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Situation Assessment 04 March, 2019

Partisan Alliances ahead of the Israeli Knesset Elections and Netanyahu’s Future

In the midst of preparations for the upcoming Knesset elections, Israeli party politics has undergone some significant changes. On the eve of the elections, parties and alliances have emerged that have not been seen in 14 years since Kadima, led by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was founded in 2005.

Blue and White

Given the weakness of the opposition parties and their inability to offer an alternative to Netanyahu, some Israeli officials, led by Ehud Barak, suggested that former IDF chief of staff establish a new party to organize and lead the opposition in Israel and work to topple Netanyahu in the next Knesset elections.

One day after the Knesset decision to dissolve itself, the former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz established a new political party called “Resilience for Israel”. He entered into negotiations with a number of political parties and alliances, including the Telem party founded by Moshe Ya'alon, former chief of staff in the Israeli army, who served as defense minister in the Netanyahu government before resigning from the government and from the Likud party due to his disagreement with Netanyahu. Gantz also held negotiations with Histadrut Chairman Avi Nissenkorn, who once belonged to the Labor Party.

On January 29, Gantz reached an agreement with Moshe Ya'alon to run for the Knesset on a single list. Gantz also came to an agreement with Nissenkorn and gave him a place on his list.[1] On the final day before the elections, Gantz and Ya'alon agreed with Yair Lapid's party, "Yesh Atid," to create a joint list of their three parties, including former army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who played an important role in the establishment of the list. This electoral list was named "Blue and White” in keeping with the Israeli flag. It was agreed that Gantz would head this list, followed by Lapid, then Ya'alon, Ashkenazi and then Nissenkorn. In the event of a win, Gantz and Lapid would take turns to each head the government for two and a half years in a rotation system starting with Gantz. The leaders of this list formed a committee to formulate its electoral program soon.[2]

Gantz’s Electoral Programme

Gantz stresses the importance of security for Israel and presents himself as an alternative to Netanyahu, but he does not distinguish himself politically from the Likud Party with regard to the Palestinian issue, the occupied Golan and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Gantz emphasized that Israel's security is the highest priority for him and that he will achieve it by using Israel's military strength and working towards reaching peace agreements. Under these agreements, Israel will maintain Jerusalem, the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley while strengthening settlements in the West Bank and the occupied Syrian Golan.[3]

The “Blue and White” electoral list includes a number of ultra-extremists. Alongside Moshe Ya'alon, who is known for his extreme positions toward the Palestinians and his opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state, the list included two extreme right-wing politicians, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, who were close to Netanyahu and held important positions in his government. Since 2012, Hendel has served as the head of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a far-right institute that drafted the Jewish Nation Law and played an important role in shaping the far-right policy of the Netanyahu government. The government adopts many of the institute’s positions, including those calling for limiting the powers of the Supreme Court, controlling the independence of the judiciary, emphasizing loyalty to the state, and the need for the government to administer with minimal checks and balances by other state institutions.[4]

The Breakdown of the Zionist Left

The Labor party saw its popularity deteriorate in recent months, even more so in following the announcement of the Gantz-led "Blue and White" electoral list. While the Labor Party, in an alliance with the Hatnuah party led by Tzipi Livni, managed to score 24 seats in the last Knesset elections in 2015, in public opinion polls in recent weeks, it is only managing about 6-10 seats. In recent years, the Labor Party has been subjected to intense internal conflicts in competition over leadership. In July 2017, Avi Gabay won the Labor Party elections. Avi Gabay, a Moroccan Jew, was a leading member of the right-wing Kulanu party led by Moshe Kahlon and a party minister in Netanyahu's government in 2015-2016. Gabay ended the coalition between Labor and Hatnuah in early January 2019 but was unable to find another ally to run with for the upcoming Knesset elections. Tzipi Livni herself announced her retirement from political life after failing to run in an alliance list and her party's inability to pass the threshold.

The Meretz party elected Tamar Zandberg as chairman in March 2018, succeeding Zehava Gal-On, with public opinion polls expecting them to win 4-6 seats in the upcoming Knesset elections. However, there is a possibility that this party will not pass the threshold given the state of polarization between the Gantz and Netanyahu camps and that a part of the Meretz electoral base will vote for Gantz in the aim of toppling Netanyahu. The Arab parties run on two electoral lists in the Knesset elections, namely the Islamic Movement led alliance and the Hadash list (led by the Israeli Communist Party) with
Ta'al. The parties will not enter the elections in one list, as they have in the previous elections where they crucially managed to increase the proportion of Arab participation in elections by obtaining about 90 percent of their votes and 13 seats in the Knesset. This is because Ta’al, led by Ahmad Tibi refused to continue on the joint list, and has now withdrawn in a move that was openly supported by the Israeli political and media establishment, hoping to stifle joint Arab action. It is expected that the two lists will pass the threshold, and the number of seats they win in the Knesset will depend the extent of Arab participation in the elections.

Parties Flocking to the Right

In contrast to the decline of the Zionist left and its shrinking parties, the right-wing "national camp" has maintained electoral strength. This camp, together with the Likud Party, includes the following parties: the New Right party, founded by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked in late December when they split from the Jewish Home Party (Habayit Hayedhui) and Yisrael Beiteinu led by Avigdor Lieberman, the Kulanu party led by Moshe Kahlon, the Jewish Home party led by Rafi Peretz, The Tekuma/National Union party led by Betzalel Smutrich and the Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) led by Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of the Fascist right-wing parties feared that some of these right-wing parties would not pass the electoral threshold, which has encouraged them to form a single electoral list. Likud’s "Jewish Home," list thus included the Jewish Home Party, the National Union Party, and Otzma Yehudit, providing a cover for an anti-Arab Kahanist party to enter the Knesset. In order to achieve his goal in uniting these parties, Netanyahu pledged to hand over the education and housing ministries in addition to two seats in the security cabinet in the post-election government if he wins.[5]

In contrast to his success in uniting the fascist right parties, Netanyahu was unable to establish a joint electoral list between Likud and other right-wing parties. Some of them, such as Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avi Lieberman, the Kulanu party led by Moshe Kahlon, or the Gesher party led by Orly Levy, are still in danger of not passing the threshold, according to recent opinion polls, which could affect the election results and the balance of power among them.

Netanyahu Indicted

Two years after beginning his investigation, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decided to indict Netanyahu on February 28 and bring him to trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three different cases. The attorney general will hold a "hearing" for Netanyahu, in line with measures specific to an indictment against senior official. This will give him an opportunity to defend himself before the official indictment is submitted to the court. Mandelblit decided not to brief the defense lawyers on the investigation files until mid-April, to avoid details leaking and being used in the campaign against Netanyahu. This means giving a period of three months to defense lawyers to study the files and prepare their response. The Attorney General will then review the defense counsel's responses to his final decision, which is expected at the end of this year.

This is the first time that an indictment has been filed against an Israeli prime minister while still in office. There is no legal provision in Israeli law that forces a prime minister to resign in the event of an indictment against him, either before or after the hearing. The extent to which the indictment against Netanyahu has influenced the results of the Knesset elections is unknown but Netanyahu's Likud party has maintained a steady 28 to 32 percent of Knesset members over the past few months, and recent opinion polls indicate the two camps approaching one another. Netanyahu denies all charges against him, which he claims are fabricated. He says that that the "left", the media, the police and the judiciary are pursuing him for political reasons and are working to topple him and the democratically elected government and influence the results of the Knesset elections.

Forming a Government and Netanyahu's position

The election campaign is expected to be a fierce competition between the Gantz and Netanyahu camps, with Netanyahu not only fighting to stay in power, but also against criminal charges that could lead to his imprisonment if convicted. As much as Netanyahu clings on to power, the Gantz-led camp seeks to wrest it from him. Gantz may decide to form a national unity government with the Likud party but without Netanyahu. He has no alternative as it is difficult for the parties of this camp to produce more than 61 deputies.

If Netanyahu's right-wing and far-right Fascist camp wins a majority in the Knesset, he will form the government made up of the parties on his list. He is likely to be able to form his coalition government now that all the parties in the right-wing or nationalist camp, led by Likud, have announced that they would endorse Netanyahu to form a government to the head of state. But Netanyahu will face a real problem later in maintaining his coalition once he is formally indicted to the court, which is expected to be held by the end of this year.

It will be very difficult for some of his coalition parties to accept him as prime minister after a formal indictment has been filed against him. Even if Netanyahu can maintain his government coalition, there is a possibility that the Supreme Court will decide to force him to resign in line with a precedent that forced Minister Aryeh Deri to resign from the ministry after the court formally indicted him. Netanyahu and his camp may initiate a law in the Knesset that would prevent the prime minister from being prosecuted as long as he is in office. Netanyahu's ability to enact such a law will depend on the cohesion of his government coalition and the extent to which his parties adhere to the degree of support for such a law. This possibility seems unlikely and such a law would also be challenged by the Supreme Court.

[1] Haim Lfinson, "Nissenkorn leaves the Histadrut and joins Gantz Party," Haaretz, 16/2/2019, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/elections/1.6939166

[2] Haim Lfinson and Yehonatan Liss, "Gantz and Lapid agreed to run on a joint list and to rotate the premiership." Ha'aretz, 21/2/2019, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/elections/.premium-1.6957402.

[3] "Benny Gantz's full speech ...", Ha'aretz, 29/1/2019 https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/elections/1.6892427

[4] “Gants’s Miserable Elections" Ha'aretz, 31/1/2019, https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.6896461

[5]Chaim Levinson, “Top Posts for Merging With Kahanists: Netanyahu, Far-right Party Reach Deal” Haaretz 20/2/2019. Last accessed 4/3/2019 at: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/.premium-netanyahu-to-right-wing-party-merge-with-kahanists-and-get-key-portfolios-1.6956512