With 13 parties in the Knesset – and several of those umbrellas encompassing a variety of factions – patching together a coalition will be a challenge. It may not be possible at all, meaning Israelis would see their fifth election within a little more than two years.
Whatever pileup of strange bedfellows eventually manages to form a government, one particular possibility should be especially disconcerting.
To enhance their chances of passing the electoral threshold, three far-right parties united under the banner of Religious Zionism and succeeded in taking six Knesset seats. The Religious Zionist party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, seeks to annex all (or part, depending on which faction you listen to) of the West Bank and adheres to a familiar litany of Israeli far-right policies.
For this round of elections, they partnered with another small faction, called Noam, whose platform ostensibly seeks to create a halachic theocracy. In practical terms, the party is obsessed with homosexuality and seeks to delegitimize LGBTQ+ Israelis and roll back legal protections and equality. In addition to attacking gay people, the party has equated Reform Jews with Nazis and Palestinian terrorists who “want to destroy us.”
The third rail in this extremist triumvirate is Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), which is a descendant of the outlawed racist party Kach, led by the American-born fanatic Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990.
When Kahane was in the Knesset, before a law was passed to bar overt racists from elected office, all other members of the assembly would walk out when he rose to rant against Arabs. In an eerie echo of the Nuremburg Laws, Kahane sought to legally prohibit sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, among other far-reaching extreme positions.
An indication of the shifts in Israel’s body politic over the decades is evidenced by the fact that the incumbent prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, worked behind the scenes to get these small extremist factions to cooperate in order to reach the electoral threshold. While previous prime ministers – and every other member of the Knesset at the time – refused to listen to the hateful rhetoric of Kahane, this prime minister helped ensure his ideological successors would be represented in the Knesset.
It is bad enough that these ideas will be given a legitimacy they do not deserve by mere dint of their advocates being members of the Knesset. As a small rump of crazed zealots, they should be ignored and shunned. Instead, they will play a central role in the determination of who (if anyone) forms the next government.
It is worth recalling an incident in Austria, in 2000, when the xenophobic, racist and arguably neo-fascist Freedom Party, led by Jörg Haider, entered into a governing coalition in that country. The government of Austria to which Haider belonged was sanctioned and condemned by governments worldwide and other member-states of the European Union ceased cooperation with Austria’s government.
While the Abraham Accords have reduced Israel’s diplomatic isolation dramatically, the country still faces unjust judgment in the court of global opinion. If a new governing coalition includes a segment of enthusiastic homophobes, misogynists, racists and ethno-religious supremacists, a universe of denunciation would rain down on the country. And rightly so.
In what may be an irony of historical proportions, that ugly scenario could be prevented by another stunning development on the other end of the political (and ethno-cultural) spectrum.
A new Arab party, called Ra’am, has bolted from the conventions of the Arab political sector and adopted a pragmatic approach. Rather than the purely oppositional stands taken by the other Arab parties for decades, Ra’am seems prepared to play the game that small Jewish parties have excelled at. In a fractured political culture, the tail often wags the dog. Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas, seems to understand the opportunity this presents. Strangely, this Arab religious party could find common cause with Jewish religious parties on issues like funding for parochial education and other community needs (as well as its apparently virulent hatred of homosexuality).
As the horse trading begins in earnest this week to patch together a quilt of some ideological consistency in the Knesset, Ra’am is sitting in one of the most enviable positions of potential power, possibly able to extract all sorts of treasures out of a leader desperate for their crucial four votes. The only thing they have explicitly ruled out is any situation that would enable groups like Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam.
How ironic it would be if Israel were saved from its own worst angels by an Arab political party that learned its capacity for power from watching the fringe elements on the other side of the Knesset.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the start of a cabinet meeting this past January in Jerusalem. The two outside flags are the Moroccan national flags, placed there to celebrate the fact that Israel and Morocco had just established diplomatic relations. (photo by Haim Zach/IGPO via Ashernet)
The Israeli elections, which take place March 23, are not turning on conventional ideological schisms, according to two top observers. Rather than a left-right divide, the ballot question for most voters is yes-Bibi/no-Bibi.
Lahav Harkov, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, and Chemi Shalev, senior columnist and U.S. editor for Haaretz, analyzed the possible outcomes in a virtual event presented by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs March 2.
Israel is in its fourth election cycle in two years, an unparalleled time of political turmoil. Harkov said she tends to err on the side of optimism but expects a fifth election before too long.
“I don’t see how we get out of this mess,” she said.
Shalev concurred, using a sports metaphor. “There is a saying in soccer, or football,” he said. “You play soccer for 90 minutes and, in the end, the Germans win, meaning no matter what you think during the game, the result is always that the German team wins and, in soccer, it’s usually true. In Israeli politics, it is also usually true.”
In each of the past three election campaigns, Shalev said, media and opponents of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convince themselves he is headed for defeat. Then the votes come in and coalition talks begin and he holds onto office.
True to script, said Shalev, polls suggest Netanyahu’s support is faltering, estimating his Likud party will take about 28 of the 120 Knesset seats, down from the 36 he holds now. But, as much as Netanyahu will face an uphill climb to cobble together 61 votes to form a working coalition, his opponents face even steeper challenges.
Netanyahu, nicknamed Bibi, has led Likud since 2006 and has been prime minister since 2009. Having also served for three years in the late 1990s, Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history and his doggedness in holding on to power has earned him another nickname: King Bibi.
Shalev depicted Netanyahu’s manoeuvrings after the last vote, in March 2020, as a sheer political masterstroke. Benny Gantz led Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), a centre-left coalition whose principal promise was to keep Netanyahu from another term. When coalition talks appeared doomed and another election inevitable, Gantz entered into a power-sharing agreement that delivered another term to Netanyahu and, in the process, exploded the Blue and White coalition. The broad spectrum of centre-left politics that had come together under Blue and White disintegrated and some of those voters have drifted off to the right and may never return to the left, said Shalev.
Gantz is running again but, while the question last election was whether he could best Netanyahu, the issue now appears to be whether he can garner the 3.25% threshold needed to eke out any Knesset seats whatsoever.
In fact, many parties are hovering in the polls around the cutoff mark, which could be a defining factor in the outcome. The Labour party, once the indomitable force in national politics, is on the ropes. Likewise, another erstwhile force on the left, Meretz, could also be wiped out of the Knesset. On the other hand, the smaller parties that do cross the electoral threshold will have outsized influence on whether Netanyahu hangs on or whether another leader can topple him.
Netanyahu’s political survival will depend on the ability of small right-wing parties to pass the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset and help him get to 61 seats. Among the parties Netanyahu would need to depend on are Yamina, led by Naftali Bennett, which is seen as an ideological heir to the defunct National Religious Party.
He would probably also need to rely on another new entity, called the Religious Zionist Party, which iss in an electoral agreement with two other small, far-right factions. The RZP, which tends to represent settlers and Charedi voters, is in partnership (for this round of elections, at least) with Noam, a party whose primary issue is opposition to rights for LGBTQ+ Israelis, which party adherents equate with the “destruction of the family.” The third party in the triumvirate is the extremist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), which Harkov said is a descendant of the outlawed movement of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Kahane was an anti-Arab politician whose speeches in the Knesset were usually boycotted by all other members, leaving him to speak to a room consisting only of the speaker and the transcriptionists. In 1985, the Knesset passed a law banning parties that incite racism, effectively outlawing Kahane’s Kach party. He was assassinated in New York City in 1990 by an Egyptian-born terrorist.
While Kahane and his compatriots were shunned in their time, Harkov noted that Netanyahu intervened with the smaller right-wing parties, encouraging them – including Otzma Yehudit – to band together to help them collectively pass the electoral threshold.
“If they had not run together, they probably wouldn’t have made it into the Knesset,” she said, adding that tens of thousands of right-wing votes would have been effectively wasted.
Harkov added that she found it “interesting and sad” that, in the first of this four-election cycle, Netanyahu encouraged the small right-wing parties to run together and this caused a huge scandal, given the extremism of Otzma Yehudit.
“When Kahane was in the Knesset, everyone would walk out, no one would listen to Kahane speak when he would have his racist rants in the Knesset,” Harkov said. “Now, the prime minister is encouraging them to be in the Knesset.”
She credits an exhaustion with politics for the lack of outrage over the alliance this time around.
Shalev agreed. Israelis have had more than enough, he suggests.
“I have never seen such fatigue and, if I venture something about the elections, [friends] all look at me as if I’m a lost case,” he said.
Where the fault lines in Israeli politics were once left versus right, that paradigm is at least temporarily inoperable. The Israeli left is in disarray and Netanyahu’s greatest challenges come from the right, including several former allies. Gideon Sa’ar challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership last year and was soundly defeated. Frozen out by the prime minister, he left the party and formed New Hope.
“Policy-wise, they’re not that different from Likud,” said Harkov. “Sa’ar is quite right-wing.” He is pinning his hopes on voters seeking more of the same with less of the corruption surrounding the incumbent, who is under indictment on a number of bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.
The second-largest party in the current Knesset is Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid. This more centrist, secular grouping could bridge some of the divide and make Lapid a possible successor to Netanyahu, but, like all scenarios, would require a coalition-building process akin to a jigsaw puzzle. While there are factions that would be happy to support Netanyahu and others that would support anyone but Bibi, the divisions are exacerbated by internal grievances and personality clashes.
Given the moving parts in any coalition talks, Shalev predicted a potential “outrageous scenario.” Netanyahu has been courting Arab voters and, with the Arab Joint List in disarray, he hopes he can dislodge some votes from those quarters. However, after the election, he would face a new challenge. Cobbling together 61 members might require recruiting Arab parties, which would likely be met with flat-out rejection by the far-right and religious parties Netanyahu would also need to hold. Likewise, religious and secular factions that might agree on supporting a particular candidate for prime minister might balk at joining a coalition with one another. In other words, while there might be 61 members ready to support Netanyahu, they might refuse to do so if it required sitting alongside ideological enemies. Every potential prime minister faces a similar dilemma.
A recent high court decision threw the issue of religious-state separation and the influence of the ultra-Orthodox on national policy and life into the headlines. The ruling recognizes conversions by Reform and Masorti (Conservative) rabbis in Israel (but not abroad). While this re-ignition of the divide between secular and religious Israelis is significant, it may or may not have a major impact on voters. Yesh Atid is avowedly secular, as is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Whether they will gain any political traction from the issue is a mystery.
While overseas observers assume the big political issues in Israel are the Palestinian conflict, Iran and national security, Harkov and Shalev say voters are more focused on bread-and-butter topics, including the pandemic and pocketbook issues. But the biggest question of all for voters, they both agree, turns on personality – primarily that of Netanyahu and voters’ feelings toward him.
Harkov believes Netanyahu has benefited from the Abraham Accords. It also won’t hurt him that Israel leads the world in the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.
A particular challenge that a reelected Netanyahu would face is building a relationship with the new administration in Washington. Netanyahu bound his fortunes so personally to Donald Trump that Shalev believes it is impossible to build a meaningful connection with the Biden administration. Netanyahu was not an outlier on this front, he noted, citing opinion polls that suggested Israelis, were they able to vote for a U.S. president, would have supported Trump by a massive landslide.
A week is a lifetime in politics, goes an adage. And so it would seem. Just one week ago, we posited that Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition of the right was likely to form the next government in Israel. Since then, Benny Gantz, head of Israel’s Blue and White party, has been reinvigorated by Netanyahu’s challenges in pulling together a coalition, after original exit polls had the Likud-led coalition at 60 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. This number has dropped through the actual vote count to 58, and it has changed the outlook.
As it has in the previous two elections, the result will hinge on the decision of Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party, a right-wing but defiantly secular movement. Liberman has publicly released his demands for support. Among them: he will not support a government led by Netanyahu (or any other individual under indictment) and he wants to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox serving in the military, introduce civil marriage, thereby taking control of this lifecycle event from the exclusive purview of the rabbinate, and hand decision-making about commerce and transportation on Shabbat to local governments. Meanwhile, Gantz is having a rebellion in his own ranks about seeking support from the largely Arab Joint List in parliament. So, the process is largely back to where it’s been for more than a year, with no more certainty of who will form the next government.
Whatever happens, Liberman’s sweeping secularist proposals are nothing to ignore. The ally-turned-nemesis of Netanyahu, Liberman seems to have learned from the masters how to leverage minimal electoral success to enormous political advantage. In the past, it has been the religious parties that conditioned their support for desperate-to-make-a-deal leaders on getting key benefits and concessions for their respective communities. If Liberman succeeds in helping create a Blue and White government that implements some of his plans, it will represent the same tail-wagging-dog effect that religious parties used to assert Orthodox standards across much of Israeli society. Except Liberman will leverage his seven seats to repeal some or much of what those religious parties have achieved.
This Israeli moment brings to mind other rapidly changing political fortunes. Joe Biden, whose campaign was struggling to survive a few weeks ago, is suddenly (again) the undisputed front- runner for the Democratic nomination in the United States. There is another parallel between Israel and the United States that is currently evolving, this one less publicly known. While Liberman strives to diminish the connection between religion and state in his country, U.S. President Donald Trump is moving his country more in the direction of Israel’s religiously influenced society.
As in Canada, many religious organizations in the United States do an enormous amount of good, in many cases filling in gaps where government services can’t or won’t. Republican administrations have tended to expand – contract out, if you will – some social services previously delivered by governments, while the Obama administration, for example, introduced safeguards to prevent those agencies from discriminating against individuals or groups who they might deem outside their theological teachings.
Writing in the New York Times Sunday, Katherine Stewart, author of a book on religious nationalism, warned that Trump is eliminating those Obama-era safeguards and making it easier for publicly funded agencies to discriminate. For example, clients receiving services from a taxpayer-supported Christian organization could be forced to profess allegiance to Jesus in order to access services or an employee could be fired for not living a “biblical lifestyle,” the definition of which the religious organization, presumably, could define at their own whim.
A test case in Missouri seems innocent enough: a church maintains it should get federal funding to build a kids’ playground; that being refused such money represents discrimination against religion. The corollary is clear: if preventing tax money from funding religious organizations (even for something as innocuous as a playground) is discrimination, Stewart warns, “then the taxpayer has no choice but to fund religion.” This would represent an abrogation of one of the most fundamental cornerstones of the U.S. Constitution: the First Amendment, which declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The framers of the Constitution were concerned not only that eliminating the barrier between government and religion would corrupt a government intended to serve all citizens but, perhaps equally, that it would corrupt religious institutions themselves. A number of the people on the test case’s side are also leaders among Trump’s evangelical constituency.
What was especially jarring when perusing the Sunday Times was a far more prominent story – on page A4, to be specific – about how Quebec’s secularism law is having a detrimental effect on civil servants, mostly women, from cultural minorities. The law, which precludes people who work in most roles in the public service from showing any external indications of religiosity – a kippa, a headscarf, a crucifix, a turban – is preventing individuals from beginning or advancing in their careers and, in some cases, effectively chasing them out of the province.
These disparate examples from three very different societies indicate the folly both of excessive religious interference in governmental affairs and heavy-handed efforts to have the opposite effect. Somewhere in the middle must be a commonsensical approach to these extremities. Of the three countries in the examples, Israel is perhaps the one where the challenges are most concrete and affect the most people. What, if anything, happens as result of Liberman’s gambit will be a fascinating experiment to watch.
A world leader decries investigations into his possible criminal corruption as an “attempted coup” based on “fabrications and a tainted and biased investigative process.”
No, not that world leader. This time it is Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime-minister-by-a-thread. Finally indicted on graft charges after months of anticipation, he became the first Israeli prime minister ever to face charges while in office. He insists the indictment will not impact his leadership, just as the country seems on an irreversible path to a third election in a year.
In a region with a scarcity of free and fair elections, Israel can’t seem to stop having them. From that perspective, things could be worse. Whether Netanyahu’s Likud party stands with him in his time of trouble remains to be seen. The possibility of his departure from the political scene, which he has dominated for nearly a generation, would provide the most significant shakeup of the field and possibly prevent a third inconclusive outcome.
On this side of the ocean, the U.S. House of Representatives continues investigating President Donald Trump. Few people, including Republicans, are making much of an effort to refute the basic facts. Evidence piles upon itself that the U.S. president indeed asked the president of Ukraine for a dirty political favour – a bribe – in exchange for military financial aid that had already been approved by the U.S. Congress. GOP responses to this evidence range from “So?” to the only slightly more nuanced argument that the president of the United States didn’t get what he wanted and the president of Ukraine did, so no harm done.
With Trump seemingly in thrall or somehow beholden to Vladimir Putin, and his party steadfast behind him, we are treated to the spectacle of a party that 60 years ago was trampling over individual liberties based on a largely false suspicion that “the Russians” were infiltrating the country’s government and threatening its entire way of life now responding to a disturbingly similar situation, this one far more provably real, with a shrug.
While Canada, thankfully, has no such level of political intrigue or corruption at the moment, a shocking diplomatic move last week has set the official voices of the Jewish community on edge.
The day before swearing in a new cabinet, the government of just-reelected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted to vote at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, jumping on a dogpile led by North Korea, Egypt, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe, none of whom should be arbiters of justice or human rights. To be clear, the vote means almost nothing in practical terms. But symbolism does count. And the vote was a slap in the face by Canada to Israel and those in this country who recognize it as our closest ally in the region for historical, moral and pragmatic reasons.
Some speculate that the shift in tone reflects the new minority government currying favour with the New Democratic Party, which has included some notorious Israel-bashers. That is probably a less likely reason than the campaign by Trudeau to win Canada one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council. Where former prime minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to “go along to get along” in the anti-Israel hatefest that occurs annually at the UN was seen as a key reason we lost out on a seat, Trudeau seems determined to hedge his bets.
A prestigious seat on the Security Council would presumably elevate Trudeau in the eyes of the world after he frittered away the “Canada is back” optimism of four years ago by failing to meet climate targets while bhangra dancing across the world stage.
Regardless of the motive, it is a reprehensible act that could have serious implications for the political orientation of Jewish Canadians in the next few years. Coming as it does while the ink is barely dry on the results of an election in which Liberals mostly made the right noises to Jewish and pro-Israel Canadians, it seems a particularly brutish little dagger to unsheathe now.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, right, visiting an Iron Dome missile intercept control centre Nov. 14, accompanied by Israel Defence Forces Brig.-Gen. Ran Kochav. (photo from IGPO via Ashernet)
Iron Dome has a success rate of around 90%. Each Israeli missile costs some $50,000 and the cost of each battery has been put at some $100 million, but the number of lives saved and buildings protected makes Iron Dome one of the most significant military developments.
On Monday, Canada and Israel each embarked on a new adventure in governance. Here at home, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party had a surprisingly robust showing in the federal election, winning the irrefutable right to form a minority government, or to form a coalition of some description.
The Liberals’ relatively strong showing – 157 seats to Andrew Scheer’s 121; just 13 short of a majority – opens the door for a government with Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats holding a balance of power. Just a few days before the election, polls suggested a race so tight, and with the Bloc Quebecois and NDP taking so many seats, that any configuration to reach the magic 170 number would have required not two parties, but three. That complicated scenario was averted, leaving the Liberals free to face the House with either a formal agreement with the NDP or a tacit knowledge that the now-fourth party is in no financial position to return hastily to the election battlefield.
In Israel Monday, President Reuven Rivlin called on Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to attempt to form a government after incumbent Binyamin Netanyahu failed to do so after the second inconclusive election this year. Gantz has said he hopes to form a “liberal unity government,” but that is as challenging as Netanyahu’s failed effort to coalesce a majority. He may be hoping that, if Netanyahu is indicted in the coming days, Likud under a new leader might be a viable partner – or perhaps some MKs unfettered from Netanyahu’s long years of leadership will break away and form a faction to join Gantz. Another plan has Gantz propping up Netanyahu unless and until Netanyahu is charged, at which point Gantz would stand up as prime minister, which seems a strange compromise with a tarnished leader. As usual in Israeli politics, there are a vast number of moving parts.
Multiple moving parts is less typical of Canadian politics, where our tendency toward majority governments typically sequesters any moving parts in the all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office. Not so during a minority Parliament, when individual MPs on all sides are able to wield power in ways they can only dream of in a majority scenario.
In what must be a jagged pill for the once and future prime minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, whose testimony about Trudeau’s treatment of her was the single most detrimental arrow in Trudeau’s reelection armour, was herself reelected as an independent in Vancouver Granville. A large number of Jewish British Columbians, now, are represented in Parliament by an individual who belongs to no party. This will be fascinating to watch in many respects, not least how she pursues politics from the opposition benches as the SNC-Lavalin affair continues to percolate.
Other sidebars in the result include the scuttled effort by a leading anti-Israel figure to re-enter Parliament. Svend Robinson, who, during 25 years in Parliament, was one of Canada’s most vociferous voices against Israel, threw his hat back in the ring but came up short in Burnaby North-Seymour – being narrowly defeated by the incumbent Liberal despite this being ground zero in the battle over the Liberals’ Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
More notably, Maxime Bernier, leader of the nascent People’s Party, lost his own seat in Quebec. His party made effectively no impact anywhere, sending the hopeful sign that messages of populist xenophobia that seem to be resonating elsewhere in the world still fall largely on deaf ears, at least electorally, here.
Canada will almost certainly have an easier time forming a government than Israel will but, in both cases, the drama plays out against the backdrop of healthy, vibrant, disputatious democratic systems. No matter what the outcomes, we should be thankful for that.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu places his vote on election day. (photo by Haim Zach/IGPO from Ashernet)
Unless something dramatic happens between when we write this and when you read this, the future of Israel’s government remains uncertain. To avert a third election in a year, the most viable option for a stable government would appear to be a “national unity” or “centrist coalition” involving both major parties, Likud and Blue and White.
This was the subject of face-to-face discussions between leaders and President Reuven Rivlin, but no agreement was reached. So Binyamin Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister, has a few weeks to try to cobble something together. If he fails, Rivlin will probably call on Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to give it a go. Some bets are that, if it comes to that, there will be enough Knesset members desperate enough to avoid a return to the polls that some accommodation will be made. Perhaps the likeliest possibility is a Likud-Blue and White unity government without Netanyahu. (This scenario would become likelier if Netanyahu officially faces criminal charges in the next few days.)
Any broad coalition of this sort would lead to a degree of progress on some fronts – if far-right and religious parties are excluded, some policies and legislation that appeal to the secular majority are likely to advance – while progress on some other fronts would likely stall.
One example is the peace process – although there is, basically, no progress to stall at this point. There is great divergence in Israel over what the next steps should be vis-à-vis the Palestinians. In a broad-based coalition government, that uncertainty would define government policy, probably leading to inaction.
During the recent election, Netanyahu went further than previous leaders, promising to annex chunks of the West Bank to Israel. Gantz and the centre-left in Israel have been confounded by the reality that, while they seek a two-state solution and recognize a one-state situation as demographically unsustainable, until Israel sees a benefit to ending the occupation and can be certain that an independent Palestine in the West Bank will not be a launch pad for terror, independence will not come and the occupation will not end. Without that, no peace, no Palestine.
As a result, we will likely see more of the status quo, until some force acts to alter it. While Netanyahu’s provocative promise to annex areas would have altered the status quo for the worse, a precipitous end to the occupation that left a vacuum to be filled by those wishing to do Israel harm would likewise be a change for the worse. The tense status quo Israelis and Palestinians have now is definitely not great, especially for Palestinians, but it is better than outright war.
An old tale has the rabbi of a medieval Jewish community visiting the duke who has threatened to throw the Jews from his realm. The rabbi returns to his community and tells his people, “I convinced the duke to let us stay – if I can teach his dog to talk within five years.” The Jewish community is dumbfounded. “What a promise? It’s impossible!” The rabbi says, “Relax. I’ve got five years. The dog could die. The duke could die. I could die. Meanwhile, I bought us five years.”
The occupation, the statelessness of the Palestinian people, the recurring missile attacks from Gaza and the violence against civilians are not things we should understate or dismiss. But neither should we believe that any change is necessarily an improvement. The status quo is better than war and it is better than the dissolution of the Jewish state. The status quo is not ideal, but it may be better than currently available alternatives.
For the first time in its history, Israel will go to the polls because the Knesset Israelis elected in April could not form a government.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu crowed after the election results came in that his Likud had defied critics and won a comparatively easy reelection. The number of small right-wing parties in the Knesset made it impossible for the opposition Blue and White bloc to assemble the 61 seats needed for a bare minimum majority coalition, leaving Netanyahu a free hand to form another government. Or so it seemed to everyone.
But there’s right-wing and then there’s right-wing. As in any country, a range of issues and interests combine to make up political parties and movements. While they may be in sync on a whole range of economic, social, internal and foreign policy issues, the one thing that unified Likud and its ostensible allies among the smaller right-wing parties was animosity toward the left, which Netanyahu demonized during the campaign – even accusing the veteran military figures who lead Blue and White of being too far left. The leftist bogeyman Netanyahu was conjuring is, at this point in Israeli history, largely fictitious. The Labour party, once the dominant force in the country, suffered its worst showing ever, finishing with less than 5% of the vote.
What divides the right-wing parties are a few issues of core principle. The ultra-Orthodox parties are right-wing and prefer Netanyahu as prime minister. But they want special considerations for religious institutions maintained and strengthened. Nationalist parties, like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, are right-wing, but secular, and Lieberman would not budge on his assertion that there should be no compromise on a new law – promulgated under his watch as Netanyahu’s minister of defence – that yeshivah men not be automatically excused from conscription. The five seats Lieberman’s party won in April were the lynchpin for a fifth Netanyahu government – and the notoriously combustible Lieberman ultimately kiboshed the government and the 21st Knesset.
Some commentators suggest principle was less a factor in Lieberman’s choice than personal pique. The two men were once the closest of allies – and nothing is more bitter than a family fight. A number of policy issues have frayed the relationship. For example, as defence minister, Lieberman publicly excoriated his boss for what he characterized as letting Hamas off the hook too easily in the most recent flare-up of cross-border violence from Gaza. Lieberman, it appears, would have preferred a far more punishing response, though he has a history of making dire threats on which he does not follow up. He once brazenly gave Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours to live if he did not return an Israeli hostage and the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers. The gambit failed. The millionaire Haniyah remains very much alive, luxuriating in a waterfront palace he built with a 20% tax on all goods traveling through the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. Lieberman meanwhile continues with similar bellicosity to stoke his base, primarily older Israelis with roots in the Soviet Union.
Whether Lieberman’s dashing of Netanyahu’s plans was an ego issue or a strategy to improve his party’s weak showing in April, or whether it was, in fact, a matter of principle, doesn’t matter much now that new elections have been slated for September.
Most of Israel’s 2019 will have been eaten up by election campaigns and, unless the electorate has a swift change of heart – or the criminal charges hanging over Netanyahu’s head shift the discourse – the results in September may be very similar to those of April. Then what?
Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who has been both ally and opponent to Netanyahu, posited last week that, whatever the outcome in September, Netanyahu is finished. While there are anonymous sources inside Likud suggesting the leader may be ousted after the next election, the fact is that Netanyahu’s career has been declared dead several times before, but he has defied prognosticators and triumphed. Not for nothing is his nickname “the Magician.”
Binyamin Netanyahu appears comfortably ensconced in the Israeli prime minister’s office after last week’s elections. While his Likud bloc effectively tied for seats with the upstart Blue and White party, the smattering of smaller parties are mostly of the nationalist, religious and right-wing bent, meaning Netanyahu will have a fifth term as leader. If he hangs on until July, he will surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
The likelihood that he will reach that mark seems good. He faces probable criminal charges but that does not necessarily mean the end of his career. Rumours are rife that he is considering a legal escape hatch that would permit him to remain in office even if indicted or, more likely, make it illegal to indict a sitting prime minister. In most democracies, at most times in recent history, such a move would be seen as intolerably corrupt. Times change.
The leaders of democracies today are blazing new trails. The words and actions of the U.S. president confound our capacity for incredulity. Jaw-dropping statements of contempt, bigotry, juvenile pique and lies emanate from his mouth (and Twitter fingers) faster than the outrage can follow. Across Europe, far-right extremist parties are rising, as they did in elections in Finland on the weekend. In Britain, which is convulsing from self-induced Brexit trauma, the leftist Labour party is engulfed in an antisemitism crisis. Positions and statements that would have been unthinkable in the civil discourse of recent decades are suddenly at the centre of public discourse in democracies everywhere.
Israel is no exception. During the recent election campaign, candidates expressed erstwhile unspeakable ideas, including a scheme to ethnically cleanse the West Bank of Arabs and annex the land to Israel. The advocate of that idea was soundly defeated – the Knesset democratically cleansed of his ideology when the party failed to reach the 3.25% minimum vote to enter parliament.
But Netanyahu himself floated some astonishing trial balloons during the campaign. He mooted annexing West Bank settlement blocs into Israel – a concept that is not ludicrously beyond the pale since, if a negotiated settlement ever emerges, it will likely include such a move in exchange for traded land. But he also suggested annexing settlements that are not adjacent to or contiguous with Israel’s recognized boundaries. Such an idea would create a patchwork in the West Bank along the lines that would make an independent Palestine unworkable. The fact that the incumbent prime minister opened this political Pandora’s box is evidence of a new willingness to play with potential fire.
That foot play with extremists is not limited to domestic affairs. If an Israeli Rip Van Winkle fell asleep a couple of decades ago and woke up to Israel’s current diplomatic situation, he would be confused and possibly delighted. If that Van Winkle shared our worldview – an apparently old-fashioned belief in pluralistic, inclusive, universal humanitarian values – he would quickly conclude that the prima facie bonanza of goodwill has a rotting core.
As former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor said Sunday night (see cover story), Israel has open lines of communication with countries that for decades steadfastly rejected its very existence. Likewise, Israel has excellent relations with some of the most populous and powerful countries in the world – India, China, Russia, Brazil and, in different but important ways, a refreshed, familial relationship with the current U.S. administration.
Israel has superb relations with these countries, and with the Philippines, as well as with Hungary and other eastern European states that have traditionally been problematic for the Jewish state. That seemingly good news is tempered by the fact that these good relations are not based on conventional diplomatic alliances. To a large extent – especially in the cases of Hungary, the Philippines, Brazil, Russia and the reinvigorated bonhomie between the leaders of Israel and the United States – these close relations are based on a shared strain of politics that fill us with more nervousness than naches.
These relationships are less between Israel and Brazil or the Philippines or Hungary or Russia than a bromance between Netanyahu and Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin, to say nothing of the continuing lovefest between Bibi and Donald Trump. Each of these figures is a strongman who is, to varying degrees, pushing the limits of their democracies to see how far they can stretch rule of law and diminish respect for human rights. With this in mind, the diplomatic warmth seems less about traditional bilateral relations than about a fraternity of nationalist, populist and authoritarian men leading the world down a path unimagined a decade ago.
With that background, Israel’s unprecedentedly improved relations with so many countries seems less positive a development. Our proverbial sleeper might pull the covers back over his head and hope for better in the decades to come.
Clockwise, from top left: U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, Joe Lieberman, Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Cory Booker address attendees of last month’s AIPAC Policy Conference. (photos by Dave Gordon)
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, in addition to other ranking American politicians, spoke of their unwavering support for the Jewish state to 18,000 people at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, in Washington, D.C., March 24-26.
Speech themes revolved around recent rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, the Golan Heights being recognized as Israeli sovereign territory by the United States, and sanctions against Iran. Every official who mentioned BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, condemned it.
Much was said about the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Abdullahi Omar. Her statements – including “Israel has hypnotized the world” and that AIPAC has influenced U.S. policy through money – have been interpreted as antisemitic by some Jewish leaders.
Pence said, “History has already proven [Donald Trump] to be the greatest friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office of the White House.”
Among the pro-Israel bona fides of Trump, Pence said the United States shut down the Washington branch of the Palestinian Authority as a consequence for funding terror; ended tax dollar funding for United Nations-funded Palestinian schools; moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; and recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
“We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values,” he said.
In addition, Pence talked about the end of the “disastrous nuclear deal with Iran” that has been replaced with “a maximum-pressure campaign” of sanctions, thereby causing Iran’s economy to dip.
“There’ll be no more pallets of cash to the mullahs in Iran,” he said.
In a swipe across the political aisle, Pence said, “It’s astonishing to think that the party of Harry Truman, which did so much to help create the state of Israel, has been co-opted by people who promote rank antisemitic rhetoric and work to undermine the broad American consensus of support for Israel.”
Without mentioning her name, he referred to Omar as “a freshman Democrat in Congress” who “trafficked in repeated antisemitic tropes.”
Former U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s first comments were about what she believes is the UN’s hypocrisy.
“You know, what’s interesting is, at the UN, I can guarantee you this morning it is radio silent,” she said, in reference to the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. “They are not saying anything about Hamas, they’re not saying anything about the lives lost, they’re not saying anything. But, if it was any [other] countr[y], they’d be calling an emergency Security Council meeting.”
David Friedman, U.S. ambassador to Israel, claimed that Trump is “Israel’s greatest ally ever to reside in the White House” and, to those who think otherwise, “please, take a deep breath and think about it some more.”
How America is now sanctioning Iran was one example of an Israel-friendly policy. Friedman criticized the previous administration for paying the Islamic Republic $100 billion in the hopes that country would “self-correct.”
“What did Iran do with all its newly found treasure?” he asked. “Did it build up its civilian institutions? Did it improve the quality of life of its citizens?” Instead, he said, it “doubled down on terrorist activity in Yemen, in Iraq and in Lebanon. It increased its stock of ballistic missiles and it invested in military bases in Syria, on Israel’s northern border.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered an address via satellite, initially planning to take the podium in person, but returning to Israel to deal with the rocket attacks.
“The Golan Heights is indispensable for our defence,” he said of the recognition by the United States of the northern land seized by Israel in the Six Day War, in 1967. “It’s part of our history. When you put a shovel in the ground there, what you discover are the ruins of ancient synagogues. Jews lived there for thousands of years and the people of Israel have come back to the Golan.”
Netanyahu said he thought comments like Omar’s are antisemitic.
“Again, the Jews are cast as a force for evil,” he said. “Again, the Jews are charged with disloyalty. Again, the Jews are said to have too much influence, too much power, too much money. Take it from this Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins.”
In the session Canada’s Relationship with Israel, the panel included Liberal member of Parliament Anthony Housefather, Conservative MP Erin O’Toole and former Conservative foreign minister John Baird.
Housefather said he believes Israelis do not think there’s a negotiating partner for peace, but they share some blame in the conflict: “The more they create settlements, the less likely there will be peace … they should think carefully before expanding settlements.”
A questioner asked him when the Canadian prime minister would do something “real” for Israel and Housefather noted that, in recent weeks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau forcefully condemned the BDS movement in a town hall meeting.
Another audience member asked why the Trudeau government continues to fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. While acknowledging that UNRWA has “curricula problems” that involve “anti-Jewish, anti-Israel comments, misogynistic comments and anti-gay comments,” he said that the $50 million in funding was just.
Housefather said he had spoken with the head of UNRWA and voiced his “concerns at the slow pace they are making changes in the curricula,” but added that their schools make children “a lot less likely to become terrorists against Israel.”
“Yes to helping them with UN aid programs; no to funding their schools,” said O’Toole. And Baird agreed.
On the topic of a peace plan, O’Toole said he “kept hearing from Palestinians their want for a ‘one-state solution,’” while their government “exerts violence, and does not take care of the needs of their people.”
“I think you’ll see from Israeli leaders that they’re prepared to experience real pain [in concessions],” Baird said, but “Palestinians have to stop the incitement” and the “hate-mongering.”
While several candidates for the Democratic party’s 2020 presidential nomination skipped the conference, leading Democratic figures were prominent at AIPAC, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who insisted no one will be permitted to make Israel a partisan wedge issue.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.