What to Watch in Israeli Democracy: Week of February 7

7 February 2020

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The New Israel Fund will provide you with regular updates on what you need to know about the most important issues facing Israeli democracy playing out in the 2020 Knesset elections.

NIF does not support or oppose any candidate or political party for election; What to Watch in Israeli Democracy is a look at the big picture and a clear presentation of the most important stories about issues that affect Israelis from all walks of life.

The State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu

A full week after Donald Trump invited the main challengers in Israel’s third election, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Benny Gantz to Washington to roll out his administration’s ‘Peace Vision,’ the effects are still reverberating in Israeli politics.

The initial event seemed timed to coincide with both Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, and with the commencement of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own corruption trial. Benny Gantz, planning to fly back home to Israel to be present for Knesset deliberations over his rival’s request for parliamentary immunity, was surprised when Netanayhu revoked his request, removing the final procedural barrier to opening his corruption trial.

The overall effect of the maneuver was a massive shift of public attention from a subject of historic importance and political salience — the trial against the prime minister of Israel — to the merits or demerits of Donald Trump’s deal of the century. As the cameras flashed, all eyes were fixed on the spectacle in Washington, rather than on the indictment in Jerusalem.

This shift of focus puts the public conversation on forgiving terrain for Netanyahu. Rather than headlines dominated by charges of “bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust,” for which the prime minister stands accused, of questions of ethics and the rule of law — the Israeli press began parsing the ‘deal of the century’ and the possibility of immediate annexation.

It’s worth remembering at this moment that the prime minister’s legal fight against charges of corruption is the pertinent backdrop for the broader context of this election, too. Netanyahu’s wager is that Trump’s presidential hand on the scales will prove decisive in swaying this third electoral contest — and that with a clear US greenlight for annexation, he will finally break the political deadlock that has so far blocked his quest for immunity.

While Trump’s plan is popular in Israel, initial indications suggest that few voters have changed their voting preference as a result of its release. Trump’s ‘conceptual map’ at the heart of his plan, essentially enshrines the maximalist positions of the settler right as US policy, and has fueled accelerating demands to immediately begin unilateral annexation of the West Bank.
There are only so many Israelis who hold these positions. Even as polling suggests that annexation may not translate into new political support for Netanyahu, his hope may be that it proves decisive in mobilizing his base, for whom annexation is an issue of central concern. Less than half of Israeli voters (46%) believe that it is urgent to annex territories before the election, compared with 31% who oppose it.

Harry Reis
NIF Director of Policy and Strategy



1. The State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu
These third elections are unique in Israel’s history, as they now include an incumbent candidate competing for the premiership while formally indicted for serious crimes. No previous prime minister accused of criminal conduct of such magnitude has stood for reelection — let alone after an indictment has been filed. Last Tuesday, facing a deliberation in the Knesset over the prime minister’s request for parliamentary immunity that he was projected to lose, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed the Speaker of Knesset that he was withdrawing his request, clearing the final procedural hurdle for his legal proceedings to commence. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit immediately submitted a bill of indictment against the prime minister to the Jerusalem District Court on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of public trust, the opening act of the prime minister’s corruption trial.

The prime minister’s legal situation has raised some new constitutional questions. The Supreme Court deferred the question of whether someone indicted for high crimes may serve as prime minister, for now. The question of whether an indicted member of Knesset facing trial, should he win the election in March, has legal standing to form a future government remains unanswered.

For the past two rounds of elections, Netanyahu’s overriding aim was securing immunity from prosecution. After a fierce fight by the prime minister and his allies to prevent a discussion, deliberation was slated to reach the Knesset plenum. Rather than see his request for parliamentary immunity debated and denied, Netanyahu withdrew his request, triggering the start of his trial.

While Netanyahu’s immunity bid never reached fruition, the Knesset House Committee that grants and denies bids for immunity voted this week, (16-10 with 5 abstentions) to grant immunity to Likud MK Haim Katz, who also faced criminal charges of fraud and breach of trust for promoting legislation that would have benefitted him personally. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit opposed the decision, counseling the Committee against granting Katz immunity, stating that the conflicts of interest of which he is accused are close to constituting bribery, amounting to “fraud and breach of trust at the highest level.”


2. Trump’s “Peace Vision” has moved the prospect of unilateral Israeli annexation to the center of the political debate.

After Trump’s “conceptual map” was unveiled last week, it was widely understood to serve as a roadmap for unilateral Israeli annexation of up to 30% of the occupied West Bank rather than as path to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having excluded Palestinian representatives altogether, the plan reflected an agreement negotiated solely between the Israeli right and an American administration that harbors an ideological sympathy for the settlement movement. The plan has accelerated a debate within Israel about unilateral annexation, with many seeing the plan as an overt American stamp of approval for Israel’s claims to sovereignty over the West Bank.

Prime Minister Netanyahu embraced the American plan; indeed, it reflected almost entirely his preferences. While standing beside President Trump in the White House, he said that the plan signified President Trump “recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, large and small alike.” He mentioned places with Biblical significance located in the heart of the West Bank, Hebron, Beit El, and Shiloh as “areas [that] will now be recognized by the United States as a permanent part of the Jewish State.”

Since then, Netanyahu has promoted various messages on annexation, indicating his intention to promote annexation before the March elections. Initial enthusiasm for immediate annexation from US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, yielded to a more hesitant posture from Jared Kushner, who said in an interview that “the hope is that they’ll wait until after the election, and we’ll work with them to try to come up with something.”

Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz flew to Washington for a meeting with President Trump. Calling the plan “a significant and historic milestone indeed,” Gantz committed his party to implementing it “immediately after the elections [from] within a stable, functioning Israeli government, in tandem with the other countries in our region.” This was a reversal of his prior characterization of an unveiling of a US proposal as inappropriate interference in Israel’s election. Earlier in January, during a visit by Jared Kushner to the region, Gantz had said an American plan released during an Israeli election would constitute “outright intervention.” Internally within the Blue and White Party, there is a dispute over the question of unilateral annexation. Gantz, it seems, is attempting to thread a needle. At the helm of Blue and White, he is vying to replace Netanyahu as prime minister while holding the various factions of his coalition together, and appears intent on minimizing any sense among voters that his position on annexation differs fundamentally from Likud’s, while leaving options open to him.

On the right: Following Trump’s announcement, political parties and factions representing Israel’s settlement movement have upped the pressure on Netanyahu to undertake immediate annexation, including from within his own Cabinet. Interim Defense Minister Naftali Bennet used the opportunity to demand that Netanyahu “act with resolve and bring an order to apply Israeli sovereignty over all the settlements in Judea and Samaria and in the Jordan Valley to the cabinet for a vote next week.” The Yesha Council, the umbrella body representing the settlement movement, has erected a “sovereignty tent” near Israel’s parliament, calling on Netanyahu to apply sovereignty immediately. While the call for “sovereignty now” unites their camp, Yesha Council itself is split over Trump’s plan, with some embracing it for its recognition of Israeli claims in the West Bank, while others rejected even notional provisions for a Palestinian state.

On the left: Parties on the left, including the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list as well as the Joint List, rejected the plan and warned of the costs to Israel of unilateral annexation. As a result of Blue and White’s apparent embrace of the Trump plan and commitment to implement it (despite a degree of conditionality), the Joint List may think twice about throwing its weight behind Gantz, due to his party’s position on annexation.


3. Trump’s proposal envisions stripping large numbers of Israel’s Palestinian citizens of their citizenship.

While many have focused on the Trump plan’s support for unilateral annexation, warning that it would effectively formalize a version of apartheid in the West Bank, the plan is also notable for its embrace of another once-fringe idea — the notion of ethnic transfer, in this case, by gerrymander. This Trump plan contemplates redrawing the boundaries of Israel to exclude a large population of Arab citizens, effectively stripping citizenship from a vast number of citizens of Israel who reside in a densely populated region of the country, known as the “Triangle.”

The Triangle is a region of Northern Israel that includes 14 towns and villages where more than 260,000 Arab citizens live. According to Trump’s plan, “Land swaps provided by the State of Israel could include both populated and unpopulated areas.” It then goes on to say, “The Triangle Communities … largely self-identify as Palestinian… The Vision contemplates the possibility, subject to agreement of the parties that the borders of Israel will be redrawn such that the Triangle Communities become part of the State of Palestine. In this agreement, the civil rights of the residents of the triangle communities would be subject to the applicable laws and judicial rulings of the relevant authorities.”

This provision, once the calling card of Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman, has led to widespread pushback, including from those who are otherwise favorable to the Trump plan.

In 2014, when Lieberman served as Foreign Minister in a previous Netanyahu government, he instructed the ministry’s legal advisor to draft a legal opinion justifying “Transfer of Sovereignty over Populated Areas.” Some have seen the inclusion of this provision as a tactic by Netanyahu to court Lieberman’s support in coalition talks following the March elections. Lieberman’s refusal to join a right-wing-haredi government denied Netanyahu a path to a majority coalition.

  • Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, called Trump’s plan to strip citizenship of “insane, chilling, and disturbing idea.”
  • Joint List MK Aida Touma-Suleiman said, before Saturday night’s rally in Tel Aviv, that she now appreciates what it may have felt like “before the Nakba in 1948, [that] something bad is about to happen.”
  • Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) MK Ofer Shelah expressed his party’s muted critique of the Trump plan by pointing to its vision for ethnic transfer. The plan “has one offensive provision, and that’s the exchange of territory in the Triangle.” Following the wave of criticism, senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office according to Israel’s Channel 12 News, denied that any agreement would include redrawing of Israel’s borders to exclude Arab citizens.

4. Thousands of Israelis Protest The Trump Vision in Tel Aviv and Baqa al Gharbiyye
On the heels of the announcement of the Trump plan, on Saturday night, thousands of Israelis — Arabs and Jews — marched in the streets of Tel Aviv to protest the deal. The march protesting against annexation and for peace and equality, culminated in a rally led and organized by Peace Now, and supported by a wide coalition of Israeli civil society organizations, including Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together).

Thousands of Palestinian citizens, mainly residents of the Triangle area, protested Trump’s plan in the northern city of Baqa al Gharbiyye. Ayman Odeh, the Chairman of the Joint List, which represents the vast majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel, characterized Trump’s proposal as “a green light to revoke the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab citizens who live in northern Israel.”


5. A fights over disqualification of Heba Yazback of the Joint List
In recent years, there has been a consistent effort to use the Central Elections Commission disqualify Arab-Palestinian slates and individual candidates running for Knesset from contending in elections. Ahead of the April election, the Central Elections Commission, composed of representatives of political factions, voted to ban the Ra’am-Balad slate, a decision which was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court. This election cycle, that effort has focused on a parliamentarian Heba Yazbak from the Balad party, the 34-year old sociologist running with the Joint List.

The effort to disqualify Yazbak, centered on a 2015 social media post following Israel’s targeted assassination of Samir Kuntar, a Palestinian who in April 1979 kidnapped and murdered an Israeli named Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter Einat. Yazback’s post referred to Kuntar as “al-shahid al-mujahid,” or a “martyred warrior.”

The motion to disqualify Yazbak was led by Yisrael Beiteinu, Otzma Yehudit and the Likud, but garnered a majority among members of the Central Elections Commission, including support from the Blue and White Party.

Labor Faction Chairman and number five on the joint Labor-Gesher-Meretz list, Itzik Shmuli, supported the disqualification calling it “completely justified.” However, former Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, fifth on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate, wrote: “It’s not pleasant for me to read Yazbak’s posts on Facebook, but to disqualify a law-abiding citizen from running is to give a reward to those who slander Israeli democracy.” Golan elaborated, “Because in a democracy you disqualify people on their actions, not on sharing outrageous things on Facebook.”

Yazbak and the Joint List appealed the Commission’s decision to the Supreme Court where a panel of nine justices chaired by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut will deliberate. The Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit opposes the disqualification, on the basis that the distasteful post posed no threat to Israel’s national security.