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EU will work with any government after elections in Israel

President Rivlin receiving the official election results from chairman of the Central Elections Committee Judge Uzi Fogelman, 31 March, credit: GPO/Amos Ben Gershom

After all votes were counted last week in the parliamentary elections in Israel, neither bloc received the required 61 mandates to form a new government. A small Arab party passed the threshold and is prepared to support any of the blocs that will agree to its conditions.

Asked by The Brussels Times to comment on the Israeli elections, an EU spokesperson replied that, “The EU is committed to working with the incoming Israeli government on further pursuing a mutually beneficial relationship and on regional issues. The EU is also ready to support the resumption of a meaningful peace process towards a two-state solution.”

As predicted, the fourth elections in two years resulted in a tie between those parties supporting incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those parties opposing him. Altogether 13 parties will be represented in the parliament (Knesset).

Netanyahu’s Likud-party received 30 mandates, a decrease by 6 mandates, which still makes it by far the biggest party. With his traditional coalition partners, the two ultra-orthodox parties, and the new far-right and racist Religious Zionism party, the pro-Netanyahu bloc has 52 votes.

Even if another right-wing party, Yamina, will join the bloc, it will only have 59 seats, two short of a majority, and would need defectors from other parties to form a razor-thin majority government. Such a government would lack legitimacy but might still go ahead with controversial legislation. No qualified majority is required for changing basic laws.

Yamina’s leader, Naftali Bennett, has promised change but has not yet committed himself to join any bloc. Voters do not know if the party they voted for will join a government which they oppose after the elections. Himself a right-wing politician, Bennett might be lured to join Netanyahu’s full-fledged right-wing government.

The second biggest party, the centre-liberal Yesh Atid – party under Yair Lapid received together 17 votes and together with five smaller centre-leftist parties and the Arab Joint List the anti-Netanyahu bloc has 57 seats. Former opposition leader Benny Gantz, who broke his election promise and joined a government with Netanyahu after the previous elections, gained surprisingly 8 seats.

Lapid, who visited Brussels in February 2018 for political discussion with EU, is now trying hard to mobilise the support of the “change” parties for forming a majority government. Lapid might very well become Israel’s next prime minister but only if he gets the support of both Jewish and Arab parties. Due to a low voter turnout, the two Arab parties lost 5 seats in the parliament.

The king-maker will be the Islamist United Arab List under Mansour Abbas who broke up with the Joint List and received 4 seats against all the forecasts in the opinion and exit polls. Abbas is holding his cards close to his chest and has stated that his party “is not in anyone’s pocket, not on the right and not on the left.”

In a televised speech yesterday evening in Hebrew to both his electoral base and the other parties, he underlined the values and hopes for a better future that are shared by Arab and Jewish citizens alike. He focused on Israel’s domestic problems without mentioning the Palestinian issue.

The main thing for him is that the Israel at last will solve burning domestic issues that affect the Arab-Palestinian society in Israel, such as ramping crime in the Arab communities, recognition of unauthorised Bedouin villages, revoking legislation against illegal construction, and freezing the so-called nation-state law which defines Israel as a Jewish nation-state.

To avoid fifth elections, which no party wants, the political establishment in Israel must overcome its internal divides for the higher good of the country and accept the long over-due recognition of the Arab parties as equal partners and members in a government.

This was probably what president Reuven Rivlin meant when he yesterday called on the parties to seek “unconventional connections and cooperation” between themselves in trying to form “a government that would heal the divides between us and heal Israeli society, which has been dealt a major blow in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.”

The Israeli president, who normally has a ceremonial function, plays a crucial role after elections and can use his discretion to give the mandate of forming a new government to one of the elected Knesset members with the best chances of forming a government. That does not mean necessarily the party leader with the most mandates.

After the previous elections, on 2 March 2020, Rivlin pushed for a unity government and exerted pressure on Benny Gantz to form such a government to avoid new elections. Netanyahu had  already been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust but a loophole in the legislation allowed him to continue as prime minister, in contrast to indicted government ministers.

On 5 April, Rivlin will receive the recommendations from all parties on whom they support for forming a new government and after that he will enter into a period of consultations with them. Anxious about his legacy, Rivlin, who will leave his office in July, will have to exercise his discretion to find a solution in the current political chaos. The failure of the previous government to even agree on submitting a state budget led to the elections during the corona crisis.

By chance, 5 April is also the day when Netanyahu is requested to attend his trial in Jerusalem.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times