A New Election, a new Balagan (a big mess)

The American domestic news cycle is like a sack of cats: a raucous, undulating, unformed ball of noise and chaos. So it is possible, even likely, that you may not be tuned into the current state of affairs in Israel. Which is too bad, because the current political situation in the Holy Land is very high drama. Things are as dramatic and implausible as I can ever remember. It’s part West Wing, part Game of Thrones and part House of Cards. I’m not kidding.

To review, Netanyahu’s Likud party won 35 Knesset seats on April 9, a total that was tied with the centrist Blue and White alliance led by Benny Gantz. President Reuven Rivlin is required to invite someone to form a new majority in the Knesset. He asked Netanyahu to attempt to form a government because he had the much clearer path to victory, with right-wing parties controlling 65 seats. (Only 61 are needed for a majority.) Some horse-trading would certainly be required, but it was widely assumed that the right-wingers would fall in line.

The parties that are lumped in as “right” or “far-right” in media coverage (particularly international coverage) include religious West Bank settlers, secular West Bank settlers, Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, centrist neo-liberals, pot-smoking ultra-Zionist libertarians, and outright terrorists. Many of the disagreements between these parties have little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian issues that much international coverage of Israel tends to focus on. To expect consensus from this mixed collection of smaller parties was a fool’s errand.How would Bibi reach the magic number of 61? By bringing in a wildly unpredictable player, a secular Russian named Avigdor Lieberman, whose party, Yisrael Beiteinu, is very right-wing and hawkish.

Lieberman had been a cabinet minister for Bibi over the years but quit after ongoing feuds with the prime minister and his supporters. Despite the feuds and egos and who can out-macho whom, Bibi hoped that he would get Yisrael Beiteinu’s 5 seats to help constitute his ruling coalition.But – and here’s the drama – Lieberman said no. And Bibi suddenly felt the rug getting pulled from under his feet. Why did Lieberman essentially scuttle Bibi’s next term? There are a few theories.

  1. Lieberman is staunchly secular, and regularly derides the ultra-Orthodox ( when he’s not using their support…), for attempting to make Jewish Law the sole criterion for all that happens in Israel. Most controversially, while military service is mandatory for all 18-year-old Jewish Israelis, students in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are exempt. Lieberman refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition unless the prime minister committed to passing Leiberman’s bill, without amendment, that would conscript more men and impose penalties on yeshivas that don’t comply. Without the ultra-Orthodox, Bibi cannot constitute a majority for his coalition. So he completely kowtows to them and their extremism.
  2. Lieberman just plain doesn’t like Bibi. He saw a chance to stab Bibi in the gut between the armor plates and shatter the prime minister’s future plans to rule [GOT reference…].
  3. Lieberman is the most inscrutable of Israeli politicians, and there are as many conspiracy theories for the “real” reason he shafted Netanyahu as there are pundits. But just based on the raw political data, it would seem that he is trying to stake out new electoral ground in what he believes is the twilight of Netanyahu’s career.

Leiberman’s refusal to join a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox as long as they refuse to serve in the IDF and Bibi’s potentially severe legal troubles – he is facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three corruption cases -weakened his leverage in coalition negotiations. When the prime minister failed to form a coalition, Knesset members, decided by a vote of 74 to 45 to dissolve the body just a month after being sworn in, making it the shortest-lived parliament in Israel’s history. The proposed date for new elections is Sept. 17.

Yes – you read it correctly. After a grueling, divisive election a month ago, they’re going to do it again. Which means that Israel will see deeper lines drawn between the parties of the Right, desperate centrists playing for time and power, ultra-Orthodox demonstrations against Army service, Lieberman taking swipes at Bibi as Bibi swings wildly, looking for 61 votes, praying he can constitute a coalition in time to pass a law that would grant him immunity from prosecution.

I would suggest a look at two Israeli news sources: www.Haaretz.com and www.timesofisrael.com. The former tends to lean Left, the latter tends to be relatively centrist. Not only is it an exciting story, but it is also essential for the Jews of America to follow this story, too. We may not be voters in Israel, but we are surely stakeholders.

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