 of their votes. Having grown up under communism, they are among Israel’s most right-wing voters. They hate socialism and the Left and ally politically with Netanyahu’s Likud. If Liberman would coalesce with that bloc, there would be a right-wing government. Just one problem: having grown up under communism, they also hate religion. So they will not coalesce with either side. They just gum up the works. Meanwhile, there also is a coalition of four Arab anti-Zionist parties, and they win 12 to 14 seats. Liberman’s Russians won’t coalesce with them, and they will not sit with Liberman. The Arabs will coalesce with the Left-Socialist bloc but will not coalesce with Gantz if he attacks Hamas or Islamic Jihad when they bomb Israel from Gaza. Gantz will have to respond to Hamas bombing from Gaza, but he desperately needs the Arab bloc because without them he and the socialist Left have only 43 to 45 seats. It is such a mess that I cannot believe I actually understand everything in this article — and I am the expert writing it.
Israelis cannot vote absentee. The coronavirus now has induced so many Israelis to cancel travel plans abroad for next week that there may be more people voting for that reason, too. Maybe that concern will induce voters to stick with a proven leader, Prime Minister Netanyahu, or maybe they will be angry that they cannot vacation in South Korea, Italy, and China. Israel also is setting up special voting booths for people in coronavirus quarantine. Not only will their votes be secret, but they also will be masked when they cast ballots.
Israel Third-Election-Day-of-the-Year will be on Monday, March 2. If Netanyahu wins, his only slight challenge will be running the country while he has to spend three days each week for the next many months sitting in a courtroom defending charges that never should have been brought. By the time his case winds down, his opponent Gantz may well be defending corruption charges in the next courtroom down the hall. Sort of like the governors of Illinois.
And the lesson for Americans? As insane and dispiriting as our politics have become in the United States, there is an under-appreciated value in a two-party system. For those ideologically more honest, such a system usually disappoints by forcing conservatives to compromise, and liberals also. It is very rare that we see the kind of ideological purity that a Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump offers on one side, or an FDR or Bernie Sanders on the other. Instead we often end up with mush: Bush I, Bush II, McCain, Romney. Biden, Carter, Mondale, Biden, Dukakis, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Biden.
In the end, it all comes down to H. L. Mencken’s observation: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want — and they deserve to get it good and hard.”