Netanyahu waves wand, but election stalemate still in place

  • bibi wins
Israel has two options, either incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is able to form a coalition government, or the country heads to an unprecedented fourth election.
by PAULA SLIER | Mar 05, 2020

Already, three elections in just more than 11 months has left Israelis feeling fatigued and more than a little disillusioned. After casting his vote on Monday, President Reuven Rivlin admitted that he didn’t feel like celebrating what should be a festive event.

“I have only a sense of deep shame when I face you, my fellow citizens,” he said. “We just don’t deserve this. We don’t deserve another awful and grubby election campaign like the one that ends today, and we don’t deserve this never-ending instability. We deserve a government that works for us.”

Netanyahu began campaigning from a substantially inferior position. Facing court cases, opinion polls showed that most of the public blamed him for the country being dragged into another round of elections.

But the magician, as he’s known in some quarters, used this to his advantage, arguing that only a vote for him would end the circus. As his campaign repeatedly pointed out, he’s the one with the experience and international contacts.

The message worked on the so-called “stability voters” who had been hedging their bets with his main rival, former army chief Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party. While they might not be Netanyahu supporters per se, they loathed the idea of another election more than they loathed the idea of Netanyahu again in the top seat, and so they took the tried and tested path of voting for him.

Most of the prime minister’s Likud campaign focused on its support base who didn’t all turn out during the last election in September. Netanyahu wasn’t necessarily trying to convince new voters, he just needed his “golden” base to respond. On election day, he wrote an “emergency message” on his Twitter account warning of a low turnout in key Likud strongholds. This also worked its magic.

The turnout was the highest it’s been in 21 years. In September, it was 69.4% and in the April vote, 67.9%. As of Wednesday morning, with 99% of the votes counted, it stood at 71%.

Another reason for the high turnout was that Israelis who usually take advantage of election day to fly abroad for a long weekend didn’t do so because of fears of coronavirus. Although they comprise only several thousand people, they were on hand to vote this past Monday.

Fifteen Israelis are confirmed to be infected so far, and more than 5 600 are in quarantine at home. The latter voted at about 16 stations specially set up for them.

A major achievement, again this time around, was among the Arab parties. Arab voters turned out in huge numbers in what, for the past three elections at least, has been seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership. They won the third largest number of seats, attracting thousands of left-wing Jewish voters who, disillusioned with the more traditional left-wing Jewish Zionist parties like Meretz, gave them their vote.

For those of us observing events, there are now two things to focus on. The corruption trial that Netanyahu will face in the next two weeks, and his attempts to form a government. Had he won 60 seats, it would have been probable for him to get another one seat to make a majority 61 parliament.

But the tally at the time of writing put him at 58 seats which, unless there are defections from the centre-left, leaves the country in pretty much the same situation it’s been in for the past year.

I was at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, and the sense of euphoria seems a little misplaced – or at least premature. Yes, Netanyahu did better than the polls predicted, but he still falls far short of a Knesset (parliamentary) majority.

As for his corruption charges, the High Court of Justice now needs to decide on a petition that was filed seeking legal advisers to the government to submit an opinion on whether or not Netanyahu should be allowed to lead a government under indictments for corruption, fraud, and breach of trust.

Whereas Netanyahu once said that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert needed to step down while he faced charges of his own while in office, Netanyahu intends to fight to the end to prove his innocence and not give up his seat in Balfour Street. One wonders how he’ll govern the country while sitting in court during the day. Will it become a night-time job?

The only thing that’s changed between this election and the last one in September is that in the interim, Netanyahu was indicted and American President Donald Trump unveiled his vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Both didn’t have as much of an impact as Netanyahu would have hoped in attracting voters to his camp. First, many are critical of the deal, saying that far from being a deal, it unilaterally commits the Palestinians to the Israeli version of peace, something the Palestinians themselves have vowed they’ll never accept.

Second, the prime minister has been playing hardball, vowing to annex Jewish settlements and a large corridor of land known as the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. While endearing him to his supporters, it has only further enraged Palestinians and alarmed many in the international community.

We should have a better picture this time next week if, assuming Rivlin tasks Netanyahu with forming the next government, the prime minister is able to do so. Without defections or some major surprises, his hands will be tied and the country will presumably be in much the same state it’s been in for the past 11 months.


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