What Israelis call “The Forever Election” continues this week, but don’t expect final results for weeks, even months.
It’s only appropriate to ask, as Israelis voted this week – on the eve of Passover – in national elections for the fourth time in two years, why is this election different from the previous three?
One answer is that this is the first time any Israeli election is being held while the sitting prime minister is on trial – in this case for three charges of bribery, breach of trust, and fraud. And that fact is splitting the electorate in two, between those loyal to their dominant, longtime leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, and those who see his reelection as a threat to Israeli democracy.
In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned under pressure when he was being investigated for corruption. But there is no law that insists on a prime minister stepping down, even while on trial. And Netanyahu is highly motivated to stay in office because he could go to jail if he is convicted and out of government. He is extracting pledges from his coalition partners to pass legislation that would give him immunity as long as he is prime minister.
While this contest may well result in the Israel’s most divisive and dysfunctional coalition ever, few American Jews seem to be paying attention to what appears to be a major crisis in the making.
It’s not hard to understand the lack of interest on our part. For starters, we’ve grown numb to what some call Israel’s “forever election,” the drawn out and largely inconclusive contests of the last two years. In each, Netanyahu has been on the political ropes before he somehow managed to eke out a government. But one too narrow to pass a national budget.
American Jews, still recovering from their own political trauma and focused on getting vaccinated, don’t view Israel as being in crisis. On the contrary, most see a Jewish State that leads the world in vaccinating its citizens and has experienced a breakthrough year on the peace front with the Abraham Accords, reached in August 2020.
Why is it then that Mideast experts from differing political perspectives are warning that the upcoming election could mark the end of Israel as a democratic state, and lead to an even deeper divide with the diaspora?
Yossi Klein Halevi, the American-born Israeli author and journalist whose writings on the Mideast conflict over the years have won major awards, told me, “If Bibi [Netanyahu] wins, we’ll have a coalition of the anti-StartUp nation, a failing state.” He said he fears young Israelis will see their country as “uninhabitable” and leave.
Unlike previous Israeli elections that focused on left vs. right views on the Palestinian conflict, Iran, the settlements, the economy, and military service for Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), this one is not about ideology, Klein Halevi explained. It’s between two halves of the political right – the largely secular right vs. the largely Haredi right. But it’s about one issue – rather, one person: Netanyahu.
With strong parallels to American politics today, Israelis are deeply divided and caught in up in a psychodrama over their leader who, already the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history, is seeking to extend his 12 consecutive years in office.
Even Netanyahu’s biggest critics credit him with unmatched political savvy and success in protecting Israel from its outside enemies. Even the prime minister’s most loyal defenders acknowledge his own lack of loyalty to political colleagues and his single-minded efforts to cling to power.
“There are two Israels today,” Klein Halevi suggested. “One leads the world in a positive way,” in the race for vaccinations, “and one in a negative way,” with one of the world’s highest COVID-19 infection rates, which he attributes to the large numbers of Haredim who defy health and safety protocols.
Klein Halevi, and many others, blame Netanyahu for giving the Haredim a pass because he needs their support in his reelection bid. Two Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have joined Netanyahu’s Likud in a coalition which also seeks backing from the highly controversial religious party, Otzma Yehudit, widely described as anti-Arab and Kahanist.
If such a coalition would come to power, said Klein Halevi, “We would be on our way to becoming a pariah state in the eyes of the world. It would be a moral and practical nightmare.”
The longstanding secular- Haredi divide in Israel has come to a boiling point in the year of COVID. Open and often violent defiance of the anti-pandemic rules of masks and social distancing by many Haredim have underscored that, according to Klein Halevi, “they [the Haredim] have become a state within a state,” acting in their own interest – primarily by taking part in large gatherings for prayer, weddings and funerals – at the expense of the well-being of others. And Netanyahu is blamed for looking the other way.
The prime minister’s political opponents are likely to gain more seats than the required 61 (of the 120-seat Knesset) to form a majority government.
But ranging from the far-left Meretz party to the far-right New Hope (led by Gideon Sa’ar), they are unlikely to be able to function as – or even form – a coalition. The only common denominator they have is a fervent desire to dethrone Netanyahu, who leads the Likud.
Michael Koplow, the Israel Policy Forum’s policy director, based in Washington, D.C., says the election’s tipping point – or person – could be Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, a right-wing advocate for annexing the West Bank. Unlike other Netanyahu critics in the race, he has not stated that he would refuse to join a Likud-led coalition.
Contributing to the mood of a polarized nation dealing with a dysfunctional political system is the fact that final results of the election may not be known for weeks, or even months, as the parties scramble to form a majority coalition.
Koplow pointed out that this may not be the last Israeli national election this year. That’s because Netanyahu and Benny Gantz made a power-sharing deal last year that would have Gantz become prime minister in November 2021. Few, including Gantz, believe Netanyahu would make good on his pledge.
But it represents “a ticking clock for Bibi, who will try to do anything to form a new government” to continue his immunity, said Koplow. That could lead to yet another trip to the polls.
And so it goes, with the prospect of “the forever election” continuing, and many American Jews becoming increasingly disenfranchised from the goings on in Jerusalem.
Gary Rosenblatt was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.