Is Israel already headed towards a 4th round of elections?

Israeli elections: insights and lessons

Hiddush is non-partisan, and it does not take a stand regarding the political clash between the left- and right-wing, and we refrain from endorsing political parties or discouraging people from voting for any particular party. Our focus is solely on the pursuit of religious freedom and equality. With that in mind, some preliminary observations are important as we assess the significance and causes of the election outcome.

Netanyahu celebrating April 2020 election results, source: Flash90, photo by Olivier FitoussiNetanyahu celebrating April 2020 election results, source: Flash90, photo by Olivier Fitoussi

The following observations are written a few days after the March 2, 2020 elections, when it is realized that this 3rd round in less than a year has resulted once again with political uncertainty, and possibly yet another dead-end which will lead Israel to a 4th round. The political landscape is in turmoil and emotions are boiling. The new aspect of the current situation is the escalating crisis over the Coronavirus that is generating pressure on all sides to find a way to work together despite the great political and personal gaps between the two major contenders.

These insights are intended for our overseas readership, with the assumption that they may not be as familiar with the intricate election and campaign process in Israel as are Israelis. We offer the following general observations, hoping that they will deepen your understanding of what transpired in Israel in recent weeks. However, Hiddush’s unique focus is on the religion-state angle and the lessons to be drawn from it by Diaspora Jewry. We ask for your patience, as this lens will be offered at the end. For many in Israel, the Knesset elections on March 2 2020 (the third round in less than a year) were traumatic. A strong example could be seen in President Rivlin's public statement, as he went to vote on Monday: “We don't deserve another awful and grubby election campaign like the one that ends today and we don't deserve this never-ending instability. We just don't deserve this.”

[For those who understand Hebrew, you may want to watch the video clip that shows how deeply pained and disturbed he was, as he unexpectedly shared this severe rebuke and discontent:]

As Hiddush has noted repeatedly in recent times, and as is borne out by our repeated surveys, the clear majority of Israeli Jews self-identify as politically right-of-center. This is seen in numerous other surveys, most recently in the February "Israeli Voice Index" of the Israel Democracy Institute. While 63.3% of adult Israeli Jews place themselves on the right-of-center, only 10.7% place themselves on the left-of-center!

click for FULL size

click for FULL size


Since Hiddush's focus is on matters of religion & state, it is of importance to note that there is a correlation between religious identity and one's self-positioning along the political continuum. This largely explains the political landscape following the recent elections and the two previous rounds of elections. Contrary to the Likud’s rhetoric and to that of the parties to its right, which claim that the choice is between “right” and “left”, in reality the Jewish left has been decimated [in keeping with the distribution of positions in the Jewish public we mentioned above]. The absurdity of this artificial division can be easily seen by the cynical labeling of Avigdor Lieberman as “left”.

Likud’s primary opposition party is Blue & White, which is not left-wing and doesn’t hold left-wing positions [for example, its adoption of the Trump program - "The Deal of the Century", supporting Jewish sovereignty in Judea and Samaria]. Examining the composition of voters for Blue & White also indicates that only a small minority self-identify as being politically to the left of center [17.4% according to the Jewish Voice Index of the Israel Democracy Institute, February 2020], compared to 52.3% who self-identify centrist and 28.5% who self-identify as being right of center [comparable results were also found in Hiddush’s surveys of recent months].

Likud’s primary opposition party is Blue & White, which is not left-wing and doesn’t hold left-wing positions [for example, its adoption of the Trump program - "The Deal of the Century", supporting Jewish sovereignty in Judea and Samaria]. Examining the composition of voters for Blue & White also indicates that only a small minority self-identify as being politically to the left of center [17.4% according to the Jewish Voice Index of the Israel Democracy Institute, February 2020], compared to 52.3% who self-identify centrist and 28.5% who self-identify as being right of center [comparable results were also found in Hiddush’s surveys of recent months].

The bottom line is that the Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious bloc has 58 MKs; and the opposition to Netanyahu continuing as Prime Minister at the head of a right-wing/religious government consists of a bloc of 62 MKs. This political snapshot is, of course, reminiscent of the two previous rounds of elections, in which Netanyahu and his bloc failed to form a majority coalition [Even in April 2019, when Netanyahu’s bloc included 60 of the 120 Knesset members, it failed to cause even a single MK to defect from an opposition party, in spite of extremely generous promises].


Victory or Defeat: initial reactions v. reality

This reality is particularly striking in the face of the immediate reactions after the election, with the exit polls indicating that Netanyahu’s right bloc would have 60 MKs, and that the Likud itself would be ahead of Blue & White by a margin of 3-5 MKs. Netanyahu declared a "huge victory" [like his "tremendous victory" declaration following the elections in April, after which he failed to form a majority government], as did the other parties in his bloc. Even the opposition parties admitted defeat, as the media and commentators attested to throughout the country. So did the foreign media, which spoke of Netanyahu's victory in their reports of the election results in Israel.

In reality we are once again facing a dead end.

However, one day later, this turned out to be merely a rhetorical victory, for we are once again facing a dead-end. Netanyahu and other Likud politicians have since explained to the media that they expect to form a coalition based on several defectors from the opposition parties, which began a guessing game and rumors about the identities of MKs that might defect. Some of these that received inquiries from Likud representatives made it clear that they do not intend to cross party lines, and no temptation offered to them would change their position. They have condemned the attempt to buy their support as immoral and despicable. The opposition parties described the attempt to recruit their members’ support for the Netanyahu government (given that all opposition party voters knew and expected that they would refuse to serve in a such a government) as "stealing votes". That is to say - morally wrong. It would be politically unthinkable for MKs trusted by their voters and elected on the "Just not Bibi" ticket to allow the establishment of a "Bibi government."

On the other hand, when headlines began to cover an initiative of the opposition parties, who have a collective majority of 62 votes, to promote legislation to prevent the appointment of a prime minister with criminal charges pending against him, Likud spokesmen responded that this was an attempt to "steal the election". Furthermore, Some of the Likud spokesmen who attended television debates on election night went further and threatened the rule of law In Israel, describing Netanyahu's political “victory” as the "People's Judgement", which has "acquitted" Netanyahu.


Rhetoric against Israel’s Arab citizens

Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev declared in a radio interview that not only is it illegitimate to attempt to prevent Netanyahu from serving as Prime Minister with the support of a Knesset majority that includes the 15 MKs from the Arab Joint List, but the Joint List should have been rejected from participating in the elections altogether. Such statements, heard often in recent times, have ironically led to an increase in Arab representation in the Knesset [10 MKs in April, 13 in September, and 15 in March 20]. That is to say - Netanyahu's decision to target the Likud campaign upon the illegitimacy of Blue & White’s collaboration with the Joint List, may have been a double-edged sword. It may have indeed achieved Bibi’s goal to shape the public discourse and cause Blue & White to devote a lot of its time and energy towards denying that it intended to collaborate with the Joint List, not only in forming a coalition, but also in rejecting its outside support. However, this Likud political strategy also acted as a catalyst and boomerang that drew increasing numbers of Arab citizens to the polls, who had previously refrained from participating in Israeli elections. The Joint List has, therefore, Netanyahu to thank for its increased representation and unprecedented power.

Because of Netanyahu and his supporters, the Joint List is now enjoying increased representation and unprecedented power.

Naturally, the Likud’s post-election focus is on highlighting Blue & White as well as Lieberman’s public pre-election denial that they will be relying on support from the Joint List. Yet, the harsh pronouncements on the Likud’s part regarding the illegitimacy of the Join List, in its efforts to diffuse the mobilization of the 62 MK’s counter block, forces Israel to deal with fundamental issues of democracy and to seriously reflect upon the extent to which the disqualification of 20% of the population in Israel [that is - the Arab population] from equal and full participation in the political game challenges the democratic identity of the State of Israel. The right-wing bloc has the right to aspire to establishing a Zionist and Jewish government, but this right does not justify crossing the fine line and argue that the votes of Arab citizens and their representatives are legitimate and should be ignored, as Minister Regev declared, for instance.


Netanyahu’s indictments at center of election campaign

As mentioned, the polls and even the exit polls did not accurately predict the outcome of the elections, but they reflected the political lack of determination between the two blocs. The elections results are not about a balance between right and left, but rather between the Netanyahu / Right-wing / ultra-Orthodox coalition and those opposed to such a government. This was especially so in light of the fact that the Likud campaign focused almost exclusively on Netanyahu and his achievements and on the other side – Blue & White – most strongly emphasized its opposition to Netanyahu because of the indictments filed against him and the expected trial opening shortly after the election. The battle centered upon Netanyahu's tenure as prime minister, which the right bloc united behind, and this theme “starred" in the electoral campaign of both blocs.

Benjamin Netanyahu clearly sees himself as the preferred candidate to serve as prime minister, and this gives him confidence.

The opposition failed to convince most of the Jewish public [as for the Arab Joint List, its position against Netanyahu was well known in advance and required no persuasion or change]. It became clear over time in the polls, which asked the question of who should serve as prime minister, that Netanyahu enjoyed a higher level of support than Gantz, despite the indictments filed against him. A poll taken on February 21, 2020, indicated that 43% of the public (Jewish and Arab alike), and significantly higher among the Jewish public, supported Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Gantz only received 39% support in that poll. After a series of Likud campaign moves that focused on personally attacking Gantz and questioning his mental capacity and moral character, the gap grew. In the last poll before the election 45% held that Netanyahu was the preferred candidate to serve as prime minister, compared to 35% who believed Gantz was best suited. Clearly, a significantly higher percentage wanted to see Netanyahu serve as PM compared to Gantz than the relative size of the pro-Netanyahu and “Just Not Netanyahu” blocs.

Some among the segment of the population that views Netanyahu as the preferred PM obviously agrees with Netanyahu's claims that the charges against him were trumped up and that they are a collusion of the left in cooperation with the police, State Attorney’s team, Attorney General, , and the media.. Others in this group do not necessarily share this conspiracy theory but see Netanyahu as the best person to lead the State of Israel in addressing the challenges it faces, and these do not see his pending trial as an impediment to his serving as prime minister [Netanyahu himself answered questions about this issue and replied that he was capable of accomplishing more in an hour than others in years]. There is a legal dispute on the matter, but reasonable grounds to maintain that Netanyahu is entitled to serve as Prime Minister, while at the same time defending himself in court – even if this process takes years. Those who interpret Israeli law this way maintain that he must be removed from office only after a final verdict is reached [namely: a Supreme Court ruling is rendered, even if he is convicted by the District Court]. It should be noted that Netanyahu himself, despite responding that he respects the courts, has already hinted that the composition of the court set up to try him is "leftist", possibly laying the groundwork for adding the court to the above mentioned list of those who colluded to unseat him.


Ugly campaigning

In the final stages of the campaign, the electoral system deteriorated to a level that Israel had never seen before. Perhaps that was what President Rivlin was referring to when he went to vote. Netanyahu and his team operated on two parallel and effective levels, whose cumulative result was increased support for the Likud and decreased support for Blue & White and for Gantz himself. This, after a long period in which Blue & White led in the polls over the Likud and the gap between Gantz and Netanyahu narrowed in polls measuring their suitability to serve as PM. The Likud also thus successfully diverted the public discourse from the indictments against Netanyahu and from questioning the success of his reign in security and economy.

One direction they took was positive and legitimate. It was intended to glorify the image of Netanyahu and his international leadership, as well as to attract large swaths of the Israeli public by highlighting policies close to their hearts. The other direction aimed below the belt. As part of the latter, press releases and messaging were put out, some directly and explicitly by Netanyahu, intended to damage the image of the rival party leader Benjamin Gantz – both by challenging his mental competency and his moral character. These aimed demonstrate that it would be irresponsible and delusional to allow Gantz to serve as prime minister.

A few days before the elections, for instance, a secret taping of Gantz’s senior political consultant was aired by the media.

As to the positive thrust, initiatives were accelerated over a short period of time, such as President Trump’s Deal of the Century, the United States’ consent to the unilateral annexation of Judea & Samaria; the promise to annex the territories immediately after Netanyahu’s reelection; demonstrating his relationship with Putin by gaining the release of Naama Issachar from her imprisonment in Russia and bringing her back to Israel on the PM’s personal plane; meetings with foreign country leaders, especially, for example, the leaked meeting in Uganda with the Sudanese leader. Also, among these initiatives was speeding up the arrival of a group of Falashmura from Ethiopia, outside of existing immigration procedures, .and the promise of bringing in hundreds more Ethiopian immigrants, as the Likud made efforts to win the votes of tens of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants, following the luring of MK Gadi Yevarkan to defect to the Likud from Blue & White whom he’d been representing in the Knesset, at a higher rank on the party list.

As to the negative campaigning, a few days before the elections, for instance, a secret taping of Gantz’s senior political consultant was leaked to the media. In it, the consultant expressed strong criticism of Gantz and his view that Gantz is a danger to Israel. He also quoted an ultra-Orthodox female MK from Blue & White who was appointed by Gantz himself. According to the consultant, the Blue & White MK told him that Gantz is a “fool and big zero”. This senior strategic consultant (who was secretly taped by a rabbi with whom he is close and who apparently “pulled his tongue”) was fired immediately after the tape was aired on primetime television by a senior reporter with strong ties to Netanyahu. However, the damage had already been done and the consultant’s “testimony” was naturally echoed by Netanyahu and his colleagues in every way possible.

Furthermore, although Netanyahu denied any connection with the release of the taping and with that rabbi, the next day another journalist revealed another recording in which that same rabbi is heard in conversation with Netanyahu and his team. The recording revealed that the rabbi was asked to release the recorded conversation they’d had with the consultant’s undistorted voice, and the rabbi promised Netanyahu that this would be done.

Another media expose reported that Netanyahu’s personal attorney hired the services of an investigative firm, using a straw company as a front, to investigate and locate intimate, embarrassing information about Gantz’s relationship with that female MK. The paper that published this stated that it has in its possession a document proving that Netanyahu’s attorney informed him and committed to him that the firm will try to find these suggestive materials. It was also published that Likud representatives threatened that same female MK, saying that if she were to refuse to defect to the Likud, embarrassing information about her would be made public.

Yet another disturbing example is a tweet by Netanyahu’s son Yair who is known to have deep involvement in the campaign. The tweet includes a photo of a young woman who actively volunteers for Blue & White standing next to Gantz with a caption implying that this is a repeat of the Monica Lewinski affair (the Israeli version). This was adamantly denied by the young activist and by Gantz, and the young woman is now suing Yair Netanyahu for his defamatory post. To that, of course, one should mention a video clip, in which the Likud assembled a few Gantz’s bloopers and slips of the tongue, raising doubt as to his cognitive capacity. Once this was aired, Netanyahu repeated it many times leading up to the elections. Also, on election day, Netanyahu himself posted a video clip on his Facebook page showing Gantz calling on the public not to vote for Blue & White. This was a manipulated clip, in which Gantz was indeed calling on the public; but his message was to vote for Blue & White, else the Likud would remain in power. The manipulated video omitted half the sentence and using it aimed to both demonstrating that Gantz doesn’t know what he’s saying, as well as suggesting that the public should heed his message not to vote for Blue & White.

Blue & White too should do some soul searching, especially if a fourth round is not avoided. Its choice to respond to some of the Likud’s negative campaigning with its own version – such as: equating Netanyahu to Turkey’s Erdogan and Gantz, in an interview, referring to Netanyahu as “Duce” – Benito Mussolini’s title. This is hardly appropriate or accurate, even as substantive criticism (even if harsh) on both sides of the isle is legitimate.


The will of People? Zionist?

There is a great deal of cynicism in the frequent expressions of the right-wing bloc that they are acting on "the will of the People" and aim at preserving a "Zionist government". Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox political allies are not Zionists – quite the opposite. The will of the people interests the bloc only in certain areas, which suit their political interests, but they knowingly ignore it [and the opposition does not bother to emphasize this] when it comes to issues of religious freedom and equality of civic burden.

There is a large majority of Israel’s adult Jewish population, including a majority of Likud voters, which unequivocally rejects the government’s policies in the realm of religion and state.

In this regard, Hiddush’s repeated polling over the course of the last year (and before) consistently shows that there is a large majority of Israel’s adult Jewish population, including a majority of Likud voters, which unequivocally rejects the government’s policies in the realm of religion and state and supports positions opposite to those that result from the government’s surrender to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox parties: public transportation on Shabbat, civil marriage and divorce, drafting yeshiva students into the IDF, enforcing core curricular studies in all schools (including ultra-Orthodox), gender equality in the public sphere, equal status for the non-Orthodox Jewish streams, implementing the Kotel agreement with the Streams and with the Women of the Wall, doing away with the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut, recognition of Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversions, cutting government funding to the yeshivas and religious institutions, cancelling the mini-market Sabbath law, and much more.

Regarding all of these, the will of the people and that of most the Likud’s own voters is of no interest to the leadership of the outgoing coalition. If only possible, they would continue turning their backs upon the public.

Nor is referring to the ultra-Orthodox parties as Zionist anything but ludicrous. These parties’ media organs, religious writings, and rabbinic leaders repeatedly refer to the state, the Knesset laws, and the civil judiciary with great disdain and theological rejection. They speak of their participation in the government and Knesset, not as “participating”, but rather – as “fighting against”. They speak of their own condition as being “in exile,” and of the government as “a government of religious persecution”. They deny the legitimacy of civil law and demonize the civil judiciary. They explicitly reject Zionism and if pressed refer to themselves as the true Zionists to the exclusion of traditional political Zionism. It should be remembered that the theological foundation of their position is viewing Zionism as a heretical revolt against God – and that salvation should only be welcomed when heralded by His Messiah.


Blue & White’s illusions

On the other hand, Blue & White did not take advantage of the above, and they did not attack the Likud for betraying its voters and the general public, nor for its systematic surrender to the ultra-Orthodox parties’ demands that threaten the country’s economy and security. Beyond a handful of promises in its platform, which do not include a clear commitment to full realization of the principles of freedom of religion and equality in shouldering the civic burden, and a few half-hearted references throughout the campaign, Blue & White did not sharpen its criticisms of the outgoing coalition in this arena. Neither did it promise a substantive and dramatic change of course.


Shortly before the September elections, some in Blue & White apparently were afraid that Yisrael Beiteinu, which emphasized these matters, might win over some of their voters; and thus – a few days before the election date Blue & White came out with huge billboards declaring their commitment to establish a liberal, secular government. However, immediately following that, the party leaders and spokespeople backtracked and explained that they didn’t necessarily mean “secular”, and they did not intend to preclude a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties. It seems that they were startled by their own pronouncement and fell back into the mindset that one cannot form a government in Israel without the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Blue & White softened their messages on matters of religion and state, with the hope that the ultra-Orthodox parties would have a change of heart.

As a result, they softened their messages on matters of religion and state, with the hope that the ultra-Orthodox parties would have a change of heart and switch their allegiance away from the Likud. This was nothing more than an illusion, which Blue & White was willing to pay for in advance by forgoing the trump card, which distinguishes it from the outgoing coalition parties, and which is supported by the majority of the Israeli public and a huge majority of Blue & White voters, including potential voters who did not cast their votes for Blue & White in the previous elections. Hiddush reaffirmed the accuracy of this claim in another special survey it commissioned in February shortly before the March elections. The following graphs demonstrate the findings:

click for FULL size

click for FULL size


Giving up on this potentially winning card was based upon a mere illusion because the ultra-Orthodox parties never hid their pact with the Likud, and it should have been clear to Blue & White that so long as Netanyahu is able to form a majority coalition, there is no chance that the ultra-Orthodox would cross lines over to Gantz and conversely – if it turned out that Gantz can put together a majority – the ultra-Orthodox parties will run after him, regardless of what had been said during the election campaign. The lesson of sitting in the opposition during the 2013-15 government was extremely painful for the ultra-Orthodox parties. Anyone who monitors, like Hiddush, the ultra-Orthodox media knows that their leadership has no intention to return to that status if they can avoid it.

And so – Blue & White focused its campaign on topics in which it didn’t really succeed to distinguish its from Likud’s policies, nor did it sufficiently convince the public. Beyond the mantra of “just not Bibi who is facing three criminal charges,” which had limited efficacy, the important “religious freedom and equality” card was left up their sleeve and never seriously pulled out. This, despite the fact, that 95% of its voters were secular (approximately 70%) and traditional-not-so-religious (25%), who wholeheartedly support doing away with unholy alliance of religion and state. This is true also of most who were undecided as to whether to vote for Blue & White, such as the “soft right”. The shapers of Blue & White’s campaign preferred to disregard its voters and the most significant challenge they could have mustered against the outgoing coalition. All this for a hopeless illusion of attaining ultra-Orthodox support for Gantz’s candidacy instead of that of Netanyahu.

Israel may be facing a fourth round of elections, and if so, it is to be hoped that this card will finally be played. It may decide the outcome of the elections, given the narrow margins, which were seen in the previous elections, and the knowledge that shifting 2-3 seats in their direction may redraw the political landscape.


Conclusions & lessons [mostly for Diaspora Jewry]

It should be emphasized, though, that Hiddush does not attempt to favor one civil party over another. What we have recommended all along, reflecting the preference of the majority of Israel’s adult Jewish population, as per our numerous surveys, has been the formation of a civil unity coalition based on the Likud and Blue & White. This foundation would provide a solid, sustainable basis for forming a government, which will formulate a common civil policy that conforms with the Declaration of Independence and the will of the majority. Based on such a policy, additional parties willing to implement it would be welcomed to join.

So, what are the conclusions and lessons that diaspora Jewry should derive from the political campaign in Israel?

  1. Assuming the foundational principles of common destiny and collective national goals based on Jewish unity, the importance of the State of Israel to the entire Jewish People, and the importance of the Diaspora to the strength and development of the State of Israel - it is also important that we recognize the differences between our communities. Further, it is important that we understand the areas in which we will have difficulty changing one another [while acknowledging the importance of having an open dialogue on these matters], as well as the areas in which Diaspora Jewry can potentially contribute to constructive and essential changes.
  2. Acknowledging that the predominant make-up of Diaspora Jewry (especially American Jewry) is on the left side of the political spectrum, and, on the other hand, the clear of majority of Israeli Jewry currently self-identifies as being on right side of the political spectrum, trying to disregard this gap or force its bridging are doomed to failure. External circumstances and developments may bring our communities closer together; for the time being we would be best served by listening to each other with empathy, better understanding the sincerity and genuine concerns that feed our respective positions.
  3. On the other hand, it should be amply clear that when it comes to issues of religious freedom, equality, and pluralism, the overwhelming majority of both Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews are on the same page. Our common aspirations have been subverted and denied by opportunistic political considerations to the detriment of Israel’s democratic and Jewish character, as well as its bonds with Diaspora Jewry. This subversion cannot be allowed to fester any further, without sacrificing the unity of the Jewish people and Israel’s wellbeing. Yet, both in Israel (as seen in what we wrote about Blue & White’s indecisiveness on these issues) and in the Diaspora, much of the political, communal, and civil leadership is reluctant to address this critical realm. This reality is at the heart of the open letter published recently during the sessions of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors (see: here). More importantly, it brought about the drafting of the Vision Statement on Israel as a Jewish and democratic state (see: here).
  4. We urge our readership and Jewish leadership across the community from all denominations and political persuasions to join the thousands who have already endorsed the Vision Statement, and to use it as a basis for considering a holistic, unifying, bold alternative paradigm to the unhealthy bond of religion and politics in Israel. The outcome of the Israeli political battlefront is still unclear. Regardless, it is time to make the long overdue contribution to the future of Israel and the Jewish People by joining the many activists and organizations who are already working on the ground in Israel to help ensure that no future government of Israel will be allowed to betray both Israelis and world Jewry, as well as the promises of Israel’s Declaration of Independence to make it a home for all Jews, which celebrates diversity, equality, and social justice.

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