Israeli Elections 2019 – Round Two

Between triumph and failure lay only six weeks: On the night of April 9, 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu was celebrating with his followers as the shining winner of the Israeli parliamentary election. Once again, Netanyahu seemed to have made it, despite allegations of corruption and a broad-based opposition campaign against the continuation of the Israeli Prime Minister's right-wing coalition. On May 30, however, Netanyahu had to admit his failure –  he had failed to forge a viable coalition within the six-week deadline. In order to prevent the Israeli president from giving the opposition candidate the task of forming a government, the newly established Israeli parliament (the 21st Knesset) dissolved in a Likud led maneuver just before Netanyahu’s deadline and voted for new elections on September 17, 2019.

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Ballots papers of Israeli legislative election, 2019

Between triumph and failure lay only six weeks: On the night of April 9, 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu was celebrating with his followers as the shining winner of the Israeli parliamentary election. Once again, Netanyahu seemed to have made it, despite allegations of corruption and a broad-based opposition campaign against the continuation of the Israeli Prime Minister's right-wing coalition. On May 30, however, Netanyahu had to admit his failure –  he had failed to forge a viable coalition within the six-week deadline. In order to prevent the Israeli president from giving the opposition candidate the task of forming a government, the newly established Israeli parliament (the 21st Knesset) dissolved in a Likud led maneuver just before Netanyahu’s deadline and voted for new elections on September 17, 2019.

Netanyahu’s Failure

Why did Netanyahu fail? In the election campaign, the Israeli Prime Minister had still publicly denied that he was planning to pass an immunity law that would protect him from the likely corruption charges. But the coalition negotiations showed that Netanyahu was very much concerned with enforcing his personal interests. However, this was only possible in a right-wing coalition, for which Netanyahu needed the consent of all parties of the right and the ultra-Orthodox parties. Netanyahu's political options were limited and made him vulnerable to the political demands of his potential coalition partners. The negotiations ultimately failed due to the refusal of Avigdor Lieberman (founder and leader of the secular-nationalist party Israel Beitenu) to join the coalition. Lieberman had recognized the dynamics in the coalition talks and drew a clear red line –  towards the ultra-orthodox parties. In concrete terms, Liebermann demanded that the new government adopts the compromise he had reached in his time as Minister of Defense for drafting ultra-orthodox Yeshiva students to the IDF, a demand that not all ultra-Orthodox parties agreed to. At the same time, the dispute over the Enlistment Bill symbolizes a more fundamental conflict over the relationship between state and religion. Liebermann used this long-existing conflict line to reinvent himself as the leader against religious coercion. Far-reaching concessions to the ultra-Orthodox parties (for example, with regard to the permission of gender segregation in public spaces) that Netanyahu had allegedly made in the coalition negotiations, helped to strengthen his message. The demand to stop the ultra-Orthodox parties and their influence on public life was not only supported by his followers, who consist mainly of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but also beyond this milieu. Lieberman has gained support from secular Israelis, who want, for example, the possibility of civil marriage or the introduction of public transport on Shabbat. In addition to these substantive reasons, there is also the long competition between Lieberman and Netanyahu. At first, Lieberman and Netanyahu had worked closely together, but their political relationship turned from friendship to bitter rivalry. Claims have been made that Lieberman has also exploited this situation to take political revenge on Netanyahu. Accordingly, Netanyahu foamed over Lieberman's refusal to join his coalition and accused him of personal motives. He embarked on a campaign to brand Lieberman and Israel Beitenu as leftist, and to win over the Russian-speaking voters for the Likud - so far, this attempt has won him only little success. In recent polls, Lieberman has doubled the number of Israel Beitenu mandates from 5 to 10. He now goes into the election campaign with the demand for a national unity government with Kachol-Lavan and Likud and considers Israel Beitenu as kingmaker. However, it is by no means clear whether this calculation will work.

Party Dynamics

Benjamin Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure - the issue of the relationship between state and religion is problematic for the Likud, as he depends on the alliance with religious parties. At the same time, the Israeli Prime Minister fears a revolt in his own house. Lieberman had brought this possibility into play - should Kachol Lavan rule out a government under Netanyahu due to the allegations of corruption and the expected charges, the Likud would have to name another candidate. Yet until now no rival of Netanyahu dared to publicly announce such a possibility. On the contrary, the candidates of Likud publicized a statement of loyalty to Netanyahu – an act, however, that indicates the fear of Netanyahu himself. In any case, the Israeli Prime Minister is eager to win a majority for a right-wing coalition. The right-wing parties have already signaled that they would support grating Netanyahu immunity. Most recently, he closed a deal with Moshe Feiglin's right-wing splinter party Zehut: In return for the prospect of a ministerial office and a deregulation of medical use for marijuana, Zehut withdrew from the race - to avoid the potential loss of voices of the right by a failure to pass the 3,25% threshold. At the same time, the goal is to make the Likud by far the strongest party and thus to bolster the claim to lead the next coalition government. Netanyahu therefore tries to win over votes from the right - for example by calling to extend “Jewish sovereignty” to all settlements in the West Bank.

Otherwise, there is little movement between the blocks. The alliance Kachol Lavan remains the key challenge to Netanyahu and enters the election race with a campaign limited to "Just not Bibi". Political impulses are thus not to be expected. On the Israeli right, the elections made possible the comeback of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. After their newly formed party "The New Right" failed in April at the election booth, Bennett and Shaked have now allied with the parties of the National Religious and formed a new list, Yamina (meaning: Rightwards), led by Ayelet Shaked. On the side of the Israeli left too, the calls for mergers had become loud. Few voices called for a Zionist left - Arab alliance to mark the potential partnership between Jews and Palestinians in Israel. Soon enough it was made clear that this idea will not materialize for various reasons,whereupon the four Arab parties in Israel decided to reunite. In the run-up to the 2015 elections for the 20th Knesset, after the Israeli right had raised the electoral threshold to keep Arab parties out, the four parties joined on a single list to survive. The Joint List ended up winning 13 of 120 Knesset seats – the largest representation of Palestinians in Israel since its foundation. In the elections for the 21st Knesset held in April of this year, internal political disagreements overshadowed the political union, and the Joint List split in two, causing frustration among their constituency - dropping the voting rate among Arabs to 49% in comparison to the 63% of 2015. The Joint List reunited and it remains to be seen if the reunification will indeed raise the voting rate of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Incitement and delegitimization of any potential partnership with the Joint List continues to echo in this elections campaign.

Loud calls for mergers on the left persisted. However, they did not succeed to form an alliance between Avoda and Meretz. The newly elected Labor Party leader Amir Peretz had preferred an alliance with the centrist party Gescher (meaning: bridge) of Orly Levy-Abekasis to a merger with Meretz. The strategy of Peretz was to reach out to Mizrahi voters at the periphery, which had voted in the past elections by a majority for parties of the right, with a left socio-economic agenda. The polls so far, however, indicate that this strategy is not very successful. At the same time, there was resistance within the Labor Party to the alliance with Levy, who had long sat in parliament for Lieberman's party Israel Beitenu. Stav Shaffir, who also competed for the chair of the Labor party, eventually left the party to join forces with Meretz with its new chairman Nitzan Horowitz and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is making a comeback, to form the Democratic Union. This list promotes liberal democracy, a socio-ecological transformation and the two-state settlement. After much initial interest, however, the Democratic Union has so far failed to mobilize broad support. Its base remains limited to secular, middle-class and Ashkenazi voters in the center. Moreover, the Union with Ehud Barak threatens the support of Arab voters, which had pushed Meretz above the electoral threshold in April. These dynamics, the shifts and unions created on both sides following the last elections earlier this year in order to substantially enlarge both blocks respectively, will most likely not grant either the desired result. In fact, in many ways, the situation has remained the same. The two large parties, Likud and Kahol Lavan are leading with the same number of mandates according to the polls, neither one triumphing.  The election campaign, much like the former one, hardly focuses on ideologies, positions, and strategies, but is primarily focused on personalities and the question of possible majorities for forming a government. Yet what is in fact different than the last elections, is the role of Lieberman. In the last elections, Lieberman was an integral part of the right wing and now he is not automatically ascribed to any of the two blocks. Whatever the motivations of Lieberman vis-a-vis the orthodox parties may be, the standing tension between state and religion, as stated above, has far reaching implications on many aspects of Israeli democracy, gender equality being one of them.

Representation of women in the Knesset

The two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, Shas and United Torah Judaism, currently holding 16 seats (out of 120), do not allow women to become candidates and MPs on their behalf.  Over the years in Israeli politics, these parties held substantial power in negotiating their way into the coalition. Already in the April elections campaign for the 21st Knesset, growing pressure on the equal presence of women in the public sphere was felt from the religious oriented parties of the ultra-Orthodox and the national Zionists of the right. Women candidates’ posters of different parties were vandalized on public billboards, followed by instances of controversial state backing of gender segregation processes such as in public funded events and in universities. In addition, new political agendas were announced, posing a threat for a gender backlash and compromise of past feminist achievements such as the struggle against exclusion of women in public spaces. Granting official legitimacy to gender segregation in conservative spaces has proven to enhance this practice in other spaces as well. 

Thirty-five women served in the 20th Knesset and 29 were elected to the 21st, whose record short five months term is coming to its end. Cross checking party lists with recent polls show, that the best scenario for women’s representation in the 22nd Knesset will be 25% - far from their 50% presence in the general population. Yet beyond the head count, the respective positioning is a substantial aspect that should be taken into account when considering representation in politics. From a power relations perspective, one can realise that most of these women will not be appointed to high-ranking positions. The number of women in the first percentile of the lists have halved from the 20th Knesset to the 21st, and the current party map does not predict a different trajectory. The insufficient representation of women in high ranking positions on parliament and government levels correlates with insufficient representation of women in other realms, be it the public or private sectors, and jeopardizes the status of women representatives and that of women at large. For example, today –  should the plan of the new Likud Minister of Justice to appoint his crony as executive director will be approved –  only one woman ministerial executive director will remain out of the 29 government ministries’ executive directors; only 6% of mayors in Israel and 16% members of city councils are women. Additional examples of the lack of representation of women in high ranking positions in Israel can be easily found. One of the justifications for safeguarding proper representation of women is that according to past experience, a large number of women in public bodies fosters new policies and a political culture that further advances women –  thus creating a ripple effect that promotes gender democracy.

The nationalist-religious orientation of the past governments set political and societal perceptions and norms that bear implications for gender equality. But the political conflict and the dominance of security related affairs and discourse in the public sphere adds fuel to the gender equality struggle as well. In a country that is entrenched in violent conflicts and no less in certain paradigms for peace and security, a military career has become a vehicle for political mobilization. Thus, when the Kahol Lavan alliance was formed prior to the first elections of 2019 as the only party that posed a threat to the 10-year rule of Benjamin Netanyahu, three former IDF generals who served as Chief of Staff were placed at the top of the list, setting back the first woman candidate to the seventh place. When criticized for not considering gender parity, the heads of this newly formed liberal-zionist alliance (comprised of three parties: Israel Resilience, Yesh Atid and Telem) explained that this was a result of time pressure in creating the alliance. With new elections coming up, however, the gender disparity was not rectified. 

Gender equality is thus not prioritized in all parties but one (the Democratic Union), as a fundamental value and axis for democratic resilience in the current election campaign, and only sporadic statements and events led by women candidates and feminist organizations are evident.  

The Role of Environment in the Campaign

Events on environmental issues are also evident in the campaign, but hardly as a pressing need that demands the attention and action of decision makers, nor as a decisive factor for voters. Climate and environment remains low on the list of issues that concern Israeli voters going to the polls for the upcoming do-over election on September 17th. While social, economic and security issues are high on the list, including affordable housing, public transportation, and cost of living, most Israelis do not understand the close inter-connections of these issues with climate and sustainability policy.

Indeed, when discussing climate, many decision makers like to note that Israel is a tiny country whose carbon footprint has a marginal impact on global emission levels. But what most of the Israeli public doesn’t realize, is that Israel is more vulnerable, not more immune to the impacts of climate change. A recent article published by the Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Changes research group shows that the warming process in the Mediterranean basin is 1.5 times more rapid. Indeed, according to sources, Israel joins the 49 countries who have reported rising temperatures from 2015-2019. Add to that increased desertification, population growth and overcrowding along with regional impacts like food production, water distress, and climate refugees, and it’s hard to understand the continued apathy of most politicians in Israel. But out of the nine parties who are most likely to cross the threshold and make it into the Knesset on September 17th, two parties have recently stepped up to the plate in promoting environmental issues as part of their party platforms. Kahol Lavan (Blue and White party) recently held a well-attended election rally that focused on environmental issues. Party leader Beni Gantz recruited Mikki Haimovitz before the last elections in April and she is now a member of Knesset. Haimovitz, a former television journalist and environmental activist who brought “Meatless Mondays” to Israel,has made sustainability her ticket and is bolstered by Prof. Alon Tal, Head of the Public Policy track at Tel Aviv University and veteran environmental champion having founded some of Israel’s leading environmental organizations over the years. The speakers at the rally focused on some of the leading environmental challenges here – energy, waste management, plastic, food waste and more and party leader Gantz declared at the rally that this is an important issue for the party.

The Democratic Union, a recent merger of three progressive parties – Meretz, Democratic Israel and the Green Movement launched their platform for a green economy or the Israeli version of the Green New Deal during the last week of August. Although this has been part of the German discourse for the last decade, the idea of a political party promoting an integrated policy platform that combines environmental, social and economic factors in the areas of clean energy, urban planning, transportation, green taxes and changing consumer behaviour is new and refreshing in the Israeli political landscape. Championing this model is former HBS project partner Yael Cohen Paran, founder and former director of the Israel Energy Forum, former MK and number eight on the Democratic Union list. Her re-entrance into the Knesset is uncertain as surveys have them polling in at just seven Knesset seats, but the Green New Deal platform is being embraced by the new head of the Green Movement, Stav Shafir and the other party heads in the merger Ehud Barak (Democratic Israel) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz).

Although the environmental movement in Israel has been promoting this integrated approach to environmental policy for years, both the public and decision makers alike face a steep learning curve to internalize and implement needed policies to fight the many challenges facing Israeli society. The lack of alternatives and substantive debates is accompanied by a lack of interest in the Israeli public, and no major issue seems to be motivating voter . At present, a stalemate between the two camps seems most likely, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do everything in his power to ensure the continuation of his reign. If he succeeds in doing so, there is a threat of a further dismantling of democratic institutions, the consolidation of ethno-nationalist discourse and an intensification of annexation politics. Although the opposition Kachol Lavan offers no progressive alternative, it would at least end the erosion of the rule of law. Election day is approaching, and should the current prediction of the polls in fact materialize, forming a coalition of at least 61 MKs will be challenging to whomever receives the mandate from the President to do so. Rivlin had already announced that he will do anything in his power to prevent a third election - thus leaving the unprecedented repeat elections of 2019 as such, unprecedented.