December 10, 2019

Yes, Unity! (Just Sign Here…)

Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Suppose you are forced to choose from among four options: a Likud plus Blue and White unity government, a right-wing plus ultra-Orthodox government, a Likud plus Blue and White plus ultra-Orthodox government or a center-left plus ultra-Orthodox government. What would you choose? 

Now let’s try a different scenario with only three options: a unity government, a right-wing government or a left-wing government. What would you say to that? Would your choice for Israel be consistent?

Both questions were asked recently, one in a survey designed by professor Camil Fuchs, the other one in a survey by the polling firm Maagar Mochot. The outcome of both is interesting and also relevant because they reveal how the perceptions of reality and its possibilities influence our political choices.

As I write this column on the night of Oct 1, Rosh Hashanah ends and a new week of coalition maneuvering begins. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the mandate to form a government but doesn’t have the necessary partners. In the coming days, he will be busy trying to head off a corruption indictment as a series of pre-trial hearings begins. On Oct. 2, he was scheduled to meet with rival Benny Gantz to talk about unity but Gantz canceled the meeting. Why? Don’t expect a straight answer. Everything we see is manipulation toward one goal: A government more favorable to the manipulator. 

What do Israelis want? Let’s look at the two previously mentioned surveys. The Fuchs poll shows that more than 60% of Israelis want some kind of a unity government. About half chose unity that includes only Likud and Blue and White, and another 13% chose unity with Charedim (Likud, Blue and White, ultra-Orthodox). The survey by Maagar Mochot seems to show the opposite: Less than a quarter of Israelis (23%) want a unity government; a much larger group (41%) wants a right-wing government; and a slightly larger group (26%) prefers a leftwing government.

Last week, President Reuven Rivlin pushed for unity and proposed a creative arrangement. Netanyahu would be prime minister, and Gantz his deputy. When Netanyahu goes to trial, the powers of the prime minister would shift to Gantz, the vice premier, while the incapacitated Netanyahu retains the title. Rivlin made the proposal and then handed Netanyahu the mandate to form a government. Netanyahu has nothing to do with the mandate unless either Gantz or someone else who vowed not to sit with him changes his mind. If Gantz gets the mandate, he will be in a similar position. Both must pretend they want unity. But in fact, they want unity like Israel and the Palestinians want peace. They want it but don’t want to make the necessary compromises. Gantz wants unity without Bibi. Netanyahu wants unity without giving up his ultra-Orthodox partners. 

In the coming days, Netanyahu will be busy trying to head off a corruption indictment as a series of pre-trial hearings begins.

What do the Israeli voters want? On election night, when Netanyahu spoke to his Likud supporters, the reception was the rhythmic chanting, “We don’t want unity.” The analysis of several polls shows that most Likud voters don’t want unity. Maybe it is because they got used to being in power without partners; maybe because they believe that Gantz is a dangerous leftist; maybe because they bought the theory that another round of elections will get them what they really want: victory.

Or maybe they don’t want unity because it was not presented to them under the right headline. The multitude of answers to the unity question in polls doesn’t necessarily reflect zigzagging, lack of decision or lack of understanding. It might reflect the fact that “unity” is too broad and too vague a term, and that it all depends on the nature of the proposed unity. 

If, for example, the public is asked to choose between a government without Charedim or a government with Charedim, there are two clear options and two possible answers. Half the public (50%) prefers a government “without” Charedis, about a third (32%) “with” Charedis. The rest “don’t know.” If, another example, the public is asked: “Do you think a government with both Likud and Blue and White can function well?” Again, two options are given, “can function” and “can’t function.” Again, the public has an answer: 45% say it will function well, 38% say it will not function well, 17% don’t know.

It is easy to answer a question with two clear outcomes. It is harder to answer a question about unity. What is unity, between whom and under what conditions, and who will be the leader and for how long? The politicians’ answers are vague; the public’s answers are vague. They both want the same thing: unity on their own terms.

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: