By: Sondra Baras
Just two months ago, I wrote about elections that took place in the US and in Israel — national elections in the US and municipal elections in Israel. And now Israel has entered its own national elections season. But in Israel, there is always drama surrounding elections.
Israel is governed by a parliamentary system. We elect a party, not an individual, and the party that gains the most Knesset seats (a maximum of 120) based on proportional allocation of the votes, will be asked to form the government. The head of that leading party will then be prime minister. The Knesset holds the key to keeping the government A full term of the Knesset will be anywhere between 4 and 5 years; however, there has rarely if ever been a Knesset that served out its full term.
Just a few weeks ago, in a cynical response to the Israeli cease-fire in Gaza, Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman resigned from the government. While he clearly rode on a wave of popular sentiment against the cease-fire at the time of his resignation, within a few days, people questioned his position. After all, they reasoned, he was the one who had managed the IDF campaign against Gaza and had staunchly supported a more restrained response. It was widely assumed that his true motives were political in nature. With rising opposition to the position of restraint, Leiberman assumed he would gain popularity if he were to resign in protest of that restraint and if, as a result, general elections were called shortly afterwards.
With the departure of Lieberman and his party, the Israeli government relied on the support of only 61 Members of Knesset — a majority but a slim one indeed. The Knesset was scheduled to end its term in November of 2019 so it was possible that it would continue to its natural conclusion.
But two weeks ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to disband the Knesset and call for General Elections. He rallied the support of his coalition partners and the Knesset voted to disband itself. And the question is why? Why go to elections 6 months before the end of the term?
Cynics and Netanyahu opponents claim that he is concerned about the ongoing investigations surrounding various questionable activities, including suspicions of bribery and corruption. Netanyahu continues to claim innocence and many wonder if his activities rise to the level of criminal behavior although most believe that there was improper behavior at the very least. With the State Attorney’s office already announcing that it was recommending indictments against the prime minister but with the public knowing little of the details, Netanyahu may well want to secure an additional term as prime minister in order to influence the Attorney General, the person with ultimate authority in the decision as to whether to bring formal charges against the prime minister. But it is highly unlikely that the Attorney General will be influenced by the result of the national elections.
Others believe that Netanyahu realized that it would be impossible to govern with a slim majority of one. While this is certainly logical, the current government was unusually stable and united in its approaches to most major issues. It remains quite possible that the government could have continued to function well until November.
Be that as it may, elections have been called for the 9th of April. And just after that date was set, the real political drama began. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, heads of the Religious Zionist party Bayit Yehudi, stunned the public when they announced their departure from the party and the creation of a new right-wing party that would join religious and secular Jews.
Bennett and Shaked have taken a calculated risk. The Knesset rules require a party to achieve the minimum votes for four Knesset seats in order to enter the Knesset. Any party which achieves less than that minimum does not enter the Knesset and those votes are effectively wasted. Will the Bennett / Shaked move indeed gain more votes in total for the two parties then they would have achieved as one Bayit Yehudi party? Will one of those parties not achieve the minimum, resulting in hundreds of thousands of wasted right-wing and faith-based votes? It is anyone’s guess. Clearly, though, the political system is gearing up for the day after Netanyahu. As the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s short history, the day is fast approaching when he will no longer be at the helm. Who will be his successor?
Netanyahu has navigated the nation through some of its worst economic and security challenges over the years. And he is probably the most brilliant statesman on the world scene today. But he has hindered the progress of any fellow right-wing politician seen as a possible successor and he has failed to groom a successor of his own choice. It is clear that once he leaves the scene, there will be a broad-based power struggle. Bennett and Shaked’s move is widely viewed as positioning themselves as Netanyahu’s successors. And if their gamble succeeds, that could be wonderful. There are no greater advocates for the settlement movement than Bennett, Shaked, and members of both their new and former parties. If indeed, this helps position either of them as heirs to Netanyahu, we will all gain. But as in all gambles, we could all lose. Prayer is a good thing — So much depends on the results of the elections on April 9th.