Three Scenarios for Israel’s Election Campaign
Election night drama usually ends in one victory speech and at least one gracious concession. In the hours after polls closed in Israel back on April 9, television viewers were treated to two competing victory speeches by two competing electoral losers.
Take two of Israel’s 2019 general elections has barely gotten underway. The contours of both the campaign and the post-election coalition bargaining are already clear, and these are characterized by three brilliant maneuvers by Israel’s three most brilliant political tacticians. Ehud Barak, Avigdor Lieberman, and Benjamin Netanyahu each have a plan of action with a chess master’s confidence about everyone else’s subsequent moves.
Devoted soccer fans often try to convince everyone else that a match can be a “beautiful game” despite the score being 0-0. It’s best to keep this in mind in assessing these maneuvers. Their brilliance, their cunning, their careful construction are all worthy of admiration by any political junkie. The three men who concocted them are among the best in the field. But at least one, probably two, and possibly all three will end up disappointed.
The Barak Maneuver
Barak’s maneuver is straightforward enough. He has reentered the domestic political arena with a new party called Democratic Israel. But the party is not the point. Barak is not running as a niche candidate or a single-issue tribune. He has a two-step plan to undo the right wing’s ten-year-old majority in the Knesset. The first step is to cause enough of a stir that the two established parties of the Zionist left, Meretz and Labor, find themselves creeping closer and closer to the electoral threshold (now at 3.25 percent). When this happens, they will presumably seek to unite with Barak’s party into one unified list with Barak as its leader. No party organizations will be harmed in the process; the unified list will be a technical one only. It will no doubt bear some anodyne vapid-patriotic name, but be publicly identified by its leader’s name more than anything else.
Step two also requires a bit of panic from Barak’s frenemies. In this case, it’s the already unified centrist list Blue and White, the amalgamation of Benny Gantz’s new party (door prize to the first person who can remember its name) along with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party. For Barak’s maneuver to work, Blue and White needs to be so impressed with the Barak-led unified left list that they have no choice but to effect a rightward shift and begin eating away at moderate right-wing voters. The most obvious low-hanging fruit are the four seats picked up in the last election by Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party.
This maneuver succeeds not by growing Blue and White but rather by growing the entire center-left-Arab bloc. They were at 55 in the last election. They need 61 to have a majority in the Knesset. If they get there, the next coalition will have as its foundations a unified left and a unified center. Multiple scenarios are possible here. A religious party could be added. A minority government with Arab support could be formed. Maybe one of the more moderate parties that is part of the Arab Joint List breaks off and joins the coalition.
In the Barak scenario — that is, when a left-center government is formed — it’s not even clear in advance who might be prime minister. It could be Barak himself, or it could be Gantz, depending on the distribution of votes. The rotation agreement with Lapid would likely have to be abandoned. It was only really relevant for the scenario where a large Blue and White forms a coalition with some small satellites. It makes no sense when Blue and White is one-half of a joint foundation.
With Barak as prime minister, Gantz could be Foreign or Defense Minister — or vice versa. The success or failure of this maneuver doesn’t depend on the person filling the top job. It depends on getting the right-religious bloc down from 65 to 60 or hopefully even 59. This is the overriding goal of Barak’s two-step maneuver, even if his preference for being on top is undeniable.
Whether Barak is genuinely a more threatening rival to Netanyahu than any other challengers is hard to determine. Polls, for what they’re worth, don’t give him any noticeable advantage over Gantz (or Lapid or Peretz or Livni) in a head-to-head matchup. What is undeniable, however, is that he alone scares Netanyahu — or, at least, knocks him off balance in a way no other Israeli politician can. Perhaps, like a duckling’s imprint, Barak’s long-ago status as Netanyahu’s commanding officer retains a lock on the Prime Minister’s psyche. Perhaps the trauma of Barak’s 1999 defeat of Netanyahu (by a decisive 56-44 margin during Israel’s brief experiment with direct elections) still stings. Or perhaps pop psychology cannot and should not be forced to explain a keen and entirely rational political instinct that transcends the nowism of pollsters.
The Lieberman Maneuver
Avigdor Lieberman is the one man who engineered the crisis that dragged Israel into a second election this year. His maneuver comes in two steps, too. The first was deployed to block a coalition deal from emerging in the Knesset just elected in April (even though the right-religious bloc had a clear 65-55 majority). The second is in the time bomb he has set for his patron-cum-rival Netanyahu.
The machinations actually have their start even earlier. It was Lieberman’s resignation as Defense Minister back in November that set the first election in motion. He has only become bolder since then.
At first glance, it might appear that Israel’s entire year-long governing crisis is due to nothing more than the vain posturing of a revenge-seeking opportunist. At second glance, the first glance looks pretty accurate. This is hardly the place to pause and consider the hypocrisy of Lieberman profiting off of Netanyahu’s (alleged) corruption, nor of Lieberman suddenly taking up the banner of the struggle against religious coercion.
What should focus attention is that Lieberman’s coalition demands for the next Knesset are higher than they were in the previous one where he managed to scupper the natural majority coalition. He is no longer just demanding a new draft law, but rather obliquely endeavoring to effect Netanyahu’s removal from office.
Lieberman’s refusal to back Netanyahu as prime minister means that the right-religious bloc doesn’t just need 61 seats; it needs 61 seats without Lieberman’s newly energized Yisrael Beitenu party. In the last, very short Knesset, this bloc had 65, but only 60 without Lieberman. Were this scenario to repeat itself, Netanyahu would not have a majority to form a government. The momentum in his own party would quickly shift against him, rather than take the country to a third election in less than a year.
The outcome would be a center-right government, with Likud sans Netanyahu and Blue and White as its two largest factions and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu giving it the majority (or at least getting it close enough to set the agenda). Blue and White doesn’t object to joining a Likud government, it objects to being in a Netanyahu-led one. And once one brave Likudnik puts his neck out, the dam holding back the flow of defections will burst. The Likud parliamentarians love Bibi, but they won’t sacrifice themselves just to delay his departure by a few months.
As with the center-left scenario engineered by a successful Barak maneuver, a right-center scenario engineered by a successful Lieberman maneuver doesn’t yield an obvious prime minister. The Gantz-Lapid rotation, obviously, won’t be on the table. But depending on the distribution of seats, it could still be Gantz. And it could be Gidon Saar or Gilad Erdan or even someone else from the Likud.
But it would not be a liberal-left government, and it will be an explicitly secular government, free to pursue reforms that have been stymied by the ultra-Orthodox power in the last government. Since periods without the ultra-Orthodox parties in government tend to be few and far between, reforms would have to come quick. Major changes in conscription, civil marriage, public transit on Shabbat, and daylight savings time will either be made in the first year or will have to wait another decade at least.
The Netanyahu Maneuver
There is a third maneuver brewing, and unlike the first two, its success or failure are entirely measurable based on who is serving as prime minister when the dust is settled. Netanyahu’s maneuver also has two steps, but one very clear goal — keeping him out of jail.
It’s useless speculating about whether Netanyahu will eventually be indicted, whether indictments will lead to convictions, and whether convictions will lead to a custodial sentence, as happened with Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert. But the danger to Netanyahu’s freedom is real, and his best chance at avoiding Olmert’s fate is to stay in power no matter what. In office, he can stall, engineer immunity legislation, or failing that, legislation to block court decisions. And if all those fail, he can discreetly offer his resignation in exchange for reducing the charges against him from bribery to breach of trust.
But to do any of those things, Netanyahu must have 61 members of Knesset to not only recommend him to the president as prime minister-designate, but to vote in a government led by him. This means that he doesn’t just need a right-religious bloc of 61 seats, but rather a right-religious bloc that is so large that he has 61 mandates behind him without Lieberman’s party. In the last election he had only 60, one short.
In the last election, two far-right parties failed to cross the 3.25 percent threshold and saw all their votes go to waste. Moshe Feiglin’s libertarian-messianic party Zehut received 2.74 percent of the vote, and the New Right of Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennet received an agonizingly close 3.22 percent. Together, nearly six percent of the vote was erased on what is essentially a technicality. Netanyahu cannot afford to have this happen again.
So the first step of the Netanyahu maneuver is to line up all the various far-right factions in a way to minimize coordination failures of this sort. The irony here is that Netanyahu began the previous election campaign with just such a maneuver, shoehorning the supremacist Otzma Yehudit into a larger settler party, the Jewish Home, and giving them the 28th spot on Likud’s list in exchange. There are three notable aspects to this dirty deal. First, it nearly brought Kahanists back into the parliament from which they had been ejected 30 years ago, leading to damaging coverage in the world about Israel’s racist fringe. Second, the exchange on the 28th spot was unprecedented in its cynicism, even by the most lax Israeli or global standard of parliamentary tricks. And third, it completely failed. It blocked one expected kind of coordination failure while leaving an opening for a much worse one, as far as the right-wing was concerned.
The second step of the Netanyahu maneuver is to take his new majority and save his own skin. Contrary to the ravings of some of his most dedicated detractors, Netanyahu is not a sworn enemy of democracy. He has adhered to norms that predecessors of his ignored and suffered no small measure of public and political abuse from rivals and elites. But the stakes this time are different, and the natural brakes that a cadre of professional advisers or a recent memory of life out of power would provide are long disabled.
Netanyahu tried to create the impression before the last election that he was not considering any immunity legislation. But his behavior immediately after the election revealed that promise as empty. There is no going back now.
Netanyahu does not want to go to jail, and if he has to reconfigure Israel’s basic constitutional norms to avoid prison, so be it. If he has to make a deal on annexation with the settler right, he’ll do it. If he has to scuttle a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to impose US peace terms under an exceptionally accommodating American presidency and an eager alliance of Arab gulf monarchies to stay a free man, it won’t even be a dilemma.
Shany Mor is a former Director for Foreign Policy on the Israeli National Security Council.