On Monday night last week, at 10 p.m., Israeli TV announced that after a day of voting, all three exit polls showed the right-wing bloc, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, had secured 60 seats out of Israel’s 120-seat Knesset.
It seemed to mean victory was assured, since all the bloc had to do was find one defector from the other 60 parliamentarians to reach the needed majority of 61 seats. Netanyahu was beaming; his supporters were dancing in the aisles. Pundits—including me—reported a big win for Bibi; though, to give me credit, I said he was “at the cusp” of winning and the matter was still “tentative.”
In the next few days, as vote-counting continued, the picture changed. By the time the final count was in, it turned out Netanyahu’s bloc had 58 seats, not 60. Whereas a single defector could probably have been found, finding three is much tougher and efforts seem to have failed.
The upshot is that, for the third time since April 2019, Israeli elections have ended inconclusively and Israel still has only a caretaker government. With sectors of the economy (travel and tourism in particular) now reeling from tough measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, with ongoing crises of an overburdened healthcare system and a growing budget deficit, with a depressing prospect of fourth elections on the horizon—something needs to be done.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been slammed by the left—called a racist, of course—for pointing out that his bloc actually won a resounding victory in the Jewish sector, which makes up 75-80 percent of the population. Compared to the right’s 58 seats, Benny Gantz’s center-left Blue and White won 33 and a small far-left party garnered 7. Even when you add 7 more seats for the party led by Avigdor Liberman—a right-wing hawk pursuing a personal vendetta against Netanyahu—the Jewish anti-Bibi bloc still comes to only 47.
The deal-breaker, then, was the Joint List—a conglomerate of four Israeli Arab factions that won 15 seats. In other words, Netanyahu won 58-47 in the Jewish sector—but the 15 Joint List mandates meant he couldn’t get to 61 and couldn’t win.
Considering that Israel is a democracy that grants equal rights to Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, is it even relevant to mention that? If Netanyahu’s bloc fell short of the number of seats needed for victory, doesn’t it mean he simply lost the elections and should acknowledge it?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The problem with the Joint List has to do with loyalty. Its inclusion in Israel’s parliament could indeed be called a case of hyper-democracy.
The Joint List is actually a merger of four smaller parties. One is Communist, one Islamist, one Arab-nationalist, one pan-Arab. The platforms of the first three call for turning Israel into, respectively, a non-Jewish Communist state, a non-Jewish Islamist state, and a non-Jewish secular-Arab state. The fourth party, Balad, calls for dissolving Israel altogether into a larger pan-Arab entity.
Balad, known particularly for its radicalism, has a checkered past. In 2007, its then-leader Azmi Bishara fled Israel after being charged with passing information to Hizballah during the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war. In 2010, in the Marmara incident, its member of Knesset Hanan Zoabi accompanied a Turkish Islamist terror organization that tried to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. In 2017, another Balad Knesset member, Basel Ghattas, was jailed for two years for smuggling cell phones and SIM cards to Palestinian security prisoners.
There’s a lot more. For example, in 2015, current Balad Knesset member Heba Yazbek praised Samir Kuntar—a Lebanese terrorist who murdered an Israeli father and child and had been assassinated in Syria—as a martyr. In 2017, Ayman Odeh—leader of the Communist faction and now also of the Joint List as a whole—condoned (not for the first time) attacks on Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. In 2018, Ahmad Tibi, current leader of the Arab-nationalist faction of the Joint List, called anti-Israeli terrorists “noble commanders” and “symbols of sacrifice for the homeland.”
So it wasn’t out of line, and certainly not “racist,” for Netanyahu to point out that he won big among the Jewish sector, and it was actually the votes for a problematic Arab party that kept him short of the finish line. In fact, last February 11, opposition leader Gantz himself vowed that the Joint List would not be part of any coalition he might form—and nobody called him names for it.
But this is where it gets crazy. With things at an impasse again, the same Benny Gantz is now talking about forming a “minority government” with “outside support” from that same pro-terror, anti-Jewish-state Joint List.
It’s not clear if it can be done. The Balad faction of the Joint List is very cool to the idea; so are at least three right-leaning members of Gantz’s own Blue and White party. Even if such a government could be formed, it would be fragile and seemingly nonviable—for instance, in case of an Israeli military campaign in Gaza, the Joint List would not support it even “from the outside.”
The only other option is for some key members of Blue and White—possibly but not necessarily including Gantz—to get over their Bibi Derangement Syndrome and form a unity government with Netanyahu’s Likud.
Although the Bibi-haters claim their gripe is that Netanyahu is under indictment, Israeli law allows him to keep serving unless and until convicted, and it’s not the real reason. The real reason is a hatred that makes the Joint List appear less repellent to them than Netanyahu. The key to rescuing Israel from the morass would be to get over it.