On September 17, 2019, Israelis went to the polls to vote in the second national election in the last 5 months. The narrative, at least leading up to the recent vote, was that the election was a redo of the April vote when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most seats, but could not form a government. The election has led to deadlock, as Israeli parties position to negotiate about the future political leadership of the country. To discuss the recent election in Israel and the negotiations that have followed, the Foreign Policy Research Institute convened an online discussion, led by Dr. Aaron Stein, along with Dr. Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, and Ms. Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud a special assistant at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Aaron Stein: As always, Israeli politics were not boring, and the election yielded some interesting results. I realize things are fluid and much remains in flux, but I think it is worth starting with a basic question: What now? Who are the main players, and how might they maneuver now that the votes have been counted?
MichaelKoplow: In light of the deadlock between the two ostensible blocs, we are at the start of a six-week marathon to figure out who will form a government. The first battle is over recommendations to President Reuven Rivlin, who will meet with all of the parties that made the Knesset and solicit their first choice for prime minister, and based on those conversations assign the first shot at forming a government to either Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz. Netanyahu’s priority here is to prevent Avigdor Lieberman from recommending Gantz to Rivlin, while Gantz’s priority is to get the Joint List to recommend him along with either Lieberman or the Haredi parties. Getting the first opportunity to form a government is no guarantee of success, as Netanyahu learned the hard way just a few months ago, but it is the first step.
YaelMizrahi-Arnaud: I would just add that while both Netanyahu and Gantz want to be tasked with forming a government, the one who goes first may have a more difficult job. The Haredi parties know that their power, which combined comes to 17 seats, is invaluable. If they don’t get the ministerial positions and budget promises they want, then they can always try their luck with the one who comes next, who would be more willing to make concessions in order to prevent a deadlock. This is the logic that led Gantz to say he prefers Netanyahu be tasked with the first shot at forming a coalition.
Stein: Can we drill down on Haredi parties? Who should we be watching and what might they demand of Netanyahu or Gantz?
Mizrahi-Arnaud: From my point of view, the existential threats facing the Haredi parties is this election’s most overlooked development. The ultra-orthodox parties, including Shas, the religious Mizrahi party headed by Aryeh Deri, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), a union of a Haredi party and a Lithuanian Hassidic party, are in a tough spot with limited options. Two of the parties who came out strongest this round—Blue and White and Israel Our Home—have made a secular unity government a fundamental campaign promise. Both Lieberman, head of Israel Our Home, and Yair Lapid, number two on the Blue and White list, have taken a hard stance against the Haredi parties. Both out of principle, and a desire to gain political capital by standing up to Netanyahu. (Lieberman vowed not to join the coalition if he wasn’t assured his yeshiva students conscription law, which led us to this second round of elections). Shas would be satisfied with being part of a unity government—they have a history of sitting in center-left governments, and even compromising on their religious agenda, if it means being able to keep the flow of government funding to their schools and charities. As for UTJ, they will probably be relegated to the opposition, considering that they tend to take a harder line when it comes to cooperating with secular parties.
Koplow: The Haredi parties’ overriding concern is to be in government, since being left out risks the subsidies and military exemptions that are their biggest priority. Aside from funding issues, they will demand concessions on any potential Haredi draft law before throwing their support to either Netanyahu or Gantz. But they also have some self-imposed limitations based on some political decisions they have taken in the past few years. This election took place because of the dispute between the Haredim and Lieberman, and they have portrayed him as an existential threat to their interests and place in society, making it difficult for them to sit in any coalition with him. For even longer, they have described Blue and White co-chief Yair Lapid in similar terms. If they cannot come to an agreement with either of those that everyone can live with, it severely limits their options.
In addition, the Haredim ran a campaign that tied them so closely to Netanyahu that they literally put pictures of him on their ads with a pledge that a vote for them is a vote for Netanyahu to remain prime minister. There are no ironclad promises in Israeli politics, so nothing they have done or said is binding—but it will be difficult for them to easily back away on this one, particularly since they conditioned their voters to think of their parties as effectively Netanyahu proxies.
Stein: That all makes sense. I’m seeing a lot on Twitter and various social media platforms that this may be Lieberman’s time, and, through his positioning, he now is the king-maker in Israeli politics. What do you two think? Is this his moment, and if so, what does he want?
Mizrahi-Arnaud: I think it’s important to remember that Lieberman is all about Lieberman. His only self-interest is about gaining power. He was able to recruit new voters this round—from 5 seats in April to 8 this round by standing up to Netanyahu and by running on a platform that vilified the Haredim and their religious stranglehold over civic affairs. Right now, it’s hard to predict what his next move will be. If he decides to recommend Gantz to form a coalition, that will mark a huge turning point, proving that he has finally switched sides out of the Netanyahu camp—a position he has held for the last 20 years. And yet, since Lieberman has his sights on the premiership, he may well switch back to the right, where he would be well-positioned to lead Likud following Netanyahu’s departure.
Koplow: This is definitely Lieberman’s moment, and what he says he wants and what he actually wants may be different. He says that his only interest is in having a national unity government made up of Likud and Blue and White and that he is even ok with it not including him, so long as it does not include the Haredi parties and is a secular government. There’s no question that Lieberman wants to limit Haredi power and break the Orthodox monopoly over many Israeli state institutions, but he is also looking to increase his own influence and ensure that his political future remains viable. Reports are that he is seeking the Finance Ministry, which would position him to cut the subsidies given to Haredim, and he clearly understands that becoming the unabashed champion of secular Israelis will give him staying power, as he leads a party that has traditionally catered to Russian voters only and that path has a shelf life that may have already arrived. His strategic shift worked in this election, and he is now going to build on it.
In the longer term, Lieberman has always dreamed of being prime minister. It may be that he sees this current path as the avenue to achieving that, or it may be that he is more cynical and will cut a deal with Netanyahu where he supports the right-wing bloc in return for a prime ministerial rotation. It would be a crazy outcome, but nothing can be ruled out in Israeli politics.
Stein: Finally, we should talk about Donald Trump. More specifically, the “deal of the century” and his options. What role, if any, will the U.S. have on these talks? And what should we make of the “deal,” given the election in Israel, and the impending election in the United States?
Koplow: Trump’s immediate reaction to the vote was to tell reporters that he has not spoken with Netanyahu, and to then add “our relations are with Israel.” Trump does not have loyalty to anyone, but likes to be associated with people who are winners in his view. He went all-out for Netanyahu before the April election, tweeting his support, posting pictures of billboards in Israel featuring him and Netanyahu, sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Israel the week before the election, and most prominently recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in the campaign’s closing days. Bibi was unable to form a government, and during this campaign, Trump was more circumspect in his overt support, notably not backing Netanyahu’s announcement about the Jordan Valley annexation. Now that Trump is reading headlines about Netanyahu’s failure in this round, it won’t be surprising to see Trump distance himself a bit from Netanyahu and try to disentangle himself from Netanyahu.
I think if Trump wants to weigh in and impact coalition negotiations, then he can put his thumb on the scale for Bibi by emphasizing that he is willing to give a greenlight to anything Netanyahu wants to do in the West Bank. The question is whether he is still willing to go to the mat for Bibi, and I suspect that his calculus has changed from where it was before the election. Trump’s interest in a “deal of the century” is tied to his own political fortunes, and the more chaos there is in Israel’s political system, bleeding into the U.S. presidential election season, the less chance there is that unveiling any deal will be beneficial to Trump.
Mizrahi-Arnaud: Jason Greenblatt, one of the architects of the “deal of the century,” who had also just recently announced his resignation, met with Netanyahu and Gantz over the weekend. The timing of both his resignation and this meeting are telling. That he resigned just as the plan was alleged to be released does not inspire confidence. The White House referred to it as an “intelligence gathering” mission, and the administration is testing the water with Gantz, who may end up as Israel’s future prime minister. But as Michael mentioned, the closer we get to November 2020, the less likely it looks the plan will see the light of day.
It’s also clear that the Trump administration would have preferred Netanyahu secure a significant victory. Had that happened, it is plausible to imagine Netanyahu using the prospects of an historic agreement to call for unity, assuaging the parties to form a national unity government. The contents of the plan still remain under wraps, and the likelihood they would lead to peace are slim, as the Palestinians will likely reject it.