Who won? Who knows.
Near-final numbers show a dead heat between the two largest parties in Israel’s election on Tuesday; with centrist Blue and White and Likud commanding 32 and 31 seats, respectively, as of mid-afternoon Wednesday. The real tally, however, is a bit of a wildcard, as both frontrunners will now scramble to recruit smaller niche parties to support their bids to form the next government.
Amidst the seeming chaos, however, the Israeli electorate spoke quite clearly on one issue, strongly rebuking the increasingly powerful ultra-orthodox (“haredi”) parties and, by association, Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In recent years, Likud has become exceedingly dependent upon the religious parties to rule. And the public seems to have had enough.
Given that Blue and White has only existed since February, its command of such a large portion of the electorate is a tremendous achievement. Compounding this is the fact that the party really offered no policy alternatives to Likud other than their resistance to continuing haredi privilege and a commitment to reclaim the more classical liberal-democratic values upon which Israel was founded; representing compromise between religious and secular citizens.
In spite of the strong Blue and White showing, however, neither bloc appears able to form a coalition of the 61-seats needed for the barest Knesset majority.
Enter Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which surged from five mandates following the April election to nine this time. This result appears to also anoint Lieberman with kingmaker power (as his seats can tip either bloc into majority territory) and may also be the most stinging indictment of Likud.
In spite of the strong Blue and White showing, however, neither bloc appears able to form a coalition of the 61-seats needed for the barest Knesset majority
A former political ally of Netanyahu, the savvy Lieberman is now Bibi’s arch nemesis and a formidable threat. Lieberman parlayed his diminishing and aging base of elderly voters from the FSU, who are staunch secularists and Israeli nationalists, into a much more diverse range of supporters; centrist and right-wing voters from a range of parties who were displeased with the haredi influence in Likud and society generally.
Something of a master at intuiting the changing political zeitgeist, Lieberman on Wednesday morning again laid out his negotiating position: any government seeking his support must agree to reduce ultra-orthodox control of marriage and other “life-cycle” milestones; change the so-called “Shabbat law” to allow for public transportation and businesses to operate on Saturdays; require ultra-orthodox schools to teach core curriculum, like math and English; and to impose quotas for men from the haredi community to serve in the IDF.
To the haredim, this is a declaration of war.
Addressing a rally of 50,000 faithful in Jerusalem on Sunday, Yakov Litzman, leader of the United Torah Judaism faction, warned the all-male throng that the overriding issue in this election is the possibility that a government will be formed with no ultra-orthodox representation in the coalition. Such an outcome, he said, would directly threaten their freedom to live a devout life.
Which, with the greatest respect, is bunk.
The world over, haredim learn the dark but pragmatic arts of math, science and English, to equip them for an ability to function, minimally, in the general economy and population. There is no broadly-based conspiracy among Israelis to infringe on haredi religious freedom.
What there most definitely is, however, is a seething resentment over haredi refusal to serve in the IDF (or civilian national service) and the relatively anemic participation of the ultra-orthodox in the economy, in light of their population. The singular privileges and entitlements enjoyed by the haredim simply cannot be sustained; leaving an increasingly smaller slice of the population to support a robust defence and security capability as well as a sound economy.
Combined with the centrist stance of Blue and White, the fear-based campaign of the ultra-orthodox seems to have scared the bejeezus out of their base, which cast 15 per cent of the votes nationally even though they comprise 12 per cent of the population.
To even suggest that this impressive lineup of highly-regarded generals has any ‘left-wing’ tendencies in their DNA is absurd
The irony is that they may well have diminished influence in the next government in spite of their increase in Knesset mandates.
Netanyahu, for his part, indulged in campaign fear-mongering of a different sort. One of his consistent themes portrayed Blue and White as a sinister leftist cabal hell-bent on destroying the Zionist enterprise. It was surreal for a leader of Netanyahu’s stature, longevity and sophistication to promote such an absurdity.
Blue and White boasts a slate headed by Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff who served under Netanyahu; Yair Lapid, former celebrity journalist who has become a strong brand representing secular centrists since entering political life in 2013; Moshe Ya’alon, who served as IDF chief of staff under Ariel Sharon and as minister of defence under Bibi from 2013-16; and fourth is Gabi Ashkenazi, a revered former IDF chief of staff and veteran of an elite combat unit, who also served under Netanyahu. A soldier’s soldier, Ashkenazi is often considered to be the man who should head the slate, bringing not just the security credentials but also a charisma that both Gantz and Ya’alon lack.
To even suggest that this impressive lineup of highly-regarded generals has any “left-wing” tendencies in their DNA is absurd. What they are, most definitely, is a united, pragmatic front against allowing any further power to accrue to the ultra-orthodox and to align the state’s laws, policies and institutions with its founding principles and constitutional norms, liberal democracy being paramount.
Tasked with finding a way through this impasse is President Reuven Rivlin, who wields the authority to meet with all parties in the coming days to ascertain which bloc is most likely to succeed in forming a governing coalition and then inviting them to do so.
Speculation is already rampant that Rivlin’s initial move — as early as Friday — may well be to summon Gantz and Netanyahu to a meeting and urge upon them the imperative and importance of forming a unity government.
Aside from the immediate challenge faced by the president, the only other certain consequence of this election outcome is that the next six weeks will turn and churn up countless additional scenarios, ensuring constant high drama.