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Israeli political analyst parses Sept. 17 elections for Tucsonans

Political analyst Hani Zubida speaks at the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy Oct. 10. Courtest Weintraub Israel Center)

Israel’s Sept. 17 elections, its second national elections in less than six months, produced no clear victory for either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party or his top rival, Benny Gantz, retired commander–in-chief of the Israel Defense Forces who now serves as the head of the Blue and White Party. Much now rides on pending corruption charges against Netanyahu, Israeli political analyst Hani Zubida told a crowd of about 45 Tucsonans Oct. 10 at the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy.

Pre-indictment hearings against Netanyahu on three charges of fraud and breach of trust and one charge of bribery concluded Oct. 7, with Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, expected to announce whether he will indict the prime minister by mid-November. Israeli TV reports indicate Mandelblit may drop the most serious of the charges, the bribery charge, according to the Times of Israel.

In the September elections, Likud received 32 Knesset seats to Blue and White’s 33, but President Reuven Rivlin on Sept. 25 tasked Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, with forming a governing coalition within 28 days. Talks between Netanyahu and Gantz toward a unity government broke down Sept. 29. If Netanyahu failed to put together a coalition of at least 61 Knesset seats, Rivlin had a choice of giving him a two-week extension or giving Gantz a chance to form a coalition. He chose the latter. Netanyahu had likewise failed to form a government after the April 9 elections, in which Likud and Blue and White each won 35 seats.

Even political analysts don’t know how to conceptualize what has been going on in Israel over the last year, Zubida said. Zubida, who received his Ph.D. in politics from New York University, is the past chair and senior lecturer in the department of political science at The Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, a host at the Knesset TV channel, and the husband of Aviva Zeltzer-Zubida, vice president for planning and community engagement at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. His talk was the first formal “Voices of Israel” program organized by the Weintraub Israel Center, which is a joint project of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Tucson Jewish Community Center. 

Right vs. left?

While some might see Israel’s recent elections as a battle between the conservative Likud and the liberal Blue and White, both parties are really centrist, Zubida said, with only much smaller parties on Israel’s true right and left, none of which had much impact on the recent election.

Yet the animosity between the supporters of Likud and Blue and White is the worst he’s ever seen, Zubida said. He notes that in the United States, with four years between elections, bi-partisan cooperation usually returns after an election. In Israel this year, he said, people have been wishing death on their opponents and cursing them. Creating a coalition is not possible with this level of hatred, he said, unlike in 1984 when Yitzhak Shamir, the head of the Likud party, who couldn’t stand Shimon Peres, head of the Labor party, nevertheless created a unity government with him.

There’s actually no animosity between Gantz and Netanyahu, Zubida explained, but Gantz, as well as most of the members of Blue and White, had said they will not sit in a government with Netanyahu as long as there are indictments against him. On Wednesday, however, Gantz said he will seek a unity government with Netanyahu (see related story, p. 7).

The Arab Joint List, the Haredim, and Liberman of Israel Beiteinu

Another major player in Israel’s recent elections is the Arab List, a coalition of the country’s Arab parties. Some 60% of Arab citizens voted in the Sept. 17 elections, up 11% from the April elections, and about 80% of them voted for the Joint List, giving it 13 Knesset seats — the third-largest party in Israeli 22nd Knesset.

Among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, participation percentages are reaching the high 90s. This creates a new dynamic of Zionist vs. non-Zionist in the Israeli political system, Zubida said, explaining that the Haredim are non-Zionists who regard the Israeli state as an abomination, an obstacle to the resurrection of a Judean kingdom and the coming of the Messiah.

Both the Arab citizens and the ultra-Orthodox are voting for non-Zionist parties in greater numbers, shrinking the Zionist bloc.

Then there’s Avigdor Liberman, head of what was perceived  as a more right-leaning party, Israel Beiteinu, who played the spoiler in the April coalition negotiations by saying he’d only join if there was a law requiring Haredi men to serve in the Israel Defense Forces — something that wouldn’t fly with Netanyahu’s bloc of “right-wing”’ and religious parties. Last month, Liberman, Netanyahu’s former defense minister, again refused to join a coalition that included the religious parties.

Liberman is trying to be on both sides of the seesaw, Zubida said. On the right, he supports policies such as the 2018 Nationality Law that defined Israel as the state of the Jewish people, while on the left he tries to separate state and religion. Liberman delegitimizes both Arab citizens, joining those who say Arabs should not be in the government at all, and Haredim, saying they don’t contribute to Israeli society.

But Liberman is redundant in a national unity coalition of Blue and White and Likud, Zubida said.

“Why would they let him in? They’d have 65 seats without him,” Zubida said. The only problem, as he said at the start of his talk, is that Netanyahu remains under suspicion. There could be a public outcry that will remove Netanyahu as head of Likud, perhaps paving the way for a new Likud-Blue and White coalition.

Whatever happens next, Zubida predicts, it won’t hold, and Israel will be holding elections again in less than a year.