Loser and Questions: What Happens When a Prime Minister Fails, Twice, to Win 

September 17, 2019

As I write this story, everything is too close to call. As I write this story, everything is too soon to call. And too complicated. And too fragile.

Still, when this story goes to print, late on Israeli election night, Sept. 17, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t seem to have enough support to form a coalition. All the parties that support Netanyahu, combined, have fewer than the needed 61 seats. This is also true for his rival, Benny Gantz. All the parties that support Gantz, combined, have fewer than 50 seats. So, there are no clear winners but there is a loser: Netanyahu. And there are question marks.

The obvious outcome likely to emerge from such a scenario is a unity government. Likud and Blue and White easily can form one if they agree on only one thing: What happens to Netanyahu? In other words: Would Likud agree to replace Netanyahu with someone else, or would Blue and White agree to accept Netanyahu as its partner? On the night of Sept. 17, both parties weren’t ready to answer that question. Likud insists on Netanyahu, Blue and White insist on shunning Netanyahu. Next week, they’ll have to make a decision. President Reuven Rivlin is going to demand a decision. One possible answer could be an unexpected compromise: Neither Bibi nor Benny. A unity headed by Likud, but not headed by Netanyahu.

By the time you read this story, you might know much more about the outcome — and might not. We were told in advance that counting the votes will be slow this time. That’s why this story is somewhat short on numbers and long on big-picture analysis. Rivlin explained that he will pick the winner — that is, the person to which the important task of forming a coalition will be assigned — only after the final tally is, well, final. That could be more than a week away, possibly more, just after Rosh Hashanah. In other words, the election is far from over. It is just beginning.

On election night, I was watching the exit poll on Channel 13. This is a decision of personal loyalty. I have a brother who works for this channel but more important — in this case — is the pollster who runs the exit poll. Professor Camil Fuchs was the media star this channel placed at the forefront as it attempted to lure the largest audience on the most important night for any broadcast TV channel. Why Fuchs? As my wife tells it, he is “the pollster who got it right.” Half a year ago, in the April election, Fuchs had the most accurate reading of the outcome. After that, his personal stock has gone through the roof. He was offered a job by other TV channels but decided to stick with 13. Imagine that: a gray-haired mathematics professor with a slight accent (Fuchs was born in Romania) becoming a household name.

“The election is far from over. It is just beginning.”

Fuchs is serious and meticulous about his work, but when people compliment him on the great achievement of having gotten it right in April, he hurriedly reminds them that in previous rounds, he also had his share of errors. “Statistics is not an insurance company,” he told an interviewer. “On election day, anything can happen.” He remembers that while seriousness and professionalism are important, a tiny bit of luck cannot hurt.

Luck can turn an accurate poll into an inaccurate poll. Luck can determine the future of a politician. Many scenarios seem possible on the eve of an election, and these make life complicated for Fuchs — but make life even more complicated for an Israeli politician as he or she strategizes for a future when the numbers just don’t add up.

Let’s think for a moment about this near future and what it holds. Let’s think about the possibility Rivlin tasks Netanyahu with forming the next government. Let’s assume this happens right after the beginning of a Jewish new year. It might happen earlier or it might not. The law says the president has seven days to consider his position after the official final results are publicized, which takes about a week, sometimes a little more.

If you like drama, this could be a week of political drama. On Oct. 1, Rivlin makes his decision. On Oct. 2, Netanyahu faces a hearing at the attorney general’s office. This might not be all: During the same week, diplomatic sources say, President Donald Trump could decide to publicize his peace plan.

“Luck can turn an accurate poll into an inaccurate poll.”

Of course, the hearing doesn’t depend on who gets to form the government. And what about the peace plan? Here, there is room for manipulation and maneuvering. Trump might tie the publication of the plan to the date most convenient for Netanyahu (which still might be the day of the hearing).

The election and its aftermath are much too close to call. Hamas still might fire rockets; Iran still could provoke the region into conflict; the deficit — Israel has a growing deficit problem — is waiting for a next government for a fix. Each of these issues might become the reason, or excuse, to forming this or that government.

On the night of Sept. 13, two members of Knesset, present and future, sat in an improvised synagogue, singing “Lekhah Dodi,” reading from the siddur, standing and sitting. The names aren’t as important as the name of their party: Blue and White. Just a few days before this scene of Shabbat tranquility, their party declared a war on religiosity. Well, not really a war — and not really on religiosity. Besides, Blue and White didn’t really mean it. The party meant it only as a campaign tactic. The voters who the party attempts to lure into its orbit are in a combative anti-religious mood. The leaders decided to give them what they want. Hence, Blue and White leader retired Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told supporters that if elected, he will form a liberal, secular coalition.

What is a liberal, secular coalition? The two members of Knesset at the makeshift synagogue wore yarmulkes and seemed well-rehearsed as they davened with the rest of us. Are they liberal? That probably depends on what liberal means. Are they secular? Not if secular means no Shabbat prayer. Are they comfortable with their leader’s vow to form a secular coalition? I assume they are comfortable with it for two reasons. One, because when Gantz said “secular,” what he really meant was “not dominated by the ultra-Orthodox,” and two, because when Gantz said “secular,” he was just playing politics.

Very few Israeli Jews (most Blue and White voters are Israeli Jews) are “secular.” They believe there is no God. One in 10 Israeli Jews believe there is no God. Six in 10 believe “with complete faith,” there is a god. The constituency Gantz was after was not the atheists’ bloc; it was the anti-Charedi bloc. To be more specific, pollsters told Gantz he could steal some of Avigdor Lieberman’s thunder — and a few seats — by going after the ultra-Orthodox.

Benny Gantz, Avigdor Lieberman, and Benjamin Netanyahu.

This was not easy for Gantz to do. By nature, he is not a confrontational figure. By upbringing, he is traditional, not totally secular. For most of his campaign, he also seemed to believe that keeping open channels with the ultra-Orthodox parties is the better political option. His combative ally, Yair Lapid, burned the bridges to the Charedi community when he was the finance minister, thus reduced his prospects of ever becoming a prime minister. Gantz had no intention to toe the Lapid anti-Charedi line. But then, he did. Hesitatingly, cautiously, half-heartedly, he did.

About a month ago, I attended a conference about state-religion issues with some heads of more and less important parties. Lapid was one of them. When asked about differences between his agenda and Gantz’s, he cautiously advised against adjustments aimed at soothing Charedi sensitivities. “Whenever someone lets tactics triumph over ideals, it is a mistake,” Lapid said. In that case, Lapid should be consistent and conclude that Gantz erred twice: when he attempted to build bridges to the Charedi community for tactical reasons, and when he decided to burn these bridges for tactical reasons.

“Charedi politicians are masters at being both brazen and thin-skinned.”

Naturally, when the Charedi parties heard the new message, they responded with their usual mix of boast and fury. On one hand, it is a message of dominance, a threat: warning Gantz his fate will be like the fates of all politicians who dared turn their backs on them (because there’s no stable coalition without them). On the other hand, it is a message of weakness and touchiness — whining about the unfairness of it all and the Charedis becoming the scapegoat of this election.

Aryeh Deri of Shas scolded Rivlin for condemning those who insult Israeli Arabs yet refraining from condemning those who insult Israeli Charedis. “If people speak against Arabs,” Deri said, “the president is the first one to come out against it. But when they incite against all of Judaism and traditional people in the State of Israel, no one protests against this.” Rivlin responded the next day: “My friend Rabbi Aryeh. Anyone who knows me, like you do, knows very well how much I’m pained by the incitement against communities in Israel, among them the Charedi community.” 

Charedi politicians are masters at being both brazen and thin-skinned. 

Indeed, in this election they were scapegoats, along with the Arabs. Lieberman, a former ally of Netanyahu’s, a former defense minister and a party leader, was the master campaigner of this election. By reinventing himself, he was able to save a party, Israel Beitenu, that barely was above water. By refocusing the attention of Israel’s voters, he altered the trajectory of the whole campaign. According to exit polls, he did not win as many seats as he expected a week ago. Yet, because of him, Gantz was forced to promise a secular coalition. Because of him, Netanyahu had to sweat much harder for a 61 majority he did not get. Because of Lieberman, it suddenly was clear the story of this election is not right versus left, or right versus center; it was a story of a for-Netanyahu camp versus a no-Netanyahu camp.

On election night, Lieberman insisted on a secular unity. He wants this unity to form and Netanyahu to depart. Does he truly want what he says he wants? No one knows. He is a cunning and cynical politician. Michael Oren, who served as ambassador to the U.S. when Lieberman was foreign minister, wrote about him in The Atlantic, stating, “he gave no hint of his supposed hatred of Arabs or indeed of any far-right attitudes, which I began to suspect were less deep-seated convictions than opportunistic political tools.” Many leaders of ultra-Orthodox parties had a similar impression of Lieberman’s supposed anti-religious attitudes. In fact, for many years, he was a trustworthy ally of Charedi parties and politicians — until one day, he flipped. 

“What makes coalition building so complicated in Israeli today is the ostracism voters demand and leaders implement.”

His true motivations — cynical politics or ideological awakening — are not as important as his sudden success. Such success puts Likud on notice. Such success is a road sign for the opposition. Such success ought to be a warning sign to the Charedi parties. It was relatively easy for them to dismiss leftist or centrist parties such as Meretz or Yesh Atid that were using them as campaign fodder. It is harder for them to adjust when a party on the right (some would even call it far right) discovers the usefulness of the fight against them.

What makes coalition building so complicated in Israeli today is the ostracism voters demand and leaders implement. Consider the following vows as you ponder the meaning of this week’s numbers:

    • Gantz and Lapid refuse to sit with Netanyahu. 
    • Charedi parties refuse to sit with Lapid. 
    • Lieberman refuses to sit with Charedi parties and with religious nationalists. 
    • Lieberman refuses to sit with the Democratic Camp and the Arab party.
    • Almost everybody else refuses to sit with the Arab party, and the Arab party refuses to sit with almost everybody else.

The parliamentary system we have in Israel has many faults. Because of it, there is no political stability and not enough long-term planning. We have many parties and even more factions within parties, as well as leaders jumping from one party to the other and manipulators gaming the system. A parliamentary system like Israel’s can be frustrating to the point of intolerability. In the mid- 1990s, Israel got so fed up with its system, a decision was made to change it —  by electing the prime minister with one ticket and electing the party of choice with another. But as often happens with such promising changes, it quickly became apparent the new system had its own, no less annoying, deficiencies. So Israel went back to the old system.

The parliamentary system does have one great advantage: It ensures compromise. The political game is never a zero-sum game — Trump wins, Hillary Clinton loses, see you again in four years —  but rather a constant market of sellers and buyers. “Give me this, get that. Vote with me on this, I’ll let you have that.” In 2013, Netanyahu was forced to accept Lapid as finance minister, and let him annoy the religious parties. In 1992, Labor traded the peace process for religious interests and let Shas gain power in exchange for passing the Oslo Accords. In 1999, Ehud Barak lost his coalition less than a year after it was formed because of his lack of skill as a political trader. A decade later, he traded his party, Labor, for a job as defense minister.

Compromise is annoying for everybody because we, as humans, tend to remember what we had to give up and tend to forget what it was we gained as a result. We pocket the gain and remain angry over the loss. With time, Israelis seem less willing to accept the need for compromise and be more prone to demand their leaders not compromise — hence, the barrage of exclusion and ostracism. The great art of political compromise is disrupted by a mob of all-or-nothing voters. The purist, righteous, overly principled type.

Back in April and now again, we see the rotten fruits of such an uncompromising approach to politics. In April and now again, voting is easy and forming a coalition of rivals is tough. Yet, it is highly necessary.

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

Shmuel’s book, #IsraeliJudaism, Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, is now available in English. The Jewish Review of Books called it “important, accessible new study”. Haaretz called it “impressively broad survey”. Order it here: amzn.to/2lDntvh

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