Hours after the polls closed in elections last April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory, confident that his Likud party and “natural allies” on the right and among the ultra-Orthodox had won a majority. When the final count was confirmed, his reelection indeed seemed assured: Those natural allies had won 65 seats in the Knesset.
Except that, out of the blue, one of those allies, Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party, decided not to join a Netanyahu-led coalition, determining that the prime minister had become a serial surrenderer to ultra-Orthodox coercion and that he, Liberman, was going to stop the rot. Only if draft legislation ostensibly intended to raise the proportion of young ultra-Orthodox males serving in the army were passed in its current form, he said, would he again partner with his longtime ally.
Netanyahu tried to broker a solution, failed, and dissolved the Knesset rather than let his main rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, get a shot at mustering a majority of his own. And thus Liberman — on the basis of a draft law that would not, in fact, make any significant difference to ultra-Orthodox conscription levels — condemned the Israeli public to a repeat election.
In September’s vote, Netanyahu and his “natural allies,” this time without Liberman, managed only 55 seats between them. Again, Liberman could have given Netanyahu a majority, since his Yisrael Beytenu gained ground, winning eight seats. By the same token, Liberman could have given the Gantz-led opposing forces a majority. But Liberman was evidently enjoying his kingmaker role, and chose to do neither.
He insisted that he would join only a unity government that included both Likud and Blue and White, and that excluded both messianists (i.e., certain right-wingers and the ultra-Orthodox parties) and the Joint List of mainly Arab parties, whom he repeatedly castigated as terror-supporting fifth columnists. Since Gantz’s diverse Blue and White party was united only in the goal of ousting Netanyahu, and since Netanyahu wasn’t going anywhere, no such government could be formed.
The indefatigable President Reuven Rivlin, mourning the protracted political paralysis, implored Netanyahu and Gantz to negotiate terms for a “paritetic” coalition under which the prime ministership would rotate between them. But Gantz feared that if he allowed Netanyahu to serve first as prime minister, Netanyahu would breach any agreement to hand over power, and that there was no legal mechanism to enforce it. And Netanyahu refused to let Gantz serve first.
And thus, after weeks in which first Netanyahu and then Gantz tried in vain to remake the laws of (political) mathematics, Liberman’s insistence on playing kingmaker but refusing to crown a monarch forced Israel down the dismal route to yet a third election in less than a year.
The March 2 three-peat saw interesting political shifts. Among them, Likud overtook Blue and White to regain its status as Israel’s largest political party, and the Joint List rose to a record high of 15 seats.
But the most interesting and significant shift, coalition-wise, came from Liberman. After torturing the electorate for a year, he came off the fence Sunday and set terms for joining a government that Gantz immediately accepted and that he knows Netanyahu never will. On Monday, he met with Gantz and they agreed to work to build a coalition.
“We’ve just concluded a good meeting, where we discussed questions of fundamental principle and determined that we will work together to assemble a government that will pull Israel out of the political deadlock and avert a fourth round of elections,” Gantz declared on Monday afternoon, with Liberman standing alongside him. “We’ll continue to discuss the details, formulate our common objectives, and move forward.”
Liberman, for his part, opined that a fourth election would be “the worst of all possible scenarios” and vowed to prevent such a catastrophe… just as he vowed a few months ago, incidentally, to prevent third elections.
The same unbending political arithmetic that applied after September’s election still means that a Gantz-led coalition without the Netanyahu-led Likud would require the support in some shape or form of almost all of the Joint List. But as of this writing, it is far from clear that all or part of the Joint List will recommend Gantz as prime minister when its representatives meet with the president next week. It is not clear whether all 33 members of Gantz’s Blue and White party would support a coalition that depends on the Joint List for a majority. And it is not yet definitely clear whether Liberman, when push comes to shove, will (first) recommend Gantz as prime minister and (second) back a coalition that relies on the Joint List.
But two things are clear. First, that Avigdor Liberman owes the Israeli electorate some powerful clarifications and/or apologies. He could have spared us political deadlock since April by crowning Netanyahu. He could have spared us political deadlock in September by crowning either Netanyahu or Gantz. And if he does opt to crown Gantz now, he’ll need to come up with a better explanation than his reported comments to colleagues in recent days to the effect that there is “no chance” he will partner with Netanyahu because he blames the prime minister for a series of legal complaints filed anonymously against him and his family. If that was his reason, after all, then it would have applied equally in September.
And second, that the Israeli electorate deserves better from its leaders. Like the rest of the world, Israel is now grappling with a health crisis whose implications are still far from fully understood. We do not lack responsible professionals in key positions of authority. But we do lack a fully functioning government and a fully functioning parliament.
We have a prime minister whose trial for corruption is due to start in a week, and who had no compunction on Saturday night about using the same “emergency meeting” to warn us both of the dangers of the coronavirus and of his rivals’ efforts to remove him from power by partnering with the Joint List. We have a would-be prime minister who promised days ago not to build a coalition relying on the Joint List, but is now attempting to do just that. And we have a kingmaker who seems to be capriciously toying with all of us.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspects of last week’s election, then, are that Liberman actually has two more seats today than he did when he ushered in this electoral nightmare. And that turnout for this third installment of torment at the polling station actually went up — from 68.4% in April, via 69.8% in September, to 71.5% on March 2.
Politicians, please do not misinterpret this statistic; we are not enjoying this. It is no way to run a country.
I’m tempted to write: A plague on all your houses. But perhaps now is not the time for that…