Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
Praised for his command of the English language which, as was once said of Churchill, he arms and sends into battle. Condemned for his utter lack of principle, thwarted by the judiciary and assailed by allegations of corruption. Yanked back from the UN General Assembly in New York to confront the most serious political crisis of his premiership…Benjamin Netanyahu must know his time might, finally, be up.
Last week, Israel voted in its second elections of 2019. Netanyahu himself, having engineered the do-over after polls held in April led to a tie, now finds himself in trouble with the law. He is expected to be indicted on October 7. His only hope of avoiding that is, somehow, to remain Prime Minister.
Netanyahu’s success had been built on dividing Israel into two blocs and positioning himself at the head of the larger “right wing” one. This had comprised his own Likud Party; the religious Jewish parties; the Russian-immigrant secularist party, founded by Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, and now led by Avigdor Lieberman – who we’ll come back to – as well as assorted other nationalists and moderate Likudniks who could never quite manage an entirely independent existence.
This bloc overcame huge differences on domestic policy (between low-tax free marketeers and high-welfare Orthodox Jews; and between secularists and theocrats every bit as hardline as those who rule in Iran) in favour of a hard line towards the Palestinians and tolerance, if not active encouragement, of pro-settlement policies in the West Bank.
With time, this coalition shifted rightwards, admitting Jewish supremacists, and losing the Druze minority and business-minded Israelis. But it stayed around the same size, allowing Netanyahu to control a small but solid majority of between 61 and 65 seats in the Knesset and keep himself in power.
In April’s election, the opposition united behind an alliance called Blue and White, headed by three former Army chiefs of staff and led by Benny Gantz. As then, Likud and Blue and White are effectively tied (Likud had one extra seat last time; Blue and White this time).
But Israel’s pure proportional represenation encourages small parties, which in Israel range from the Jewish nationalist (but pro-cannabis legalisation) Zehut, to the Arab nationalist Balad, which contests elections as part of the Joint List (a majority Arab alliance with no particular emphasis on drug policy).
The requirement is to assemble a coalition by picking one side of each of Israel’s major social divides: right and left on national security policy; religious Jewish voters who want welfare benefits for large families, exemptions from military service for their sons and enforcement of the sabbath; and secular voters who resent paying higher taxes for the privilege of not being able to go shopping on Saturday); Arabs and Jews, and even within the Arab community betweeen Arabs who accept, acquiesce in and oppose the state of Israel.
Until this year, Netanyahu had placed himself on the profitable side of these divides. Arabs, he notoriously said in 2014 were “voting in droves”, as he called on his Jewish nationalist suppoters to support him.
But this year his careful balancing of divisions began to fail. First, the religous parties demanded too much, pressing on with restricting the opening of supermarkets on Saturdays and exemptions from military service for their children. Then a new centrist party (which took pains to avoid being classified as “Left”) led by three former army chiefs of staff, was formed, which could not be impugned on matters of security, and which gained the attention of voters on the Centre-Right. Finally, the stench of corruption surrounding Netanyahu (he is the subject of three separate police investigations) has put further voters off.
It was Lieberman who spotted this opportunity. He prevented Netanyahu from forming a government in April, and campaigned on a position of supporting a coalition between Likud, Blue and White, and his own party, provided that such a coalition excluded Netanyahu. It paid off, and he increased his representation in the Knesset from five to eight seats.
The effect was to leave neither Ganz or Netanyahu with enough seats to govern. In these circumstances, it falls to the President to ask the party leaders to attempt to assemble a majority, and President Rivlin, though formerly a Likud member, has had a rivalry with Netanyahu so extreme that Netanyahu even sought to have the presidency abolished so that Rivlin couldn’t occupy it.
It is at this point that Gantz has taken an unusual step back, and allowed Netanyahu first dibs at forming a government. This is a major risk, because Netanyahu is a famed dealmaker, and desperate to do any deal that keeps the police investigations away. Strategic patience is thought to be a military virtue – but it could equally prove to be Gantz’s fatal mistake.