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Israel's election in the time of corona leaves Netanyahu in rude health

The make-up of Israel's next government and prospects of another election are unclear. But one thing is for certain - the prime minister has pulled off a coup
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacts upon his arrival to address supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv (Reuters)
By in
Tel Aviv, Israel

Monday’s election in the time of corona, in which thousands of quarantined Israelis voted in special remote stations, was not just a third round of polling.

It was a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, charged with bribery and fraud, and on the rule of law and democracy.

Netanyahu, who is set to stand trial on 17 March, won.

The results are not yet final, but based on 90 percent of the votes counted, Likud leads Blue and White by 36 seats to 32.

His right-wing Ultra-Orthodox bloc consists of 59 out of 120 members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Meanwhile, the centre-left bloc shrunk to 54 seats, with Labor-Meretz down to six mandates only.

parliament

The Zionist left as we knew it has vanished. Abandoned by Jewish Israelis, it now needs to partner with Palestinian citizens of Israel to survive.

Though democratic, liberal Israel lost, Israelis themselves won in a way. With the highest voter turnout in 20 years (about 72 percent) Israelis this time sent a clear message and maybe even managed to prevent the one thing that scared them the most: a fourth round of elections.

More than voting for a candidate, Israelis voted for themselves. About 250,000 voters - Jews and Arabs - who chose to stay home in September’s round this went to the polling stations.

Most of the new votes were cast for Netanyahu’s Likud, though a sizeable number went to the Joint List alliance of Palestinian parties.

As things stand, it looks likely these new voters saved themselves from being asked to vote again. They also secured the Joint List’s place as the third-largest party, upping its seats from 13 to 15.

But most of all, they crowned Bibi.

Under assault

If you do not really care about corruption, and a total lack of red lines and moral guidelines in your leader, then this choice makes sense.

If you do not care that the annexation of settlements in the occupied West Bank is immoral and life-changing for both Israelis and Palestinians, then Netanyahu is certainly the right choice.

If you do not care about racism spreading faster than coronavirus, this choice is fully justified.

As the dust settles, strategists agree: the phrase Netanyahu repeated again and again - “Gantz has no government without Tibi”, in reference to Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the Joint List - proved extremely effective.

Tibi was used by Netanyahu not just as a slogan, but as a symbol of the collective threat that the prime minister accused all Arabs of posing to the Jewish state.

Netanyahu, rightfully labelled the best campaigner in Israel’s political history, single-handedly ran the dirtiest, most shameful and lowest campaign ever. He won

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main challenger and head of the Blue and White party, chose to be pushed into a corner, vowing to form a Jewish-only government and labelling the Joint List as an illegitimate partner.

By doing that, he blurred even more the line between his party and Likud, and gave no reason to vote for him.   

Netanyahu, rightfully labelled the best campaigner in Israel’s political history, single-handedly ran the dirtiest, most shameful and lowest campaign ever. He won.

It says a lot about him, and speaks volumes about what has become of Israel.

The democratic process served as a tool to create an even less democratic, more racist and hateful Israel. It is now a country where Arabs are illegitimate partners, those who oppose religious coercion (such as immigrants from former Soviet countries) are antisemitic, and those to the left who believe in a two-state solution with the Palestinians are labelled enemies of the state.

All institutions of democracy are under assault.

A path to immunity?

One of the first question Likud MPs were asked deep into the night was if victorious Netanyahu is going to fire Avichai Mandelblit, the attorney-general who indicted him.

That question remains unanswered, though some analysts associated with the right are eager to declare that Netanyahu has been granted moral immunity by the people.

On Tuesday morning, Likud MP Miki Zohar, Netanyahu’s ardent protector, announced on the radio that the results say loud and clear that prime minister will not stand trial.

Those statements are legally insignificant but actually dangerous.

The Israeli legal system allows a prime minister charged with bribery and fraud to stay in office until conclusive conviction, but the question of whether he is legally eligible to form a government remains unclear.

It simply is an unprecedented situation in the country’s history, potentially explosive for Israeli society.

For Netanyahu’s right-wing Ultra-Orthodox bloc and his voters, yesterday’s elections were a referendum on this question, and any legal interference might even lead to a violent response.

Despite Netanyahu’s obvious victory, the future remains tricky.

The 59 seats of his solid bloc are not enough to form a government. Netanyahu needs more, and he needs them quick.

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As of yesterday, Israel is moving on two tracks: the political track in an attempt to form a viable government and Netanyahu’s legal track. In two weeks, with the opening on his trial, the two tracks merge.

Netanyahu is eager to form his government prior to 17 March, so he can stand in court as prime minister, and not just one about to form one. That goal will be hard to reach.

Many factors might interfere in the process. The immediate one is the vote of the soldiers to be counted and factored in only on Wednesday afternoon. They account for 5-6 seats and can make a huge difference. In September’s round, the majority of soldiers opted for Blue and White.

The other unknown factor is again Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu party. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, as the saying goes, and Lieberman with his six seats is less fat than he was in September when he won eight – but still a lot depends on him.

If he chooses to rejoin the right-wing bloc he loses face, but secures the creation of a solid right-wing government. To do that, he will have to overcome his disdain for Netanyahu, his anti-Orthodox sentiment and break all election promises.

In first post-exit polls statement on Monday night, he sounded cautious.

“Looking at the Orthodox-Messianic bloc, we choose to wait for the final results,” he said in his non-festive headquarters. “We are a principled party, we will not barge one millimetre from what we promised in our campaign."

What they promised is: no Bibi, no Arabs, no Orthodox partners. Unless he imports a totally new Israeli electorate he has no bloc to join without breaking his “promises”.

Coalition building

Confused? Rightfully so. Every prediction contradicts the other.

In a few interviews prior to election, Netanyahu insinuated - with a wink – that he expects deserters from other parties that will allow him to form a steady 61 to 62-seat coalition.

Since the exit polls Netanyahu’s people have kept repeating that scenario.

Theoretically, there are three possible reservoirs: unhappy MPs at the bottom of Blue and White’s list, members of Lieberman’s party, and Orly Levy, who was once of Yisrael Beiteinu and now is in partnership with Labor and Meretz. Her political history marks her as the weaker link. So far, none of these scenarios seems particularly feasible.

The other option on the table is a unity government.

Realistically, 60-61 seats are enough to rule, but they are not enough to save Netanyahu from the rule of law

Likud MPs and ministers keep it alive. Politically, it makes sense. There is no real ideological difference between the two leading parties, other than the fact that Blue and White vowed not to sit with Netanyahu while he is charged with fraud and bribery.

Meir Cohen, an MP from Blue and White, insisted on Tuesday in a radio interview there will be no deserters and a coalition with Netanyahu is out of the question.

Since Netanyahu has managed to perfect the concept “L’etat c’est moi”, it is hard to separate his fate from the fate of the future government.

Realistically, 60-61 seats are enough to rule, but they are not enough to save Netanyahu from the rule of law. His best bet at this point is the French law on sovereignty immunity allowing him to defer his trial to the day after his tenure is over.

He needs a larger majority to legislate this law. If he fails, he will insist on serving as PM simultaneously with his court case.

Does it sound like a fourth round of elections? Probably not, though another solution is not yet in sight.