May the best Benjamin win

  • ZvikaOpEd
This coming Tuesday, Israel is heading to the polls for its second election in six months. Here is my abbreviated manual on what to focus on on election night.
by Zvika (Biko) Arran | Sep 12, 2019

This election – once again – is being fought on only one topic. Some might think it would be Iran’s nuclear programme and its dangerous allies. Or issues pertaining to the Palestinians and the Jewish majority in Israel. Perhaps the huge budget deficit, or collapsing health system. What about the relationship with world Jewry? The freedom and strength of the press, law enforcement authorities, and civil society, or traffic jams and transportation infrastructure?

No. None of these. These are hardly discussed, or are only the scene setters for the real and only issue of these elections: Bibi.

Benjamin Netanyahu is already the longest-serving Israeli prime minster in office. He has been in office for longer than David Ben-Gurion, the father of the nation.

This election is almost literally Bibi’s life battle. Losing this vote means losing power. It also probably means he is headed for a long legal battle, perhaps even jail. It will jeopardise his legacy in Jewish history.

After 10 years in his second period in office, Bibi is facing serious allegations of a breach of trust, even bribery. A few days after the elections, his final hearing before the attorney general will be held. Thereafter, formal charges are around the corner.

Some cases against him have not yet been investigated as they question his integrity. One such case is over approval to sell an advanced German-made submarine to the Egyptians.

In truth, this isn’t yet a legal question, but a moral one. Under Israeli law, Bibi can continue as prime minister throughout the trial and until there is a final court ruling against him.

Everything he does is to ensure he is able to stay in power, including his “divide and rule” policy. This refers to his incitement against Arabs, the left, the police, prosecutors, and the court.

According to Bibi, of course, anything that threatens him is a witch-hunt due to the left elite’s power struggle with him, and government officials trying to take over from him because of their personal agendas and hateful feelings towards him and family.

So, it’s Bibi versus the others (including some “friends” in his party and other parties in his right-haredi block).

On Tuesday at 21:00 (South African time), the polling stations will be closed, and at least three predictions will be broadcast by Israeli TV channels. A few hours later, the real results will begin to be published by the Central Elections Committee, with the following possible developments affecting your night’s sleep.

The too-close-to-call scenario: stay awake until midnight (South African time) (High probability.)

During the April elections, pollsters were deliberately misled, and got the polls wrong. Likud supporters have since admitted to lying in exit polls. This time, everyone is going to be more careful in predicting the outcome too early. You can trust the exit polls around 01:00 Israel time because this time, the prediction will be more accurate.

The 61 block scenario: you can go to sleep. (Low probability.)

If the Likud and Haredi parties (Shas and Degel Ha’Torah) with Yamina (Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, and the religious Zionists) get a block of 61 (a majority of Knesset), that’s it. Netanyahu has his fifth government, and you can go to sleep. The election show on TV will go on, but the game is over. If Netanyahu needs neither Avigdor Lieberman nor other external parties (Labour/Blue and White), he’s definitely going to be Israel’s 35th government’s prime minister.

Obscurity scenarios: you can also go to sleep. (High probability.)

In any other realistic case, you can go to sleep as well. We won’t know for at least a few days who’s going to form the government. It could even be dragged on until after the chaggim (holidays). What will happen is that new mega campaign will start – of public relations experts, media announcements, messengers, and a whole lot of intrigue. It depends on the final numbers of seats allocated to whom, but anything can happen. Even if someone declares victory, you can relax and go to sleep. It’s only part of public relations, and not because they won.

If you want to know on which side you should sleep – on the left, right, centre, or on your back, the following factors might give you an idea:

Lieberman (Israel Beytenu) is the joker. After being a partner to the Haredi sector for years and part of the right-wing block, he now puts himself forward as the deciding factor. He thwarted a new Netanyahu government, and led us to these elections. Now, he’s fighting for a unity secular government. But he can easily change his mind. With just 10 seats in Knesset, he becomes the kingmaker or even the king himself (in rotation with Likud).

Then, we look at the gap in the number of seats between Likud and Blue and White. If Likud has, for example, five fewer seats than Blue and White, then his party will start backstabbing Bibi for his poor results. If the gap is in favour of Likud, Bibi will get support.

If the results aren’t impressive enough for Likud and Bibi himself, or if the only way to form a government is to have a Likud without Bibi, we’ll start to hear a new tune about a post-Bibi era. Leading Likud figures like Yuli Edelstein, Gideon Sa’ar, Israel Katz, and others might then smell blood, and begin a campaign to replace the leader. This might even start on election night. Either way, you can still go to sleep.

Then, you need to consider the combination of parties. Nine to 10 combination parties (parties that have joined together to strengthen themselves in the elections) will be elected to the next Israeli parliament. There are, in fact, 22 different political parties that can split after the elections. This fragmentation can change the whole political outcome. Keep your ears open to the unity of the combination parties – but after a good night’s sleep.

There could also be some surprises like Labour (Ha’avoda) – the founding party of our state – not passing the threshold into Knesset. And Otzma Yehudit – Meir Kahane’s racist successor – might pass the threshold. These moves will bring huge media and political intrigue, but will have a minimal impact on the overall numbers and scenarios above.

The Joint List (Arab parties) might amaze us all with record Arab Israeli participation in the election. It had 13 seats in the last Knesset, and can potentially gain up to 19 seats if up to 62% (the amount of Jewish votes) of Arab Israelis vote. These votes can influence the final outcome.

Many other factors can be game-changers during and after the elections. The security environment (attacks in Syria or missiles on the south) might swing the atmosphere in Israel to support a unity government. Chaos on election day, fraud accusations, and close results can put Israeli democracy in the path of a long and painful dispute and legal procedures. Israel is unpredictable and unprecedented. That’s the way we like it. After a long nap.

So which Benjamin will rule? Benjamin Netanyahu of the long-lasting Likud ruling party, or Benjamin (Benny) Gantz of the Blue and White party? Or someone else from Likud?

As already mentioned, you can sleep peacefully on election night. Israel will need lots of patience, maturity, and resilience to overcome one of its most challenging political eras.

  • Zvika “Biko” Arran is an Israeli social entrepreneur, lawyer, policy advisor, and ex-journalist. He recently moved to Johannesburg with his wife, Liat, and four sons. Liat is the director of the Israel Centre.


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