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A Note from Michal Sella: Israel’s Deja-vu Elections
Analysis from Michal Sella, Director of the Shatil Center for Policy Change
These elections caught Israelis by surprise. After April’s election results were in, the right-wing bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu should have been able to form a government without too much effort. After all, Netanyahu took the stage on the night of the elections and declared an “incredible victory.” But in reality, what Netanyahu won in April was not the election–what he won was 35 seats. But Netanyahu failed to form a coalition. And now we’re back to square one.
This is all happening because of the position, Prime Minister Netanyahu finds himself in. Facing three counts of criminal indictment, Netanyahu tried to form a government that would grant him a veil of immunity. But the clock ran out. Israel’s system is designed to handle a situation in which the head of the largest party is unable to form a coalition. The established procedure for such a situation is that the President assigns the task of forming a government to another Member of Knesset. This happened in 1988 when Shimon Peres failed to form a majority coalition and President Chaim Herzog handed the opportunity to do so to rightist Yitzhak Shamir. It happened again, when the electoral winner of the 2009 elections, Tzipi Livni, failed to form a coalition, and Netanyahu himself was awarded the mandate and formed a government instead.
But Netanyahu is not playing by these rules this time.
Under tremendous pressure to remain at the helm, the Prime Minister decided to dissolve the Knesset altogether rather than face the prospect of a competitor receiving the mandate to form a coalition. Now Israel is holding a second round of national elections within the span of a year. These elections are Netanyahu’s last attempt to avoid facing Israel’s criminal justice system–and the campaign will be the battle of Netanyahu’s political life. And, so long as the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court and the integrity of its judicial system remains in jeopardy, the fight to preserve these institutions will be the defining issue of these elections.
What Happened This Week. What to Look For Next Week.
Back up: Here’s an in-depth look at happened last week
On April 9, 2019, Israelis voted for the 21st Knesset, and on April 30, 120 members of the new Knesset were sworn in by President Reuven Rivlin, including 49 new parliamentarians. At the swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem, President Rivlin expressed his hope that the new Knesset would “put an end to the dangerous clash between the legislative authority and the courts.”
After a majority of 65 MKs submitted their recommendations to President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was given the opportunity to form Israel’s 35th government coalition. Last Wednesday, after a series of extensions to the original 16 days allotted to do so, the clock ran out. The Prime Minister failed to assemble a majority of 61 members of Knesset to join his next government. Instead of returning the mandate to President Rivlin, as is customary after such a failure to form a government, Netanyahu’s Likud Party introduced legislation to dissolve the Knesset. At midnight Israel-time on Wednesday, May 29, the 21st Knesset voted to dissolve itself — forcing new elections.
The result was that Knesset dissolved before Netanyahu was forced to inform the president that he was unable to form a coalition–a first in the history of the State of Israel. Elections are due to be held on September 17 of this year.
What we learned from the coalition negotiations.
With new elections called for September, it may seem that we are back to square one. But the truth is, we are not in the same place where we started when elections were called the last time. As Prime Minister Netanyahu negotiated with potential coalition partners, the public learned of the terms were for the next prospective government–the one that ultimately failed to form.
An Almost-Immunity Government
The basic deal at the core of that coalition bargain was the passage of an immunity law tailored to the Prime Minister that would allow him unconditional legal immunity in the face of charges of corruption, fraud and breach of public trust. Such a law, would have faced inevitable challenge at Israel’s High Court of Justice. So it came with an insurance policy: an ‘override clause,’ designed to take away the High Court’s power of judicial review over the decisions of the government and legislation passed by the Knesset. Others parties share this aim, for a variety of reasons. What we know now is the unprecedented scope of the assaults on an independent judiciary and the balance of powers that was contemplated to form the basis of such a coalition.
New elections change the timeline for Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The Prime Minister, with his hearing postponed until October –and unlikely to be further delayed –now has only a narrow window (should he win elections) after the formation of a government to achieve his immunity law. While the possibility of passing it have therefore narrowed, we now know from the recent coalition negotiations that the right wing parties stand ready to join a Netanyahu coalition on that basis. So, we have every reason to remain confident that Prime Minister Netanyahu remains intent on weakening the Court.
Read: The Erosion of Israel’s Democracy, by Naomi Chazan (Times of Israel)
Saturday Night Protests – Opposition Organizing Before a Government
One other key development that took place during the period of coalition negotiations was the mounting in Tel Aviv of an effective showing of the opposition — for the first time in recent memory. The Saturday night demonstration brought a diverse array of opposition parties and civil society groups together to take a stand for democracy. The message of the rally, which gathered tens of thousands of Israelis in the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, was ‘safeguard Israeli democracy’ from the intended reforms, including the immunity law. The demonstration was notable because it showed that the newly formed opposition can work together to mobilize for a shared cause. And the demonstrations ultimately showed that Arab parties can participate in this opposition. The demonstrations were an example of what a ‘fighting opposition’ can be: leading its public, offering an alternative to the governing coalition — not only in the halls of Knesset, but on the streets.
Read: The Struggle for the Soul of Israel’s Democracy, by Daniel Sokatch
Issues of Religion and State Front and Center
It was Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s former Defense Minister, and staunch rightist leader of the Yisrael Beiteunu (Israel Our Home) Party who refused to join the coalition — forcing the collapse of Netanyahu his effort to form a government. He did so, apparently, on principle. Lieberman refused to enter a government premised on an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox that would have allowed yeshiva students to evade the draft, exposing an unbridgeable chasm in the right wing coalition between the secular right and the ultra-Orthodox, and placing conflicts over issues of religion and state in center stage. Meanwhile, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Union of Right Wing Parties) comments this week in favor of instituting biblical religious law in place of Israel’s civil law further made divides over religion and state a central issue. Following a public outcry, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a clarifying statement saying that the “State of Israel will not be a Halachic state.” Finally, we learned from Kan Channel 13, of an agreement between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) acceding to their demand to permit state funding for events that impose mandatory gender-separation. (Currently the law makes it illegal to fund or hold any public event that mandates gender segregation.) These three episodes have shaped the public debate over the proper role of religion and state and will likely continue to be a contentious issue in this election.
Listen: Uri Keidar, Executive Director of Israel Hofsheet on “Religion and State in the Israeli Election” (Israel Policy Pod)
What Happens Now?
Even though it is less than two months since the last elections concluded, and the electorate is largely unchanged, the map of the parties and the context of the new election may be quite different.
First, a new Central Election Committee must be set up.
Judge Hanan Melcer who presided over the previous Committee will according to law, step down, and be replaced by a different associate justice. Additionally, each political party must appoint representatives to the Committee. The Election Committee has the power to disqualify parties and candidates and enforce campaign finance regulations. It is the address for civil society organizations to register petitions. Because of the circumstances of these elections, however, this is the first time that a new presiding judge of the Central Elections Committee and the party representatives which constitute the Committee will be selected during elections. Though ultimately all decisions of the Committee are subject to review by the Supreme Court, who sits on the committee and who presdies over it matter to the integrity of the process.
New elections mean new party lists.
Parties have until August 2 to formulate new lists, according to their internal rules. What can we expect?
- The Arab-majority parties are discussing possible re-unification. Many credit the poor performance of the Arab-majority parties in the last election the breakup of the Joint Arab List combined with the potent effect of voter suppression and delegitimization of Arab political participation. Now the parties are discussing reuniting under a joint list, and for the first time, a merger between Meretz and the joint Jewish-Arab party, Hadash.
- The Labor Party and Meretz are discussed running on a joint list (while preserving separate party structures) to ensure that neither fails to pass the threshold. Both parties face internal primaries. Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg is endeavoring to keep the party slate as it is currently formulated in place for the election. The decision will be made by the party’s central committee next week. Labor will hold a primary in July to select a new chairperson — and possibly to determine a fully new slate. Amir Peretz, a past Labor party leader, Stav Shafir and Stav Shafir have announced their candidacy. Others, including MK Itzik Shmuli and Tal Rousso, as well as Maj. Gen. (res.) Yair Golan are liable to compete for party leadership as well.
- The largest opposition party, Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) will run again, seemingly intact: While initial rumors that MK Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party would run separately from Benny Gantz, this week the two affirmed that they would run together on the Kachol Lavan slate and maintain the rotation agreement that served as the basis for their union during the last elections. It is clear so far, that the list is seeking to position itself as compatible with potential ultra-Orthodox partners.
- On the right, much is in flux. We can expect the return of Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett whose (New Right) party failed to clear the electoral threshold in April’s election. Bennet announced that the New Right would run in the September elections. Early speculation expected Shaked would try to run as part of the Likud Party list. However, when Netanyahu fired Shaked and Bennet from their respective posts as Education and Justice Ministers, he closed that pathway for now.
It is unclear whether the Union of Right Wing Parties, a list that was orchestrated by Prime Minister Netanayhu to expand the size of the right wing bloc — and which included overtly Kahanist parties — will run again in its current form. The far right parties are holding discussions on further unifying as a joint list.
What to Watch in Israeli Democracy
This unexpected election finds most political players exhausted. Political parties and civil groups spent money and resources on the last elections, and we can expect this weariness to influence the tenor of these deja-vus elections. Furthermore, a significant portion of the campaign will take place during the summer and Jewish high holidays, when many Israelis are abroad. But these new elections, come after the right-wing camp suffered an unprecedented blow. Netanyahu’s failure to assemble a coalition, can only be seen as his most magnificent failure. Netanyahu, faces the most serious battle of survival in his political life. Israelis can expect a redoubling of the maneuvers we saw in the last month of the recent election:
- voter suppression targeting Israel’s Palestinian citizens;
- a political campaign premised on racism, incitement against and political delegitimization of Arab participation in Israel’s democratic system;
- bots networks activated to influence the election;
- foreign meddling, fake news and other threats to Israel’s electoral integrity;
Democracies all over the world are figuring out how we can best protect democracy from these troubling trends. This time we know what to watch. As the leading defender of liberal democracy in Israel, the New Israel Fund will not only be watching closely for the telltale signs of anti-democratic practices to make sure Israelis have a free and fair election. We will be fighting back against the hallmarks of illiberalism and authoritarian populism. We know what we are fighting for– during the election and the day after.