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The endgame for Netanyahu?

Most of the Middle-east is sitting on a ticking time bomb called Jerusalem, the unique place which is considered secret to the three major Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Atanu Biswas | Kolkata |

How tiring can three Lok Sabha elections be within the span of 11 months? Yes, politically and socially, Israel is experiencing such a stalemate condition which they might vow to break in the legislative elections for the 23rd Knesset today (Monday). Most of the Middle-east is sitting on a ticking time bomb called Jerusalem, the unique place which is considered secret to the three major Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Specially, the conflict between the Jewish and Arabs regarding Jerusalem is a millennium- old baggage that Israel has no other option but to carry for an indefinite period of time. And the election process also cannot be dissociated from that. Benjamin Netanyahu has now served as the prime minister of Israel for 14 long years – a 3-year period during 1996-99, and about 11 years at a stretch since 2009. And it was very much during Netanyahu’s regime that Israel enacted its Nation-State Law in July 2018 which made the country the nation- State of the Jewish people. Certainly, it didn’t help to pacify the Arab-Israeli conflict in any way.

The time bomb, as originally mentioned by Abdullah II of Jordan, remains as it was. The electoral system of Israel is very different from the first-past-the-post system we have. In our system, the number of seats is never proportional to the percentage of votes, rather the number of seats is a complex outcome of the votes of different parties along with the distribution of votes in different parts of the country or states. In contrast, elections in Israel are based on nationwide proportional representation.

The electoral threshold is 3.25 per cent, indicating that no seat will be available for a party securing a vote share less than that, the proportion of seats of bigger parties in the 120-member Knesset are likely to be slightly higher than their vote percentages. Due to this proportional representation system, and the presence of multiple political parties – some are Jewish, some Arab, and the Labour party – ever since the country got nationhood in 1949, Israel has had a history of coalitions.

And there is no sign that will change in the near future. However, with about 20 per cent Arab population, and the Arab and Jewish parties very reluctant to form any kind of coalition, it’s never easy to make a coalition with 61 members – rather it’s a delicate art of balancing. Benjamin Netanyahu, popularly known as ‘Bibi’, is the leader of the right-wing Likud party which has produced leaders like Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon. However, the current political turmoil of the country is certainly a by-product of the system, which is bound to happen in a multi-party proportional representation system in a complex socio-political and religious structure such as Israel.

About one year ago, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman left the government over the cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza, which left the governing coalition led by Netanyahu with a slender majority of 61 seats of 120, and eventually triggered the election in April 2019. And a new political player emerged in that election. He is Benny Grantz, who served as Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces during 2011-15. Grantz is up aganist Netanyahu and his alledged corruption. Grantz’s new political party named Israel Resilience, established in December 2018, allied with Telem and Yesh Atid in February 2019 to form the Blue and White coalition, reflecting the colours of the Israeli national flag.

Importantly, Grantz, more of a centrist, neither endorsed nor rejected a twostate solution to the age-old Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Blue and White and Likud became the two main political forces in the April 2019 election, each bagging 35 seats. However, no working coalition with at least 61 seats could be formed even after months of negotiations, which resulted in the Knesset election of September 2019. However, the deadlock continued with 33 seats for Blue and White, and 32 seats favouring Likud, and none could form the required majority coalition – a result not quite surprising because it’s not easy to get a completely changed scenario within such a short time under proportional representation.

Now, the opinion polls are indicating 35 seats for Blue and White, and 33 for Likud – it could again be inconclusive, with the parties that Netanyahu previously managed to get on board to try and form a coalition getting a combined 56 seats. Yes, Grantz’s position might be improving a bit, but it’s never sure whether that’s enough to dislodge Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister of Israel now, and the caretaker prime minister for the last one year. In fact, Likud’s chances improved slightly coming close to the polls. With the remarkable decline of the Labour party, Blue and White and Likud are the two major political forces in Israel. Historically the Labour party was instrumental in forming Israel to a great extent.

The party ruled the country for three long decades, and produced leaders like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. It’s certainly a matter of serious introspection for Labour how it could be reduced to less than 5 per cent. Corruption charges have loomed over Netanyahu during the last few elections. In December 2018, Israeli State Prosecutor recommended to the Attorney General that Netanyahu be indicted, and the Attorney General was quick enough to vow to “work quickly”.

In November 2019, Netanyahu was officially indicted for breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud – the trial will begin on 17 March. Consequently, he had to relinquish his portfolios other than prime minister. Incidentally, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel during 2006-09 and Netanyahu’s predecessor, had resigned after being accused of corruption. Olmert, subsequently, was sentenced to 16 months’ imprisonment. And that was certainly the end of his political career. Netanyahu, of course, is in no mood to follow in his footsteps. And, hence, he desperately needs to stick to his premiership, and to maintain control on Likud party as well. And, he is certainly one of the greatest political players in the modern history of this planet – no doubt about that. So, never rule Netanyahu out, even if it seems that he is playing his endgame. The March 2020 ‘Bibi versus Benny’ election might decide whether the political uncertainty of Israel will continue or not.

Will Netanyahu be able to retain his premiership, be it as caretaker, for some more time – something which might be helpful for him in the corruption trials as well? Will Benny Grantz become the giant-killer in Israeli politics? This election might have a long-term consequence on the region as well. For example, will Benny Grantz, if he comes to power, make amendments to the Nation-State law? What will be the future of age-old Arab-Israeli conflict? No significant change in the highly volatile lifestyle of West Bank or Gaza, which has been part and parcel of the lives of millions therein, can be envisioned for the near future, at least. The clouds of uncertainty hover.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)