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Israeli Elections: Second Round

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Two weeks after the vote on the dissolution of The 21st Knesset, less than two months after its election, the Israeli political class seems to be still petrified by that unprecedented decision in the country’s history.

On April 9th eve, Netanyahu’s victory seemed nonetheless unquestionable. He had succeeded to have 35 deputees elected on the Likud list, a result close to Sharon’s in 2003 or to Begin’s results. Moreover, a simple arithmetical calculation seemed to ensure him, with the support of its allies from the right and from the extreme right, plus that of the orthodox parties,  a comfortable majority of 65 deputees. After a campaign he was very much involved in, he had managed to influence electors in favour of the “useful” vote, and to eliminate the list of his main opponent, the “New Right” led by Naphtali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. And in spite of that comfortable lead over the “Left Center” led by Benny Ganz, one man put an end to his hope of setting up the next government: Avigdor Liberman, with his five necessary votes to obtain a majority.

The relationship of these two men could be the basis of a Shakespearean tragedy. Lieberman started as Netanyahu’s chauffeur, then he helped him to win the leadership of the Likud in1992, after Yitzak Shamir had been defeated by Rabin and after Moshe Arens (ex Defense Minister who had been Bibi’s mentor by appointing him ambassador of Israel at the U.N.) had left politics. In 1996, in the elections organized after Rabin’s murder, he provided him with the necessary votes of Russian immigrants, ensuring him his short victory over Shimon Peres. Known for his warmonger—sometimes extreme— positions, for the last twenty years he never stopped joining or leaving coalitions according to the opportunity he had to get closer to the power. Today, many commenters have serious doubts about the reason why he did not support Netanyahu this time. His requirement that the ultra-orthodox young people would be  enlisted in the army, which orthodox parties refused in spite of the financial compensations promised by Netanyahu, seems to be a pretext. It could be a private revenge against the man whose most secrets are well-known to him. Yvet (his first name in Russian), very ambitious, knows he cannot yet become Prime Minister. Thus he is content to be a kingmaker. Convinced that Bibi’s career is over and that supporting him is of no particular interest to him, he is getting ready to keep the seat warm for his successor.

Netanyahu had nonetheless accepted all the demands of his future allies in order to set up his coalition, particularly that of forming a plethoric government of about 30 ministers instead of the 16 ministers required by law, in spite of the additional cost for public expenditure, while the budget deficit outturn expected in 2020 reaches 3,8% of the GDP. At the last minute, he even tried to win the support of the Labour leader Avi Gabbai, in exchange for meaningful portfolios like that of Justice. Refusing to give his mandate back to the President to let him ask another deputee, as required by the law, to try and form a governement, Netanyahu understood he had no other choice but to dissolve the Knesset. Before having it voted, he was careful to have two decisions issued within the Likud: the merger with Kulanu, the right list led by Moshe Kahlon, in exchange for eligible positions, in order to prevent him from being tempted to join a coalition of the Left Center; and the absence of primaries organized within the Likud, in order to block  another candidate’s attempt to become the leader of the party. Netanyahu’s goal remains the same: he intends to avoid facing the judges. The anticipation of the last two elections had a similar goal: that of outhinking the judges. The Attorney General has finally decided to postpone till next October Netanyahu’s court summons in order to start  investigation on the three corruption cases he is involved in.  Even if he wins the scheduled elections of September 17th, Neyanyahu will face two difficulties: he will have a hard time convincing his future allies to join a coalition while he may be charged for corruption in the next few months, and it won’t be easy for him, given the schedule, to pass a bill granting him parliamentary immunity.

Israel is thus engaged in a new election, the third one in 11 months if you count the municipal elections of October 2018. Some people fear that it  will encourage abstention. This election will cost two billion shekels, namely 300 million euros. Will the results be different from those of last April ? Probably not. They may even give a better majority to the right, if the rightist lists that did not pass the electoral threshold in April—losing 257000 votes—manage to unite this time. Netanyahu considered giving Ayelet Shaked, a very popular figure among electors from the right, a prominent position in the Likud list, but Sara, his wife, totally disagreed, which proves that power is not located any more in the central committee of the Likud, but on “Balfour” (the Prime Minister’s address in Jerusalem).

In the light of the right’s machinations, the opposition seems to have lost its voice.

The Blue-White list confirmed that the agreement for rotating the position of Prime Minister between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid would be maintained, even though it cost him, according to the polls, 3 or 4 mandates, especially because the religious electors, who hate Lapid for his anticlerical positions, refused to vote for it.

The Labour Party decided to organize quite soon an election in order to appoint its new president, and as for now, there are as many candidates as Labour deputees elected in the previous Knesset. Among them, Ehud Barak whose speech against Netanyahu is one of the most offensive of all opponents to the Prime Minister, but who will have a hard time overcoming the public’s estrangement from him.

The Arab lists voted for the dissolution, they do not intend to repeat the mistake of last elections and plan to unite again in a common list. By doing so, they hope to mobilize many of their voters who abstained in April. The percentage of voters in Arab cities and villages reached 49%  while it reached 67% in Jewish or mixed cities. 57 of the 60 cities where the turnout rate was less than 40% are Arab. While in ultra-orthodox cities like Elad, Beitar Illit or Modiin Illit, the participation rate reached 80%.

In the same time, several debates have opened within the left in order to allow some lists to come together or even to merge: the Labour Party and the Meretz, the Meretz and the Hadash (the Arab Party).

All these contenders to power have till August 2nd to present their candidates’ lists. That second round appears, like the first one, like a referendum for or against Bibi, but this time, with a rather damaged candidate. Will the opposition know how to take advantage of it and mobilize accordingly ? The recent election by the Knesset of Netanyahu’s candidate, Matanyahu Engleman, as State Comptroller, without the opposition trying to prevent it by supporting Giora Rom, the other candidate, is not exactly a positive sign. It is time for it to pull itself together and, as a change from April elections, to offer the real alternative the Israeli democracy needs.

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