This coming Tuesday, Israel will vote and once the votes are counted, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog will ‘win’ the election, and Bibi Netanyahu will ‘lose’. And yet Bibi will be the next Prime Minister.
It isn’t an exaggeration to state that Bibi Netanyahu is the most hated man in the country right now. Posters everywhere (except those paid for by his party) vilify him by name and in no uncertain terms. An entire movement (Victory 2015) has sprung up with the sole purpose of toppling him. Everybody, of all political stripes, has a reason: the economic destruction of the Israeli middle class; the go-nowhere war with Gaza that ended in… well, nobody knows exactly; his calculated humiliation of Israel’s largest, most faithful and strongest ally; the secret funding of the settlements; the demonisation of the Israeli left; the attacks on the country’s democracy and civil-society; his bankrolling by and proximity to, a rich, fascistic American tycoon; his obsession with Iran; the embarrassing travails of his delusional, dictatorial wife… The list goes on and on and has alienated supporters and political allies alike. He and his Likud Party (10/3 Knesset Channel Poll: 21 seats) have bled support, drowning their recent allies, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) Party (latest polls: 5 seats, down from 13) with them.
You’d think this would be good news for the Labour Party, but that isn’t the case. The once-dominant party in Israel (the party that actually birthed the state, was the state, ran the state with an absolute majority all the way into the 1970s) is floundering for an identity, for a message, for a purpose. So much so that the last leader, Shelly Yachimovitch, point-blank refused to even discuss the existence of the Palestinians during the last election, much to the befuddlement of Labour’s traditional voters to the left. The party has not been electorally compelling since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago, and with this election, that has not changed. Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, their latest leader, should, by rights, be a juggernaut. The sion of a remarkable Israeli family (his relatives are a historical military, social and political who’s who), he has all the right pedigree, but instead of being compelling, he begs the question of where the Labour Party stands if he is the best they can do. His campaign posters make him seem constipated, and his campaign has been limp and strangely defensive, devoid of any message other than the obvious truism that Bougie is not Bibi. The sad truth is that virtually nobody is voting for Bougie, they are either legacy Labour voters, or rather they are voting against Bibi. This is one of the reasons the Meretz Party (10/3 Knesset Channel Poll: 5 seats), ideologically to the left of Labour, is fighting for its own survival: Meretz supporters want anybody but Netanyahu, and mistakenly view a strong Herzog as a viable alternative for Prime Minister.
And let’s not waste any breath on Tzipi Livni, Herzog’s partner in the “Zionist Union”: she lived this whole argument once, in 2009, when she ‘won’ the election and spent the entire duration of the government sulking in silent opposition.
No, although a few Likud scragglers may have jumped ship to Labour, most of Bibi’s losses naturally drained to other, more kindred, parties. The more ideological stepped across the breach to Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party (10/3 Knesset Channel Poll: 12 seats), the party that makes exclusionary ethnic nationalism sexy and socially acceptable. A succesful tech entrepreneur Bennett was also once a special-ops soldier, and was recently implicated in the 1996 Qana UN compound massacre that helped to bring down the post-Rabin Shimon Peres government. He openly speaks of annexation of the occupied territory and perpetual Jewish rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, with ethnically-determined citizenship and rights.
Those who find Bennett to extreme or too ideological, will have found warm welcome in the arms of Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon.
Lapid first: a former boxer and TV host, he set up the Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) Party and followed his father into the Knesset where he continued his legacy of doing… absolutely nothing. While daddy (“Tommy” Lapid) ran on an anti-religious ticket, the younger Lapi ran a less openly divisive “middle class rights” campaign (in effect the same deal) and then became a damp squib once he was handed the Finance Ministry in the last government. Often believed to be a one-knesset MK he has, unfathomably, managed to guide his party to the big leagues of public support. Yesh Atid are currently predicted to become the third party with a massive 14 seats.
Ex- Likud ex-Minister of Communications Moshe Kahlon, unlike Lapid, actually has some achievements to his name. Or, rather: he has one. Rather admirably, he did his job as minister and broke up Israel’s cellular oligopoly in 2009. His Kulanu (“All of Us”) party is tipped to win only 9 seats and is almost guaranteed to be in government. Perhaps then he will be able to do his job again: by breaking up the remaining oligopolies that contribute to Israel’s extreme cost of living crisis.
The other parties of note are:
– The Joint List (10/3 Knesset Channel Poll: 13 seats): A new amalgamation of Israel’s Arab parties, and the Jewish-Arab Communists, it is now Israel’s only non-Zionist political party. This interesting phenomenon is a result of the new election threshold law, whereby only parties gaining 3.25% of the vote or above will be represented in the Knesset. Interesting for two reasons: 1. this entity will siphon votes from the left of Meretz, further threatening their chances of breaking through the minimum threshold; 2. this will be the first time Israel’s Arabs will be a functional and mobilised political entity, with a unified voice loud enough to actively push for the interests of Israel’s Arab minority. More on whether they will effectively grasp the opportunity in a minute…
– The religious: Shas (Sepharadi, last poll: 7 seats), United Torah (Ashkenazi, 10/3 Knesset Channel Poll: 6 seats), Yahad (Shas splinter group formed by Eli Yishai, 10/3 Knesset Channel Poll: 4 seats). Religious people vote tribally. ‘Nuff said.
So, why does this break-down dictate that Bibi will almost certainly be the next Prime Minister? Simple: it’s all about the numbers. Israel’s Knesset has 120 seats. For a coalition to form a government, 61 seats are necessary and these polls dictate that there is no way that Herzog’s Labour, even at 24 seats, can form a lasting and stable coalition. His only natural partner is Meretz, with the possible inclusion of Lapid’s Yesh Atid, but that only brings him to a total of 43 seats (24+5+14). With 18 seats outstanding, he’d have to shop around. Assuming they can dangle enough out to Kahlon, that brings the grand total to 52 seats, still 9 seats shy of the magic 61.
The Joint List would be an obvious and logical inclusion, and it would be interesting to watch Lapid justify to his supporters a coalition with a non-zionist party. But that will probably never happen: even before a vote has been cast, the Joint List has ruled out joining any “Zionist parties” in government.
Announcing perpetual opposition as the Joint List’s sole raison d’etre, is a telling travesty. For years, for lack of political mobilisation, Israel’s Arab minority (1 in every 5 citizens) has been the victim of prejudicial distribution of reasources at every level. Finally, there is a chance not only to redress the balance, to draw attention to the administrative inequality that plagues the community, but also to moderate Israel’s relationship with the West Bank and Gaza, the settlements, and even promote the ever-elusive grand peace. By refusing to cooperate with the state, within the state, at the highest political levels, the Joint List is only adding fuel to the right’s assertion that the Arabs constitute an irredentist and dangerous fifth column in society.
So that returns Bougie back to 52 seats. Bennett is an anathema to Labour values and ideals, and though Lieberman could probably be bought quite cheaply, it would involve Meretz breaking a specific campaign pledge. Even then, with 6 seats still outstanding, it is doubtful that either Kahlon or Lapid would agree to team with the representatives of the hated religious communities, crucial in even building up the necessary numbers without taking into account stability or longevity.
Contrast the above with the prospects for a Likud-led coalition. Even at a measly 21 seats, the political lay of the land dictates that it will be easier for Bibi to navigate the minefields of the Israeli political party system. Sure, he could join Herzog is a coalition of national unity, bringing along Lapid and Kahlon for the ride, but why should he? It will be relatively easy for him to collect his natural ‘friends’ – those with whom he has either served with before, or have shared his present, god-forsaken government – and divide up the pie. There is no genuine argument between Likud, Lapid, Kahlon, Bennet and Lieberman, and those 61 seats (21+14+9+12+5) will provide another politically quiet three or four years; a happy family that will, once more, obsess on Iran, subjugate the Palestinians and Israeli civil society, destroy the economy, pour money into the settlements, and oversee Israel’s suicidal drift into the international abyss. Plus ça change.
So, the largest party can’t form a government, and the balance of power lies with those smaller parties with 5 or 9 or 13 seats. We’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again. In effect, the will of the majority will be decided by the whims, promises, or narrow interests of the smaller parties, though it could be argued that Israel’s political system naturally skews in the direction of the general ideological mood, with a large bulge in a fragmented and antagonistic centre. There is no constitution in Israel (there are a series of basic laws, a constitution of sorts), but the only way to change the political system to something more stable is through a two-thirds majority vote in the Knesset. Labour would definitely vote for a change to the electoral system, Likud possibly too, but in order to reach the 91 vote threshold, not one but rather many of those smaller parties – the very kingmakers whose MKs and supporters who have enjoyed seeing their interests disproportionately represented – would have to agree to curtail their power and effectively commit suicide in the process.
That’ll never happen of course, and neither coups or revolutions are really the Israeli way (that’s for another post). So what we’re left with is the present status-quo, and two-to-four more years of toxic leadership.
King Bibi is dead. Long live King Bibi.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.