Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
“A Shura council!” “A Shura council!”. One can almost imagine Israelis’ voices rising levels of indignation not seen since Neil Kinnock denounced Derek Hatton for sending redundancy notices around Liverpool in taxis, as they heard that the fate of a coalition assembled to oust Netanyahu hung on the decision of clerics.
Getting rid of Jewish clerics’ influence over Netanyahu featured in the minds of Israelis who voted for Yesh Atid, the largest party in the incoming government. To have them replaced by Islamic clerics was hardly part of the plan.
Still, if Paris was worth a mass for King Henry of Navarre, the Protestant French, Jesusalem must be worth a Hajj.
Ever since corruption drove his predecessor Ehud Olmert to prison, Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics through his skill at mobilising the resentment of successive groups marginalised by an elite of which Netanyahu, the son of a historian, and himself a former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, was self-evidently a leading member.
The core of his support were the Mizrachi, as the descendants of Jews from the Middle East are known. He built up his coalition by adding to them, whether through Likud – or through Avigdor Lieberman, who left Likud for his own Israel Beiteinu Party, supported by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Netanyahu also proved better able to attract the votes of the Ultra-Orthodox parties than his rivals. New Jewish nationalists also gravitated to him, rather than a left they considered naive in its dealings with the Palestinians and attitude to Iran.
As Israel went through four stalemated elections in the last two years, the parties making up Netanyahu’s Knesset majority changed. He alienated former allies with his ineradicable double-dealing and opportunism. But each time, he somehow managed, with feats of unparalleled ingenuity, to conjure up the 61 seats needed to keep hold of power. This time round, it became clear that his prospects were pinned on Belal Smotrich’s far-right “Religious Zionism” party.
What nobody expected him to do was to try and snag some of Israel’s Arab population (whom he notoriously denounced for voting “in droves” in 2015). This he did by making overtures to the Islamist Ra’am (which styles itself the United Arab List, but which should not be confused with the separate, also Arab, Joint List).
Though it didn’t help him get a government together – because an administration composed of Jewish supremacists and Islamists was too much even for this Maradona of politics – it did succeed in legitimising Arab parties as coalition partners.
After a hiccup caused by the outbreak of brief hostilities with Hamas, Ra’am’s muftis in suits eventually were persuaded to join the astonishingly disparate group of Netanyahu’s long-time opponents, and recent exes.
This stretches from the solidly left-wing Meretz, to the clue-is-in-the-name Yamina (“Right”) party – taking in Lieberman’s (Russian-speaking, pro-capitalist), and the generals-in-mufti Kahol Lavan in along the way.
Anchoring the coalition is the centrist-secular Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid the handsome, pint-sized former TV host.
It even includes the anti-Netanyahu party led by Gidon Sa’ar, a former Likud minister, which obtained a disappointing six seats, despite its George Lucas-inspired name: A New Hope. All that’s missing, I suppose, is The Empire Strikes Back – calling for the restoration of the Briitsh Mandate.
The formal vote to swear in the new administration will take place on Sunday. Though Netanyahu continues to snipe at the edges of Yamina, the Joint List will find a way not to oppose it, even if he dislodges some of their more reluctant members. Once their support is taken into account, the new government can count on 66 out of the 120 MKs.
Provided Netanyahu doesn’t manage yet another feat of political escapology, his fate now looks rather bleak. The repeated elections have managed to slow down his trials in multiple corruption cases, but he’s now run out of time. The cases involve favours offered in exchange for positive newspaper coverage, the regulation of telecommunications – and the straightfoward receipt of cigars, champagne and jewellery for him and his wife. With Wikipedia reporting that the cigars and champagne were worth $195,000 but the jewellery only $3,100, Sara Netanyahu, at least, has cause for complaint.
As he follows Olmert to the dock in Jerusalem District Court, he can at least console himself that he isn’t being judged by the Shura Council, whose view of champagne inclines towards the negative.