Israel goes to the polls, Netanyahu's fate tied to hawkish Liberman

Israel goes to the polls, Netanyahu's fate tied to hawkish Liberman

Monica Mazza
For the first time in its 71-year history, the Jewish state is going back to the polls in the space of just five months to elect its members of parliament, with the weight of rival parties hanging over Netanyahu

On September 17, around 4.33 million Israelis will go to the polls to pick the members of the 22nd legislature of the Knesset. This is the first time in the Jewish state’s 71-year history that electors are returning to the polls within five months. After the early elections held on April 9, the prime minister and head of the outgoing executive, Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to form a government due to differences between the two allies of Likud, Netanyahu's party: a group of orthodox parties on the one hand and the Yisrael Beiteinu party of the former Minister of Defense, Avigdor Liberman, on the other. With a few days to go to the elections, Liberman’s role is expected to have a significant impact on the formation of the new executive. In fact, according to the polls, Yisrael Beiteinu might actually swing the elections in favor of outsider Benny Gantz, leader of the Kahol Lavan coalition.


Rivals in the field

Talks broke down last spring because of a difference of opinion between the two potential allies of Likud - Yisrael Beiteinu on the one hand and the ultra-orthodox coalition on the other - about obligatory military service for ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews. Not being able to count on Liberman’s seats, Netanyahu was unable to create a majority coalition, however small. On the opposite flank is outsider Benny Gantz, a former Army Chief of Staff who heads the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) coalition. Despite having won just 15,000 votes less than Likud, he was assigned 35 seats. A sizable difference that led the Head of State, Reuven Rivlin, to entrust Netanyahu with the task of forming the government. Over the last few weeks, polls have shown that Likud and Kahol Lavan are head to head and would each receive 31 seats. Among the other seven parties covered by the polls published in the daily newspaper “Haaretz”, Liberman’s party in particular appears to have leapt ahead and would increase its seats from 5 to 10.5.


Winning over difficult voters

Considering the electoral campaign run by Gantz, who has failed to capitalize on the consensus and agreement between the former general and Liberman to add together their respective votes and possibly gain one more seat, Yisrael Beitenu's leader seems to be once again decisive for the political balance of Israel. All this is in addition to the recent events along the demarcation line with Lebanon, and the ever tense situation with the Gaza Strip. The perception of security will weigh on the electorate. Voters will be influenced and can choose between those who support a hard line, such as the hawkish Liberman, and those who, like Netanyahu, have so far chosen the path of diplomacy and deterrence.

According to the former Israeli ambassador to Italy, Ofer Sachs, this time all the parties will adopt a more pragmatic approach. The failure to form a government is obviously affecting the country's ability to make decisions for the future. Among these, in addition to security management, is the role of the ultra-Orthodox component. The ultra-orthodox contingent are growing, Sachs said, and “as a society we need to find a way to make them a strong part of the Israeli production chain.” “We need them to be more involved in work, in academic activities,” like women in the Arab community. “It's a big challenge, but if we don't solve it, it will be a problem for the economy, simply because we need people to work. Women in Arab communities and Orthodox men must also play a role in the work force, otherwise it will be difficult to maintain the growth rates recorded in the past.”

In 2017, the Haredi community exceeded one million inhabitants, about 12 percent of the population, and is estimated to reach 20 percent by 2040. Despite the positive data on the country's economy since the mid-2000s showing an average growth of 3.7 percent, the latest report by the International Monetary Fund states the need to trigger productivity to support increases in household income in the “start-up nation”. Another figure that will influence the result of the vote will be the turnout, which differs between communities. In 2015, for example, 64 percent of voters going to the polls were Arabs, in April they were only 49 percent. However, the re-establishment of the alliance of Arab parties could increase the participation of Arab-Israelis. Furthermore, Arab voters, who account for 23 percent of the population, might cast their vote in favor of Gantz.

According to election polls, the Joint List, a political coalition of parties representing Arab Israelis, will win ten to eleven seats and is prepared to participate in a center-left government. The willingness of the Joint List to join in a coalition with non-Arab parties marks a turning point in the political stance taken by the group thus far. Its leader, Ayman Odeh, has not ruled out that a potential government partner might be the Kahol Lavan centrist coalition led by Gantz. “If we can see a common direction - said the Joint List leader - we’ll seriously consider the idea of joining him.”


Difficulties to resolve

One of the difficulties of the coming elections will be the votes of the Russian-speaking community, which in 2017 accounted for 1.5 million Israelis out of a total of 8,700,000 inhabitants, around 17.5 percent of the population. For too long, points out the Israeli press, Likud has entrusted Liberman's party with responding to the needs of the Russian-speaking community. Now Netanyahu is trying to attract their votes, talking about pensions and meeting the leaders of former Soviet Union countries, and there is nothing to say he won’t also meet Russian president Vladimir Putin before the elections.

The tight majority in the Knesset will also need the votes cast in April for the Kulanu party of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who won four seats. In exchange for being confirmed in his position in the future government, Kahlon has decided not to stand in the elections on September 17. However, many of the people who voted for Kulanu will not vote for Likud while Netanyahu remains its leader. According to the polls, they are likely to vote for Yisrael Beiteinu, Kahol Lavan, the Labour-Gesher Coalition and Yamina, the only party in Netanyahu’s coalition. Another unknown factor remains the participation in the elections of the far right party Otzama Yehudit, which according to the polls would not exceed the threshold. In recent days, Netanyahu has apparently tried to persuade the party not to take part in the elections, guaranteeing it a role in any future Likud-led government, thus avoiding any wasted votes.

There are many potential scenarios and the result of the election is uncertain. The possibility cannot be ruled out that Israel may even change its leadership after 13 (not unbroken) years under Netanyahu , the longest-serving prime minister of the Jewish state ever: only the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have done better than him. The crux of Netanyahu’s potential conviction for corruption remains however. The head of the outgoing government is in fact involved in three separate cases on which the attorney general will make a pronouncement shortly after the election. Another possibility, which is far from remote, is that the leadership is entrusted to Gantz, with the leading role played by the hawkish Liberman, known for his hard line against Hamas and Hezbollah.