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Gridlock, fascism or more polls? Israel's latest election could provide all three

As Lapid goes into survival mode, Ben-Gvir rises and Netanyahu hopes for a dramatic comeback. Anything or nothing could happen
Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Tikva market in Tel Aviv ahead of the November general elections (AFP)
Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Tikva market in Tel Aviv ahead of the November general elections (AFP)
By Lily Galili in Tel Aviv, Israel

Three and a half years. Five parliamentary elections. Four months of campaigning. Around 12.5bn shekels ($3.5bn) spent.

After all this, Israelis still have no idea whether a new government will be formed after the election on Tuesday, and certainly have no clue who their next prime minister will be.

The infamous deadlock between the opposition “Bibi bloc” - the unholy alliance between far-right and ultra-Orthodox led by Benajmin Netanyahu - and the strangest ever anti-Netanyahu coalition is still there.

Even the last-minute small adjustments are transitions of voters within the blocs, with no transfer of votes between the opponents. According to the latest polls Netanyahu’s bloc will win 60 seats and his opponents sit on 56 to 60, if you add the Palestinian Hadash-Taal list. Governments need a majority of at least 61 to govern.

An electoral banner for Israel's National Unity party in Tel Aviv (AFP)
An electoral banner for Israel's National Unity party in Tel Aviv (AFP)

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Tuesday is yet another referendum on Netanyahu’s personality. Since he hasn’t changed, there is no reason to expect any major political change as well. Months ago, Israelis started repeating a bitter joke that a sixth round of elections would follow these. Now that may soon become a nightmarish reality.

This is, in fact, not bad news for Yair Lapid. In case of 60-60 deadlock, no new government can be formed and Lapid gets to keep the title of “transitional prime minister” for another six months.

Judging by his conduct over the last week, he acts upon the assumption this is a very probable scenario. The political litmus test of the future intentions of the head of a political bloc is the way he deals with the smaller sister parties in his coalition.

In Lapid’s case, these are the Zionist left Meretz and centrist-left Labor. He needs them to win a healthy number of seats and preserve the size of the bloc to compete with Netanyahu’s well-established one; in theory Lapid should tread carefully in case he affects their chances of winning enough votes to cross the electoral threshold and enter parliament.

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For weeks of this campaign, he respected that tacit agreement. Yet that changed over the last week, when he began to actively attract voters from Meretz and Labor, parties that are both struggling on around four or five seats each.

This last-minute change in strategy means one thing only: he now cares more about the size of his own party than about the size of the bloc. Traditionally the head of the largest party is given first attempt to form a government, but this remains likely to be Netanyahu, whose Likud leads the way.

So Lapid is likely operating in preparation for two scenarios: to be as strong as possible to maintain his status and continue to lead a transitional government in the next period of political limbo; or to be the largest and strongest opposition to Netanyahu’s future far-right government.

Most of all, with a sixth round in mind, Lapid strives to close the narrowing gap between Netanyahu’s Likud (now 30 seats in the polls) and his own Yesh Atid (currently between 25 and 27). In fact, Netanyahu has also adopted the same strategy. In a pathetic attempt to stop losing voters to Itamar Ben-Gvir’s far-right Religious Zionism party, Netanyahu suddenly announced “voting for Ben-Gvir is like voting for Lapid”. Too late. The monster, with 13-14 projected seats, can now stand up to its creator.

Having said that, it is important to remember that when just one seat in parliament can decide the future of these elections, it is too early to call.   

Early targeting

Two very disturbing phenomena gain momentum as election day approaches: threats against Palestinian voters and early attempts to undermine the validity of results.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel are often used as scarecrows in Israeli politics and society, but the fact that their turnout might be a decisive factor creates a new situation. One possible scenario is that Hadash-Taal, two Palestinian parties running together, fail to cross the threshold. According to Israel’s proportional system, their failure would swell the size of Likud’s gains.

The dependence on the Arab vote undermines the self-evident Jewish dominance of the Jewish politicians. In a meeting with municipal Palestinian leaders in the northern city of Nazareth, Lapid argued: “If your citizens don’t vote they have to understand that what was given to them in the past year will be taken from them.”

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On the other end of the political spectrum, Netanyahu, whose main argument against a future Lapid government is his partnership with Arab parties, invests a fortune into his own dedicated Arabic Facebook page. Both are after the Arab voters, not as partners but rather as spare parts.

The other disturbing phenomenon is the fear of 2 November, a date that evokes the memory of 6 January 2021, when a mob of Donald Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol rejecting the election results.

Israel is not there - yet - but the rhetoric is dangerously close. According to a poll conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute five days before the elections, about 40 percent of Jewish respondents say they are not confident in the honesty of the election.

Meanwhile, 51.5 percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel share the same sentiment. In other words, almost half of Israeli citizens suspect the results officially published might be fake. And 56 percent of the public are “pessimistic about the state of democratic governance in Israel in the foreseeable future”, the poll found. In an atmosphere soaked with violence, it is explosive material.  

The campaign Likud and its proxies launched on the illegitimacy of the Central Election Committee and its chairperson, Chief Justice Yitzhak Amit, began as early as July, labelling them leftists. Netanyahu repeatedly insists on following the vote-counting process with Likud surveillance cameras, a violation of the election committee’s regulations.

Even if he fails, the seeds of doubt are already there. On a news show on Friday, Likud’s Miri Regev, often recruited to spread Netanyahu’s messages, said: “We hope they won’t steal the elections.”

Religious Zionism rising

The only good news is the fact that after four months and vast expense election, the campaign is over. Denmark is also holding an election on Tuesday; its campaign lasted less than a month. The Danes believe that’s sufficient time for the candidates to deliver their message.

That’s probably what happens when there is a message to deliver. It obviously takes much longer when there is no message, and even the energy of the “just not Bibi” campaign waned. What we get instead are apocalyptic prophecies. Both Netanyahu’s bloc and his opponents ominously threaten that if the opposite camp is elected “it will be the end of Israel as we know it”.

For Netanyahu’s bloc that means the end of the Jewish state. On the other side, they are warning of the end of Israeli democracy (democracy for Jews, of course). Sounds bad, but on second thought it is not such a bad idea to change Israel as we now know it.

Unfortunately, the only party to lead a campaign that actually said what it plans to do the day after was Religious Zionism, led by the two real protagonists of this election campaign: Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.

While Netanyahu met his voters carefully hidden behind bulletproof glass on a truck turned into a “Bibi-mobile”, leading a carefully crafted “respectable” campaign to attract the moderate-right voters unhappy with the old Netanyahu and the new Likud, Smotrich and Ben Gvir (Netanyahu’s alter-ego) worked hard with boots on the ground.

The campaigns of Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir are meticulously coordinated. They hold frequent meetings. But don’t bother to try and find a picture of the two together.

Netanyahu has consistently refused to be photographed with Ben-Gvir, who can tarnish his image. But still Netanyahu has said the Religious Zionism leader deserves to have a significant role in his future government. Ben-Gvir himself, the arch-agitator and Jewish supremacist, wants to be public security minister.

Israeli far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks from a stage at a news conference in Jerusalem (Reuters)
Israeli far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks from a stage at a news conference in Jerusalem (Reuters)

Smotrich chose another route. He based his campaign on post-election reforms to “heal” the Israeli legal system. He claims the far-reaching reforms will strengthen Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, Smotrich style. The name of the programme he presented is “Law and Justice”, exactly the same as the ruling Polish nationalist party that instituted unprecedented changes to that country’s legal system, undermining the rule of law and separation of powers. In the process - just accidentally, of course - the reforms suggested by Smotrich might lead to the end of Netanyahu’s criminal trial on corruption charges.

On the face of it, this is good news for the former prime minister, but it’s the wrong timing. On Tuesday he wants to be seen as the law-abiding candidate persecuted by hostile institutions, not someone seeking a “get out of jail free” card. Of course, if victory is secured, Netanyahu and Smotrich will be singing from the same hymn sheet.

The slogan Ben-Gvir chose for his campaign: “It’s time for Ben-Gvir”, or “Ben-Gvir’s time”. He is right. Israel has changed. Military respectability, currently embodied by former army chiefs Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot of the National Unity party, does not sell anymore. This is not the trade-off Israelis who abhor the militaristic streak of Israeli society had in mind.

Gantz, who is defence minister, has for three and a half years touted himself as a unifying prime minister that can appeal to ultra-Orthodox parties loyal to Netanyahu. But with 10-11 projected seats, that doesn’t seem very likely. Even his running mate Eisenkot, who is new to politics, said a “PM from a party trailing behind a high two-figure number of seats in the parliament doesn’t smell good”. High ranks and a military career once were an asset in Israeli politics almost considered “condicio sine qua non”. Not anymore. It could be good news if not substituted by “Ben-Gvir time”.

With votes counted, the masks will be off, and the naked truth exposed: Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are the real face of Israel 2022. They won’t disappear even if the other bloc wins.  

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