Why the murky election results do not necessarily leave no options

For Netanyahu to agree to head a minority government would have been a non-starter after the prior three elections Maybe now? Op-ed

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer ,

Israeli government cabinet meeting
Israeli government cabinet meeting
Ohad Zwigenberg/Flash 90
We know that The Bibi Coalition (Likud – 30, Shas - 9, UTJ - 7, Religious Zionism - 6) is at 52. With Naftali Bennett’s Yamina at 7, Prime Minister Netanyahu stalls at 59 seats, two short of a government coalition majority.

On the other side, six seats were won by the three Arab parties comprising the “Joint List”, and another four were secured by the more theologically conservative Mansour Abbas and hisRa’am party.

On the Jewish anti-Bibi front, the more left of center got 38, with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid at 17, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White at 8, socialist Labor at 7, and even more extreme-left Meretz at 6.

Gideon Saar’s politically conservative, theologically and socially moderate-traditional New Hope came out with six, and Avigdor Liberman’s mostly Russian and Ukrainian politically right-wing and anti-Arab but theologically anti-religious Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) with seven.

Of course it is a mess. But it is the fourth time there has been the same mess, a messy two years that never would have happened if Bennett’s earlier United Right-Wing effort that secured 3.22 percent of that vote had secured only 0.03 percent more - or he had stayed in the Jewish Home party that he had taken over just a few years earlier. But that’s the way the matzo crumbles.

Throughout, there consistently has been a vigorous move to the political right in Israel, with two-thirds of Jewish parties’ Knesset seats consistently drawn to the right. The Left had forecast and promised a Mideastern paradise after they shoved the Oslo Accords through the Knesset, by buying off two select MKs, Alex Goldfarb and Gonen Segev, who actually had been elected on the right-wing party platform of Raful Eitan’s Tzomet Party. So the Israeli Left gave the terrorist Yasser Arafat political legitimacy and a polity, and the intifadas followed.

Additional left-wing initiatives — Ehud Barak’s unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon and Ariel Sharon’s similar unilateral withdrawal from Gaza — likewise gave rise to chaos. Iran-backed Hezbollah now dominates South Lebanon, with thousands of perilous rockets trained on Israeli cities that extend southward beyond the border “development” towns, and Hamas controls Gaza and launches rockets as far north as Eilat with almost no consequences of substance stopping them.

So the Left had its chance, barreled through its visions of “peace now,” and most of Israel’s electorate will not let them near power again. The only obstacle obstructing the formation of a solidly strong right-wing government is the conflict between those who stand with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and those who despise him, his style, his integrity in the most intensely personal way.

The Jewish anti-Bibi MKs now stand at 51 seats in the new Knesset. But Gideon Saar’s six are politically right wing, while also socially and theologically moderately traditional. Lieberman is right wing but anti-religious, and he has a record of expressing antipathy towards Arabs. Any grouping of those two with left-wing parties like the socialists of Labor, the more extreme-left MKs of Meretz, and the Arab parties cannot last long — if even at all. Theoretically, if they all could unite to pass a law that somehow bans Bibi, they would. Thus, the discussions now underway among them to pass a law that anyone under indictment may not be prime minister nor be granted authority to form a government. They assume their newly won Knesset seats before President Rivlin assigns someone to form a government.

Many look at the present results and understandably, and perhaps correctly, moan that a fifth election will be coming soon. But each election has not been a complete replication of the prior one, although the past two years of Israel’s politics indeed have bordered on the definition of insanity. Several scenarios do exist for forming a government, despite initial perceptions that such a possibility is impossible:

1. The 61 who oppose Bibi form a coalition, oust him by legislating an enactment that bars an indicted MK from forming a government or serving as prime minister, and then the 61 slowly tear each other to pieces. It is a possibility, but if any single MK among those 61 sees personal or political opportunity by withholding support from those others, that option fails.

2. Bibi lures two MKs from other parties into his coalition, and then he has 61. That will be very hard. The right had hoped to pick up one more seat, if not two, when the “double envelopes,” comprised primarily of soldiers’ votes, were counted. It did not happen. Still, there are two or perhaps even three among Saar’s six MKs who perhaps can be lured. Ze’ev Elkin may have been motivated to bolt Likud primarily because he was made Minster of Higher Education & Water, each so inadequate a ministry for him that he had to be given two inadequacies. If he is offered something substantial, with Netanyahu begging him to return, Elkin just might. Then there is Yifat Shosha-Biton, who chaired the Knesset coronavirus committee and continually got negated and overruled by the coalition. She advocated for a substantially open economy during the pandemic — open the gyms and restaurants — while Netanyahu was determined to implement complete lockdowns, ultimately three different times. He was going to win that conflict. And his approach brought results. Now, with an end to the pandemic hopefully in sight, he could make a desperate play and offer her the Ministry of Health, a cabinet position. That would displace Yuli Edelstein, a Netanyahu ally, who might be lured back to the Knesset speakership — and might even prefer that.

Others in Saar’s list whp might be lured could include Sharren Haskel, another Likudnik. She is a libertarian, Canadian-born, advocate for legalizing marijuana and expanding gay rights. When she bolted, she also lambasted Netanyahu for failing to annex parts of Judea and Samaria though he had promised to do so, and for not following through on his promise to shake up the judiciary.

o, if Bibi offers her a major committee chair, she might be open to being lured. That’s three “maybes.” And there may even be a subtle fourth. Menachem Begin’s son, Benny, got the sixth and last Saar seat on the New Hope list. Benny Begin is 78, an elder statesman of Likud, was in Likud’s highest echelon, then found himself neglected by the party’s new dominant figure, Binyanim Netanyahu. Benny may well have agreed to run for the 24th Knesset just to add heft to the campaign of Saar’s fledgling party, with an unspoken intent to give up his Knesset seat soon after, uninterested in being there at this point in his life, especially in what has emerged as possibly an inconsequential party of six seats. If he steps down, that seat goes to Meir Yitzchak HaLevi, former mayor of Eilat. He just might see an opportunity for himself to bolt into significance overnight if he advances to Benny Begin’s seat and Bibi then offers him something consequential.

3. There is a thought that Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am party would work out something with Netanyahu. But it seems hard to fathom that Betzalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and their fellow right-wing “Religious Zionism” MKs would accede to any arrangement with Abbas. Nor is it persuasive that Abbas wants to sit in a coalition with Zionists of any sort, especially those, even though he then could access serious funding and might influence the government to focus more meaningfully on fighting both organized crime and rampant street crime in Arab neighborhoods.

4. What I am coming to theorize, more and more, is that Netanyahu may decide now, after a fourth election that resulted without a clear path to a 61-seat coalition, that his only and best scenario, if he cannot lure others, is to conduct a very tenuous — but doable — minority government of 59. That is, to negotiate a promise from Abbas not to join the antis in any vote of no confidence, to support crafting a more socially and religiously conservative court system, and Bibi in return will not advance annexing parts of Judea and Samaria and will focus more on fighting Arab crime.

For Netanyahu, it is clear that if Saar and Liberman refuse to bring their thirteen seats his way into a rock-solid 72-seat coalition, he cannot move forward on annexing parts of Judea and Samaria like the Jordan Valley anyway. Besides, with Joe Biden now in the White House bringing in the usual State Department suspects to press for a no-longer-viable “Two State Solution” and with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan engaged in “Abraham Accords,” Netanyahu will perceive the moment for annexation to have passed for now. So a deal with Abbas — don’t join the coalition but don’t join the opposition on a no-confidence vote either — is conceivable and may be something with which Smotrich can live, with or without Ben-Gvir’s assent.

The same kind of deal can be made, perhaps, with some of Saar’s New Hope people: “OK, don’t jump over to us but just promise not to join with the others in any vote of no confidence, and we will work something out.” That would give them great leverage, though no cabinet seats. On any government-sponsored initiative they oppose, their votes could kill the legislation, even — fittingly — on passing a budget. It would hamstring Netanyahu more than he ever before has encountered, but he still could govern pending the outcome of the criminal charges against him. In time, perhaps the COVID pandemic will have have muted adequately to allow a permanently reopened economy, with people living normal lives again and finding earned income flowing into their homes. That perhaps may change the political landscape in Netanyahu’s direction.

Equally telling, by then perhaps he either will be closer to being acquitted or convicted on the criminal charges. With only 59 seats in his governing minority coalition, he will be unable to enact any laws protecting him from ongoing prosecution. If convicted while heading the minority government, he will appeal, but even he knows he is going to be weakened perilously. By contrast, if acquitted, that alone will secure his position in any new election.

For Netanyahu to agree to head a minority government would have been a non-starter after the prior three elections. That first election, where Naftali Bennett’s “New Right” Party fell only 0.03 percent shy of winning four seats, while Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party wasted 118,000 votes comprising 2.74% of the vote, augured a Likud government in the second round if only the more right-wing parties could coalesce more intelligently.

As an added cherry, Bibi brought Moshe Kahlon back into Likud, expecting that also to help bolster the vote; unexpectedly, that reunion backfired.

By now, Netanyahu may be far more copacetic with governing with 59, while conducting ongoing stealth maneuvers to lure two other MKs into his coalition. The anti-Bibi’s — 38 on the left, thirteen on the right, ten among anti-Israel Arab parties — simply are too disparate to coexist. A minority government could be the next step.

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at two prominent Southern California law schools, Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values, congregational rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California, and has held prominent leadership roles in several national rabbinic and other Jewish organizations. He was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and served for most of the past decade on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings have appeared in The Weekly Standard, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Jerusalem Post, American Thinker, Frontpage Magazine, and Israel National News. Other writings are collected at www.rabbidov.com .


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