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.
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM?
Israelis are headed for a third election this spring. What does it mean for Israel’s democracy?
Israelis voted twice in 2019, first in April and again in September. After the 22nd Knesset was elected in September, the heads of the two largest parties, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Benny Gantz of Blue and White, each were granted 28 days to assemble a governing coalition. Each failed to do so. For the first time ever, a provision of Israel’s Basic Law on Elections was extended, providing for a 21-day grace period during which time any member of Knesset could attempt to assemble a 61-seat majority and become prime minister. None succeeded. Instead, the clock ran out, and the Knesset passed two bills: one to dissolve the 22nd Knesset and another to hold a third round of elections on March 2, 2020.
Israelis are set to return to the polls again. There is little evidence to indicate that a third election will prove more decisive than the last two.
What has changed since the last election? Since September, the prime minister has formally been indicted by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in three separate corruption cases on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu has formally sought parliamentary immunity from criminal prosecution.
Recent polls show that a majority of Israelis do not want these third elections and largely blame Netanyahu for them. According to a poll by Israel’s Channel 13 43% of Israelis blame Netanyahu for these elections while just 5% point to Gantz. Israelis watched as Netanyahu twice refused to give up immunity and hold onto power. While Netanyahu triumphed in an internal Likud party challenge from a rival, Gideon Sa’ar in the December 26 Likud primary, Netanyahu’s quest for immunity has been a key stumbling block in Israel’s lasts two failed rounds.
As the country heads into its third round of elections in March, here are five important developments we’re watching.
NIF Director of Policy and Strategy
5 THINGS TO WATCH
DEMOCRACY & THE RULE OF LAW
1. Costs of Israel’s slow-motion crisis. The Knesset’s inability to translate election results into a functioning government is a slow-motion constitutional crisis that comes at the cost of public faith in Israel’s democracy. Israelis have not enjoyed a fully functioning government in over a year. The last functioning Knesset was dissolved in December of 2018.
Beyond the expense to the Israeli taxpayer of a third election (with the cumulative bill estimated at 12 billion shekels), Israel’s ongoing political deadlock has costs that are not measurable in shekels. According to polling by the Israel Democracy Institute, much of the Israeli public has lost faith in the future of Israeli democracy. Less than a third of Israelis (32%) feel optimistic about the future of democracy as compared to 54% who felt optimistic back in April. The risk of this accelerating trend is that Israelis will begin to see the electoral process as unreliable, a process where the leader may simply roll the dice until he wins.Cynicism and distrust in the institutions of democracy are breeding-grounds for anti-democratic forms of politics.
2. The Court vs. the People. Over the course of 2019’s elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu, levied a vigorous argument against the legitimacy of Israel’s legal system. Seeking to pit “the people” against the institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, Netanyanhu engaged in tactics that Israel’s Supreme Court President Esther Hayut described as “degrading, lowly and unrestrained.”
At a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony in Tel Aviv — and before the Supreme Court’s hearing a petition regarding the fitness of an incumbent under indictment to be tasked with forming a government — Prime Minister Netanyahu continued to press his case for majoritarianism: “The voters, and only the voters, will decide who will lead. In a democracy, only the people decide. I cannot imagine that anyone will meddle and deliver a mortal blow to democracy. Democracy means the rule of the people.”
“Immunity” he continued, “is not against democracy, it is a cornerstone of democracy.” His warning over “meddling” with the will of the people were widely seen as aimed at the Supreme Court in an ongoing contest between the health of the judiciary and his political future.
Though in the past, every prime minister facing criminal charges has resigned before an indictment, by law, the prime minister is not required to resign as prime minister unless convicted. Netanyahu, as promised, left his other ministerial posts (as Minister of Health, Welfare, Agriculture and Diaspora Affairs) by January. Yet, another burning legal question remains: whether a man indicted for violating the public trust may be tasked by President Rivlin with forming a new government. Carrying out such a task requires, well, public trust.
Prime Minister Netanyahu made his remarks about meddling with the will of the people days before a petition by 67 leading public figures, including academics, former defense officials and cultural figures, reached the Supreme Court. The petition asked the Court to bar any Knesset member charged with a serious crime from being able to form a coalition. A panel of three justices, including Chief Justice Esther Hayut, convened to consider the petition, but ultimately dismissed it as premature, deferring any ruling on the substance of the question at hand. “There are other junctures at which we can make a determination,” Justice Hayut said. She clarified that, contrary to the prime minister’s claim that the Supreme Court has no standing to consider this question, that the legal question is subject to the Court’s jurisdiction.
3. Netanyahu officially requests immunity. Netanyahu formally submitted a request to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein requesting immunity from prosecution. The prime minister made the request at the tail end of the thirty day-period he was granted to request immunity after his indictment was filed. With only a caretaker Knesset in place, the parliamentary body responsible for examining such requests the Knesset House Committee — is not set up to do so. Without a Knesset majority to reconvene that Committee, the opening of Netanyahu’s trial would likely be postponed until after the next Knesset is formed and sworn in following the March 2 election. That buys the prime minister time.
Speaker of Knesset Yuli Edelstein, of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, holds the power to convene the Knesset Arrangements Committee, the body which would decide whether or not to reconvene the House Committee, which – should it convene – would vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request. The Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, has presented his legal opinion to Edelstein which held that no legal impediment exists preventing him from forming the House Committee now. Opposition leader Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party has called on Edelstein to reconvene the committee. And with Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, announcing his support for reforming the House Committee and for rejecting the prime minister’s request for immunity it appears there is a formidable majority in the Knesset to deny Netanyahu’s immunity.
Edelstein may choose to use his power as speaker to thwart this effort and delay a debate over immunity until after the elections, but this may prove deeply unpopular. A majority of Israelis (51 percent) polled by Channel 12 News oppose granting the prime minister immunity, while only 33 percent support it.
In many respects, the three rounds of elections have been part of a single-minded effort by Prime Minister Netanyahu to secure immunity from prosecution. In December 2018, facing looming indictment, he decided to dissolve Knesset and hold elections primarily as a legal strategy. Betting on his re-election, he wanted to face trial with a renewed mandate from the public, and he wanted a compliant coalition that would pass a law granting him immunity. The following November, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued a formal indictment against the prime minister for bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust. Now, these third elections continue to revolve around whether the prime minister will face trial or assemble an electoral get-out-of-jail-free card.
OCCUPATION AND ANNEXATION
4. Talk of West Bank Annexation Meets a Speed Bump: In the two 2019 Knesset elections Israel’s right wing parties promised to annex all or parts of the West Bank. Following the announcement of potential proceedings of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, triggered by the talk of annexation, momentum toward immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea area appeared to have been put in “deep freeze.” However, this week, the inter-ministerial committee tasked with preparing the ground for annexation finally met for the first time, as if to signal that any potential ICC investigation is merely a speed bump on the road to annexation.
Ahead of September’s election, on a visit to the West Bank settlement of Elkana, Netanyahu announced his intention to apply Israeli sovereignty over all Jewish settlements in the West Bank. After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced, in a major policy shift, that the US would no longer view Israel’s settlements as “inconsistent with international law,” Netanyahu then gave his support to advancing a bill that would apply Israeli law to the Jordan Valley. And he authorized an inter-ministerial committee, comprised of representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the Civil Administration, the IDF, and the National Security Council, to advance the annexation of the Jordan Valley. The committee, chaired by Acting Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office Ronen Peretz, was tasked with moving forward Netanyahu’s commitment to annexation, including orchestrating a formal government decision and corresponding legislation. Since then, he has reiterated his support for annexation. In his victory speech after the Likud Party primary two weeks ago, Netanyahu vowed to “deliver an American recognition of applying our sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the northern part of the Dead Sea,” and “over all the settlements in Judea and Samaria. All, bar-none.”
When the Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda filed an initial request with the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged Israel’ violations of international law she cited senior Israeli officials’ intentions to annex territory in the West Bank. Subsequently, a meeting of that committee was canceled. While it did ultimately convene, it is not clear how the ICC investigation will impact the readiness of Israel’s right wing to move forward with annexation.
KAHANISTS IN KNESSET
5. Kahanists will run again in the 2020 elections. Prior rounds of elections were marked by an effort to normalize the far fringes of Israel’s right-wing, the ideological descendents of racist firebrand Rabbi Meir Kahane and his Kach Party, which was banned for racism. Ahead of the 2020 election, the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party has merged with another far-right faction, Jewish Home, headed by the Education Minister Rafi Peretz. Their joint ticket is projected to cross the electoral threshold. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Otzma Yehudit’s chairman, would be ranked third on the list, which is high enough, should the party pass the threshold, to put Otzma Yehudit in Knesset for the first time.
Back in February 2019, ahead of the April 2019 election, Netanyahu first orchestrated a merger of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party with other right-wing factions in a new party called the Union of Right Wing Parties. While the party’s chairman, Michael Ben Ari, was disqualified by the Supreme Court for his track record of anti-Arab extremism, in the April election, his replacement, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was not ranked high enough on the Union of Right Wing Parties list to earn a seat. In September, Otzma Yehudit ran separately, and did not passing electoral threshold.