EU dilemma: Finding a partner in Israel after elections

EU dilemma: Finding a partner in Israel after elections
Israeli president Reuven Rivlin voting on 2 March, Credit: Mark Neyman (GPO)

With about 92 percent of the votes counted in yesterday’s parliamentary elections in Israel, no political bloc gained the required 61 seats, out of the 120 seats in the parliament (Knesset), to form a new coalition government. Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was strengthened and his rightist-ultraorthodox bloc came close to a majority with 59 mandates.

Voter turnout was 71 %, an increase compared with the previous elections in 2019.

With the final results not ready on Tuesday evening (3 March), the overriding question remains if Netanyahu will manage to scrape together the additional few mandates – possibly by deserters from the other parties – to form a razor-thin majority or if the opposition parties will overcome their differences in their eager to dethrone Netanyahu and form a new government.

The two main contenders and parties in the elections were Netanyahu’s Likud party and the new centre party Blue White under former chief of general staff Benny Gantz, who had served under Netanyahu. In the last opinion polls before the elections the parties were almost at a draw, with Likud leading with one mandate, but Netanyahu managed to reach out to his base in a frenzy finish.

Likud received 35 votes (+3), making it the biggest party and ahead of Blue White with 32 (-1). Both parties focused on who was most fit to govern the country and tried to attract undecided voters in the centre, blurring any ideological differences between them. Blue White, with Gantz and two other chiefs of general staff at its head, hardly challenged Netanyahu on security issues.

Gantz did try to raise domestic problems, such as the crisis in the health care system, but many voters were apparently more impressed by Netanyahu’s headline-grabbing meetings with foreign leaders. Towards the end of the election campaign, Gantz was also under attack by damaging leaked video recordings and fake news.

The Arab Joint List, made up of four Arab-Palestinian parties with different ideologies, campaigned again under a joint list and got 15 mandates (+2) thanks to a higher voter turnout because of Likud’s fear campaign against them. The Joint List might be ready to support a Blue White minority government but Gantz did not try to reach out to them in the election campaign.

The big looser in the election was a coalition of the old labour party and two leftist parties that only received 7 seats (-4). They campaigned on a mixed programme of peace, social justice and human rights but their voters deserted them. On the other hand, without a merger, one of the parties would probably not have passed the election threshold. Together the opposition bloc got 54 mandates.

The centre-right bloc composed of Likud, two ultra-orthodox parties and a far-right party received 59 seats. In the election campaign, Likud claimed again that Iran had hacked Gantz smart phone and that it made him vulnerable to extortion.

In fact, it is Netanyahu who is likely to give in to extreme demands of his coalition partners to achieve his longed-for thin majority. Naftali Bennet, the leader of the Yamina rightist settler party, is already pressing that Ayelet Shaked, another party leader, should be appointed to justice minister. Last time she held the post, she did her best to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

The secular-rightist Yisrael Beitenu party got 7 seats (- 1) but it still makes it a kind of kingmaker in forming a new government. Until now, its leader Avigdor Lieberman has refused to join a government with Gantz as Prime Minister if the government would be supported by the Joint List and it remains to be seen if he really is serious in regime change in Israel.

This was the third time in less than a year that the Israelis cast their vote after the previous elections on 9 April and 17 September last year did not result in a new government. The early elections were called by Netanyahu in an apparent attempt to attain a majority in the parliament to shield him from prosecution for allegations about bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The election results reflect again a deeply divided and polarized society made worse by incitement by politicians. The elections risk leaving Israel in political limbo and new elections cannot be excluded although the Israeli public is fed up with elections.

Exercising his right to vote, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, called on all citizens to go and vote but hoped that they would not have to do it again until 2024. “We don't deserve another awful and grubby election campaign like the one that ends today and we don't deserve this never-ending instability. We deserve a government that works for us,” he said.

Compared to the previous elections, this time the centre-left bloc had a good chance to receive most mandates and get the first offer by the Israeli president  to form a government. After a lengthy judicial process, Netanyahu was indicted in November last year on corruption charges. He was later obliged to withdraw his application for parliamentary immunity.

According to Israeli law, a Prime Minister, in contrast to government ministers, can continue to govern despite being indicted for crimes. The Israeli supreme court has been asked to rule as to whether an indicted Prime Minister can form a new government but postponed the ruling until such a situation really occurs.

A trial against Netanyahu has been scheduled to start in a Jerusalem court on 17 March but the actual proceedings will likely be postponed until September. A Likud representative has already announced that it would not respect a court ruling going against a democratically elected Prime Minister. The party sees Netanyahu’s victory in the election as a vindication of his policy and his base does not believe that he is guilty of any wrongdoing.

All parties have reason to soul-searching but also the president should reflect on what went wrong last time. Then he proposed Likud and Blue White to form a national unity government with the post as prime-minister rotating between Netanyahu and Gantz. Netanyahu was supposed to start and suspend himself if he would be indicted. That offer can hardly be on the table now when he has been indicted.

For the EU, it is too early to comment on the election results. A spokesperson for EU foreign affairs told the Brussels Times that EU will continue working with the new government that will be formed as a result of this election as it worked with all the governments before.

High Representative Josep Borrell has until now not visited Israel in his high-level diplomatic outreach and the impression has been that he was waiting for a new partner after the elections. EU is at odds with the current Israel government on the recent American peace plan. But according to the spokesperson, diplomacy is not about commenting on other countries’ statements but about dialogue.

Update: After 99 % of the votes have been counted, Likud received 36 seats and Blue White 33 seats. Netanyahu's centre-right block stands at 58 seats and Benny Gantz's centre-left block at 55 seats, incl. the Joint List.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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