In many ways, the mess has proven a terrible mixed blessing. One election after another has cost the national budget a fortune. The government has been in limbo for a year. With coronavirus floating around, medical care challenged in other ways, Hezbollah and Iranian dangers in the north, incessant and continual Hamas and Islamic Jihad (which in reality are the same thing) rocket-firing and balloon-bombing in the south, disastrous winter hurricane-style flooding in the north and central regions, it would have been nice 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.
In the first election, to get a larger seat contingent for Likud than Benny Gantz could get for Blue and White, Bibi attacked and strafed Bennett and the New Right, costing them just enough votes to knock them out of the Knesset. His goal was to have a government coalition without being bothered by Bennett and his sharp public criticisms of how the defense ministry was being run. So Netanyahu knocked out Bennet, just barely — and he was so successful that he ended up with no government instead of having 62-63 seats, then another no-win in September’s do-over election, yet ultimately ended up with Bennett as his Defense Minister anyway. Think about that.
In the second election he erred in cajoling Moshe Kachlon to close down his independent Kulanu party that had won 4 seats in April and to be absorbed into Likud. Bibi and Kachlon both felt that would assure that Kachlon’s votes not be wasted and lost in case Kulanu would miss the 3.25 percent threshold the next time. Indeed, Kahlon 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. 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 were happy to have a Likud government. Kachlon’s independent party gave them that opportunity. Other Kachlon voters are centrist but were attracted by his focus on assuring social services. Once Kachlon no longer offered those voters a unique Kulanu choice, many followed him to Likud but others split away to Blue and White and even to Labor and Gesher.
There is no question that the right-wing and religious votes are there. The first election was less than a year ago, and the population of Israel has not changed that much.
Yet there also has been a quirky blessing in the mess. In more than a decade in office, Prime Minister Netanyahu never before had gone on record advocating immediately extending Israeli sovereignty over Jewish communities throughout Judea and Samaria, with especial focus on annexing the Jordan Valley at once. Once the electoral stalemates forced him in that direction, it also moved Benny Gantz to address that issue, except that he made it contingent on unattainable international approval.
Secondly, President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” would have challenged any Israeli government to say “yes” or “no.” In reality, there are certain aspects of that plan that are wonderful and other components that cause deep concern. Because Israel did not have a government in place, it fell on Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestine Authority to take the lead and go on record as the “haters of peace” by rejecting the plan outright.
As in America, Israeli democracy these days has devolved into character assassination and investigations into each other’s alleged crimes and defalcations. On the one hand, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been indicted and faces a trial. On the other hand, there now is a major investigation into Benny Gantz’s Fifth Dimension mess that saw the company of which he was Chief Executive Officer collapse and go bankrupt under his stewardship, but not before it engaged in all sorts of shady multi-million-shekel arrangements with the national police. At the very least, Fifth Dimension avoided the properly required public tender process for getting a major government contract, claimed to have been in business longer than was true and honest, received millions as an advance towards a 50-million-shekel contract for a product that did not yet even exist, and was financed by a shady Russian investor who himself got wiped out by Trump Administration sanctions against Russia. If Gantz’s best defense is that he did not know anything that was going on all around him in the company where he was CEO, that seems hardly a platform on which to inspire voters that he is best suited to be the CEO of the State of Israel. And then there is the Harpaz Affair that puts Blue and White's Gabi Ashkenazi in the middle of a sordid effort to control the choice of IDF CoS.
So it is a mess. But it also underscores that the votes are there. Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma is not going to drop out of this race the way that Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut sensibly dropped out in September. To a degree, one cannot blame Ben Gvir because he played by the rules this time, finally recognized that he had to take that picture of Dr. Baruch Goldstein off his living room wall, honorably cut a deal with Rabbi Rafi Peretz of Bayit Yehudi — and then got double-crossed. So maybe it is understandable why he and Otzma cannot think of the greater good and just walk away. But his voters can have the wisdom to understand that they will not get medals for martyrdom by throwing away their votes once again. His polls reflect that this round will result in fewer votes for Otzma than in the prior elections, and one can hope that even more Otzma supporters will have the wisdom on election day this time to vote for a religious or right-wing party that will exceed the 3.25 percent threshold.
The votes are there. 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 Liberman. In a crazy way, 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. The votes are there. We know it from April 2019.