Retired Sarasota attorney Harold Halpern writes about the possible outcomes of the upcoming March election, the third effort to form a government.
Editor’s note: This is a letter that retired Sarasota attorney Harold Halpern, a board member of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, wrote to a friend in Israel.
Yes, I am well. I have been sorting out the significance of the Israel failure in two elections to form a government. Part of the explanation is the Israeli Parliamentary system.
You vote for a party slate and not an individual. A party needs to obtain only 3.25% of the total vote to get proportional representation in the Knesset. This makes it easy to form a political party. The result is multiple parties. In the history of Israel, no party has won a majority. Every government has been formed only by putting a coalition together.
In today’s politically polarized world, coalition building is extremely difficult. In the election of Nov. 17 for the Knesset, 11 parties — some of which were already a coalition of parties — won the 120 seats. The number of seats won by a specific party ranged from a low of five to a high of only 32 (Likud) and 33 (Blue and White) for the two largest groups. All of them had a discreet constituency and interest group. This made it difficult for them to come to a majority (61) agreement on who best serves their needs as prime minister.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud first tried to garner the seats but could get only to 55 (the Right) who found him and his policies compatible to their desires. These were two orthodox religious parties and a nationalistic party. They agreed on Netanyahu’s West Bank policy, continuation of the status quo Orthodox Rabbinate control of important aspects of the daily life of the citizens, exemption of orthodox students from the serving in armed forces until age 35 and weakening the power of the Supreme Court to declare government actions illegal. But he couldn’t get the remaining six votes.
Netanyahu’s former supporter Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu controlled eight votes. He represents the interests of the Russian-speaking Israeli citizens. They are staunch secularists demanding the end of orthodox control over their lives.
Liberman refused to be part of a Netanyahu government to share governance with the orthodox religious parties. This stymied Netanyahu efforts.
Benny Gantz of Blue and White next tried but could get only 54 votes. These were 33 from his Center party and 11 from two left parties (together the Center-Left) and 10 of the 13 elected members of the Joint Arab Israeli list (who would vote for Gantz but would not invited to be part of the government). They were united by their strong desire to end Netanyahu’s reign, particularly after he was charged with the serious crimes of bribery and fraud; they also were united by their more moderate attitude on orthodox religious control and more moderate nationalistic policies in the West Bank and acceptance of the power of Supreme Court to act as a check on government. But Gantz couldn’t get the remaining seven votes.
Liberman refused to be part of a Gantz government dependent on the votes of Arab-Israeli citizens. Liberman had one foot in the Right Camp and the other in the Center-Left but could not get himself to vote for either.
Finally, the parties and members tried a grand Unity Government of the Right and Center-Left. The differences were too great to bridge. Gantz wouldn’t sit with a PM under criminal charges. Netanyahu wouldn’t agree to share with Gantz unless he accepted Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. Thus ended the efforts to form a government. Too many parties, too many divergent interests and too little capacity for consensus building.
Netanyahu continues as the caretaker PM, but there is no Knesset, there is no new budget and there is a diminished sense of stability. His trial must be postponed under Israeli law until there is a new Knesset to which he may apply for immunity from prosecution while serving as PM.
Now onto the third election on March 2. Will there be a different outcome? Some have said that voters are now more “woke.” I don’t agree. Voters generally vote their present interest and not their long-range concerns.
There are some variables that may make some changes to the number of seats held by the various parties. I don’t see where the Center-Left can pick up enough seats unless it is willing to depend on the Arab-Israeli vote and/or Liberman (both unlikely).
Likud probably will lose some seats because of criminal charges against Netanyahu, but most will stay with another Right Party. In fact, from my perch, the Right may be able to make 61 with Liberman (unlikely) or if a couple of the extreme Right parties who make the threshold vote on March 2 (unlikely), which they didn’t do in November.
If there is another deadlock, I do believe the leaders will make a deal. They know the risk for Israel, and democracy is too great not to. A unity government will be the medicine to start a cure for the instability regardless of whether Netanyahu, or a successor, leads the Right coalition together with Gantz for the Center-Left.
Stu, I will enjoy receiving your take on my analysis, which I reserve the right to change as events unfold.
Retired Sarasota attorney Harold Halpern is a board member of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.