June 17, 2019

On the Path to Annexation Coalition?

From left: Benny Gantz; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photos by Amir Cohen/Reuters

According to exit polls conducted on Israel’s national election day, April 9 (this story was written when only exit polls were available, and the final vote tally wasn’t known), no leader got a clear mandate to do as he pleases. Voters finally can rest after having played their role in this election. Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, are just beginning a long journey of tough and treacherous negotiations with small and power-hungry parties. Their aim seems simple: to gain the support of 61 members of the Knesset. But it’s not really simple. For one, because getting to 61 seats means, in many of the possible scenarios, getting the support of parties with a great sense of entitlement. 

Let’s examine the scenarios, all of which must be based on early results and exit poll numbers. By the time you read this, the numbers might have changed (for information on changes, including updated graphs of possible coalitions, see the Journal website). But one thing is worthy of note at the outset: Israelis didn’t approve of small, radical parties in this election. Israelis voted for the center. They voted for two parties whose ideologies are  similar. More than half of the votes went to the two big mainstream parties: Likud and Blue and White. 

Blue and White has more seats, so its leaders will argue that they deserve a chance to form a coalition. But the party’s advantage isn’t overwhelming. Its leaders argued during the past few weeks that they need an advantage of more than five seats to get a mandate from the president. The exit polls didn’t reveal such an advantage, and so, if it can’t present President Reuven Rivlin with new information — such as a commitment of parties such as Kulanu or Yisrael Beiteinu to join a Gantz coalition — the president is unlikely to choose Gantz over Netanyahu. Rivlin probably would prefer that because although it’s common knowledge that relations between Rivlin and Netanyahu are quite tense, there is the office to consider, and the legacy. Rivlin must have looked at the polls on the night of April 9 and realized that he will have no choice. Netanyahu has a clearer path to forming a coalition.

Netanyahu’s coalition is likely to include all of the members of his previous coalition. The Likud Party is stronger than is was in 2015, but this strength will not translate to more leeway in the forming of the next coalition. That’s because small parties in small coalitions tend to be demanding. A coalition can’t form without the United Right, so the party will expect significant reward. A coalition can’t form without Kulanu, so that party’s Moshe Kahlon will expect significant reward, possibly even the position of finance minister. Yes, he might have only four seats, but he still wants to retain this senior position. 

“Blue and White is probably the most mainstream party in Israel’s history.”

The price will be paid by the members of Likud. Netanyahu won’t have many cards to play with. If he must give away the education, defense, finance and justice minister posts, Likud members will get less senior cabinet ministries. And yes, they will grumble, they will complain behind Netanyahu’s back. But they can’t much argue with a leader who delivered another victory, for a fifth time. True, the Likud party is not the largest party. It was not the largest party 10 years ago and still formed a coalition.

In every election, there are few memorable events that join the pantheon of great political moments. In 1981, tomatoes were thrown at Shimon Peres. In 1996, Israelis went to sleep thinking that Peres would be the next prime minister, and woke up the next morning to discover that no, it was Netanyahu. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin made a memorable, if brute, victory speech (“I will lead, I will navigate”). In 2001, the fierce Gen. Ariel Sharon was downgraded to a teddy bear-type grandfather. 

In 2015, Netanyahu’s election day warning that Arab voters are “flocking to the polls” was the high point — and low point — of the campaign. And no, this Netanyahu last-minute clip wasn’t the direct cause for Likud’s final surge and ultimate win. There’s no proof to back that up. And yet, it was a moment that captured the essence of Netanyahu’s political strength and weakness: his mastery of political strategy and laser-beam ability to implement it, and his complete lack of concern for decency. 

In 2019, Netanyahu displayed those same qualities with a vengeance — first, when he was pushing hard for the merger of right-wing and radical right-wing factions. He was the matchmaker of the Jewish Home, a very right-wing party, with Otzma Yehudit, a small, fringe faction that many, including Supreme Court justices, consider to be at least partially racist. One member of this faction was eliminated as a candidate by the court, but the other stayed. Netanyahu, in his quest to use all available votes on the right, is personally responsible for the fact that this radical member of the Knesset gained a seat at the table (on April 9, leaders of the Jewish Home vowed that he will get the seat no matter the number of seats the party ends up capturing).

During the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu did something that seems like the exact opposite of what he intended to do previously. In a blitz of interviews and other public appearances, he warned voters that the right-wing camp was about to lose, and that the only way to prevent such an outcome was to vote for Likud. Not any party that was part of the bloc. Not any party that had committed itself to join his coalition. Only Likud. Netanyahu trusts no one. Not the leaders of the New Right party, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, not the leader of Kulanu, Moshe Kahlon; not the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman. The media counted all these leaders as members of Netanyahu’s bloc. And yet, the prime minister decided to take a risk and propagandize against them. 

The risk was twofold. 

Risk No. 1: Parties essential to forming a coalition might not cross the electoral threshold of 3.25%. Only a few weeks ago, Netanyahu was willing to tolerate a racist so as not to lose any vote, but now he was suddenly willing to risk many votes of parties who might not cross the threshold. 

Risk No. 2: Leaders essential to forming a coalition might get angry and decide to take revenge after the votes are counted. These leaders were disappointed by Netanyahu’s so-called “Gevalt campaign” because it put them at risk. But the prime minister is cynical about such things. When he wins, all is forgiven. At least, he hopes it’s forgiven. If he loses, none of it matters. 

Netanyahu’s lack of concern for decency was his rival’s main asset. Gantz heads a group of decent leaders. For most of the campaign, with few exceptions, they didn’t use harsh language, didn’t incite against others, didn’t attempt to polarize the public. They made a bet that Israelis got tired of Netanyahu’s hyperactive rhetoric. They made a bet that many Israelis who might agree with Netanyahu’s policies are tired of his personality. Thus, their main effort was not to be an ideological alternative to Netanyahu, but rather to be a behavioral alternative to his way of politicking. And in a way, their bet worked just fine: Blue and White came from behind and within two to three months to become the largest Israeli party — in fact, the largest party in many years. The last party to gain a similar number of seats was Sharon’s 2003 Likud Party.

“Rivlin must have looked at the polls on the night of April 9 and realized that he will have no choice. Netanyahu has a clearer path to forming a coalition.”

The party that was assembled for this mission, Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), is a makeshift group of former generals, officials, activists and celebrities who agree on most things and also agree to be agreeable when they disagree. That’s one thing that Netanyahu isn’t capable of doing. Moshe Yaalon is a former member of Likud, and a rather hawkish member. Yair Lapid was a minister in Netanyahu’s government, and is also quite hawkish. The party that Lapid headed until the merger into Blue and White was also a diverse group of people who don’t always agree with one another. 

Blue and White is probably the most mainstream party in Israel’s history. It says nothing controversial. It does nothing controversial. It proposes nothing controversial. It is a party of the status quo. That is its main strength, that is its main weakness. Thou shalt not insult your fellow citizen. Thou shalt not hurt any feelings. Thou shalt not rock the boat. Thou shalt not storm the Bastille — be it the Supreme Court, the media, old elites, the academy. These leaders insisted on only one controversial position: They will never join a coalition headed by Netanyahu. On the night of April 9, they reiterated their commitment to never sit with Netanyahu. So, a unity government is out of the question, unless further complications make such option the only wat to avoid another round of election.

To make himself attractive to right-wing voters, Netanyahu made a bold statement that on the eve of election day got only a fraction of the attention it deserved. Asked by an interviewer if the next government, headed by him, would annex the settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria, the prime minister said yes. “I’m going to apply sovereignty, but I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlement points because from my perspective, every such point of settlement is Israeli,” Netanyahu said. Some of his rivals dismissed this as empty campaign rhetoric. They were wrong. 

Well, not completely wrong. The timing surely was tied to the election and to Netanyahu’s decision to pillage his allies on the right. But they would be wrong to assume that annexation would be nothing more than a campaign ploy. Netanyahu, usually cautious in the diplomatic arena, often reluctant to initiate moves as bold as annexation, smells an opportunity. The annexation of the Golan Heights recently was recognized by President Donald Trump’s administration. If the Golan can be annexed, why not Gush Etzion? 

Not long ago, an Israeli presented this exact question to a Trump administration official. “What’s the difference between the Golan and the Gush?” The response was silence. Obviously, the official didn’t see much difference. The Gush was taken away from Israel in the war of 1948 and was recaptured by Israel in 1967. Two years ago, Lapid, one of Netanyahu’s main rivals, participated in a foundation stone-laying ceremony for a new neighborhood in Kfar Etzion. He said that the Gush is “at the center of Israeli consensus.” When Netanyahu ponders the possibility of gradual annexation of areas in the West Bank, backed by the Trump administration, the Gush is a good place to start.

“In a blitz of interviews and other public appearances, Netanyahu warned voters that the right-wing camp was about to lose, and that the only way to prevent such an outcome was to vote for Likud.”

On the eve of the election, the Trump administration handed Netanyahu another piece of political ammunition. In an unprecedented move, the administration designated the elite Iranian military unit, the Revolutionary Guard, a “terrorist organization.” It took the prime minister maybe 20 minutes from the moment the decision was announced to the moment he first used it in a radio interview — one of more than a dozen a day he conducted between April 7 and April 9.

Trump was Netanyahu’s most useful political tool. Trump’s friendship with Netanyahu was his most talked-about asset. The president moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, canceled the Iran nuclear deal, recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan. Netanyahu believes that he deserves some of the credit for these actions. He believed that the voters give him credit for these actions. 

Gantz could take credit for no such achievements. A few weeks before election day, he knew nothing about the looming Trump peace plan. He was not briefed by anyone. He was not asked to weigh in. Gantz knew all along that Netanyahu is Trump’s choice. In private conversations, he made the assumption that if and when he becomes prime minister, the administration will be quick to adjust to the new reality. And he is probably right about that.

On the night of April 9, the Trump peace team was following the news coming out of Israel and weighing its options: They can hold publication of the plan until a new government is formed, or they can put the plan on the table now or right after Rivlin decides who gets to form the next government. 

Each of these options has its advantages and disadvantages. Choosing the later date would give a new Israeli government time to prepare for what’s coming. Choosing the earlier date would shape the negotiations as a new coalition is formed. Before election day, more than a few observers and pundits assumed that an early issuance would be a pretext to forming a unity government. The plan would hand Netanyahu and Gantz the ladder with which to climb off the tree of mutual snub. 

There is logic behind such an assumption. The parties on the right probably would object to any peace plan; Netanyahu and Gantz recognize that Israel must respond positively to the plan; unity is the logical outcome. That is, if one assumes that the right would object to the plan. But what if the Trump plan is much more acceptable to right-wing voters than previously assumed? What if the plan is one that a Kahlon and a Lieberman and a Rafi Peretz (of the Jewish Home) can accept as a basis for negotiation? 

“In Israel’s context, unilateralism usually is associated with withdrawal… Netanyahu’s unilateralism is different. It is about annexation of areas and settlements. Netanyahu’s unilateralism could be a glue that holds together a coalition.”

Don’t dismiss such an option, and with it the option that an early publication of the plan would help Netanyahu form not a unity government but rather a right-religious government. Here is what Netanyahu is going to tell them: We have a great opportunity to completely overhaul the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. We can form a coalition, say yes to Trump, wait for the Palestinians to say no (they already did, and will do it again), and then turn to unilaterally shaping the future. 

In Israel’s context, unilateralism usually is associated with withdrawal. From southern Lebanon in the late 1990s, from Gaza in 2005. Even today, different groups advocate for unilateral moves in the West Bank, from evacuation of settlements to setting up clear borders. 

Netanyahu’s unilateralism is different. It is about annexation of areas and settlements. Netanyahu’s unilateralism could be a glue that holds together a coalition. There is a narrow window of opportunity, he would whisper to his prospective allies, when I am still here — before the indictment and trial and verdict (those joining him will get cushy jobs and will be asked to commit to see him through the trial). There is a narrow window of opportunity, he would whisper to his prospective allies, when Trump is still in office — before the threat of a Democrat in the White House (maybe Beto O’Rourke, who called Netanyahu a “racist” earlier this week) makes unilateralism too risky. 

Let’s get over our personal grievances and work together to seize this opportunity, Netanyahu would tell them, with the Trump plan laid on the table. If this is a plan that guarantees no evacuation of Jewish settlements; if this is a plan that guarantees a retention of control over the Jordan Valley; if it guarantees freedom of operation to the Israel Defense Forces in all of the West Bank; if it calls for a united Jerusalem; if this is the plan, and indeed, it seems to be the plan — would they dare say no?


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.