Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
As Israelis go to the polls, police investigations are closing in on Balfour Street, and its most famous inhabitant, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel has a system of pure proportional representation in which potential Prime Ministers have two hurdles to clear. First, be the first to be asked to form a coalition (it’s usually enough to be the single biggest party), and then to assemble the 61 votes needed for a majority in the Knesset.
Netanyahu has dominated this process for a decade. A skilled communicator, perhaps the last of the Clinton-Blair golden generation, he first corrals enough of the right-wing vote into his Likud party, and then deploys charm and extreme pragmatism to bring once and future enemies into his administration.
To assemble his core vote, he deploys hawkish security rhetoric to paint opponents as weak, naive left-wing peaceniks. He then seasons this charge with a generous portion of what in British terms would be anti-Islington populism. It’s a tried and tested formula.
But anti-elite rhetoric wears thin when you’ve been Prime Minister for ten years, and the press has long been filled with stories about your expensive private lifestyle, your wife’s princess-like behaviour and “gifts” of extremely pricey cigars from businessmen of dubious reputation.
And tough language on security doesn’t work at all when your opponent is a slate led by not one, not even two, but three(!) former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defence Forces.
Benny Gantz, the slate’s leader, rammed the message home with all the subtlety of a tank rolling over a car unlucky to find itself in a Hezbollah-controlled area of Lebanon. His first campaign videos, over the top even by Israeli standards, attacked Netanyahu from the right, boasting of how under his (Gantz’s) operation in Gaza “1,364 terrorists” had been killed and parts of the strip had been bombed back to the Stone Age. Gantz calculated that his potential left-wing supporters are so blinded by their hatred of Netanyahu they’d ignore what Oudeh Basharat, a Haaretz columnist, described as an application to be put on trial at The Hague.
Ganz then concluded alliances with Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, the two other chiefs of staff, and Yair Lapid, who leads a centrist party. There are even family connections. Gantz’s and Lapid’s grandmothers lived in the same apartment block in the Budapest Ghetto during the war. (How long before Netanyahu suggests George Soros is behind the whole thing?)
The product of this work, called ‘Blue and White’ after the colours of the Israeli flag, now leads Netanyahu’s Likud in the polls by five seats.
If the polls hold up, Gantz would have the first go at forming a coalition. More important, the party appears to be able to reach into the “right wing” bloc that Netanyahu had made it his business to consolidate.
This matters because, until this alliance was formed, Israeli politics could be divided into three blocs: the right, led by Netanyahu’s Likud. The left, traditionally led by Labor, but more recently reconfigured in various ways, and including the Arab parties (just under a fifth of Israel’s population is Arab); and the two religious parties, representing ultra-orthodox voters. Since the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, Left and Right have been divided on how to deal with the Palestinians.
The religious parties, part of the current coalition, mainly focus their attention on public support for their economically marginal communities, where men are supposed to devote their time to studying the Torah and women are disbarred by traditional mores from working outside the home. They have supported governments of either side, though the “Left”, which in Israel draws much of its support from the upper middle class, would prefer to see transfers to people they consider welfare scroungers cut, something the “Right” finds it easier to tolerate.
The latest polling average collated by ‘Knesset Jeremy’ gives Netanyahu and his ideological allies 47 seats and 48 for Ganz and his Jewish ideological allies. Neither is enough for a majority.
The religious and Arab parties are thus crucial. (The Jewish religious parties are polling at 13 seats, the Arab parties at 12.)
The Arab parties will not, ever, support a Netanyahu government; but it is crucial for Ganz that he can appear to have a path to a majority without them. In theory, a coalition between Ganz, his Jewish allies and the Jewish religious parties would give him the slimmest of majorities of 61. In practice, it could count on the further support of the Arab parties and be impregnable.
Netanyahu, in contrast, would have to obtain the support of both Jewish religious parties to assemble a bare majority. Such is his desperation that he even pressured another right-wing party to merge its slate with that of a party so extreme that the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth alleged that is is financed by a body listed as a terrorist organisation in the United States. While having people officially listed as terrorists linked to a governing coalition does not entirely prevent other countries cooperating with it (it is possible to deal with Lebanon while also proscribing Hezbollah in its entirety, as Sajid Javid was right to do this week), it does complicate matters somewhat.
Netanyahu thus finds himself weakened even before the decision to indict him over three corruption cases has been made. A decision on this matter is expected in the coming weeks, and the traditional practice in Israel is that prime ministers accused of corruption have to resign when indicted.
Up against a triumvirate of generals, behind in the polls, forced to make an alliance with alleged terrorist money-laundering vehicles instead of fighting them, and pursued by the police, does Netanyahu have one last escape left in him? Israelis will decide on April 9th.