Third Time Lucky? It’s Time For Primaries

Gideon Saar, former Minister of Interior Affairs speaks with the media outside the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. Flash90

JERUSALEM (VINnews) — As Israel rubs its eyes in disbelief and prepares for yet another election in the hope that somehow it will magically solve the political impasse which has plagued the country for nearly a year, politicians are busy sharpening their knives to dig into their opponents and score bonus points.

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The main tussle at present is between Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud challenger Gidon Sa’ar, who will go head-to-head in the hastily organized primaries to take place December 26th. Theoretically this should not be a contest, as despite Sa’ar’s impressive resume (he served as Education Minister and Interior Minister under Netanyahu in 2009-2014) and his suave, sophisticated look, he is still like a small fish attacking a whale. Yet since the whale is wounded and floundering at present, Sa’ar sees his chance to thrust his harpoon and (metaphorically) kill off his opponent.

Sa’ar’s main contention is that if Netanyahu did not succeed in forming a government the first time, when he had no indictment facing him and had 60 seats for his coalition, and if he failed the second time before he was indicted, when he had 55 seats at his disposal, there is no reason to assume that more people will vote for him after he has been indicted. Even die-hard Netanyahu supporters are beginning to wonder if he can continue to govern effectively while facing such legal predicaments.

In the past few days a number of them have defected to the Sa’ar camp, including former Labor and Social Affairs minister Chaim Katz, who is now the chairman of the Likud Central Committee. Katz brings with him a few thousand votes from the Airport Industries where he previously headed the workers union and is known to be one of the most successful recruiters of Likud members’ votes.

Sa’ar is also supported by some Knesset members, but the vast majority still views Netanyahu as their talisman and will not give up on him despite his legal problems. It is thus more likely that Netanyahu will prevail but this does not solve the Likud’s problems in any way. How can they reassure that Netanyahu will be able to form a government once again when the Attorney-General himself is still non-committal about whether he will allow Netanyahu to lead such a government?

The method deemed most effective is to portray Netanyahu as the victim of a concerted campaign by the media, the State Attorney’s office and the police. Likud members view this campaign as an attempted coup designed to wrest power from the right-wing through illicit methods rather than at the voting booth. If the strategy works, they will come out in their masses to support their stricken leader both in the primaries and the election itself, if only to thumb a nose at the judiciary establishment for what they view as gratuitous indictments.

Yet the underlying problem remains Avigdor Liberman, who refuses to sit with either side of the political spectrum. As long as Liberman remains the deciding factor, the political instability will continue. But how can he be ousted from his position? Liberman has built his fortune on secular right-wing voters who loathe Chareidim and seek to secularize the state, the Shabbat and the institution of marriage. For example, Haifa’s deputy mayor, Lazar Kaplun, who is a member of Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, recently claimed that “90% of the secular public serve in the army, while the religious guzzle, drink and rape minors with divine consent.” No matter that this diatribe would be cast as anti-Semitism in any other country, in Israel it will apparently bring in votes.

In the second election Liberman gained strength from this group despite the fact that he was responsible for that election. Will the third election bring him more support? Even if he retains 8 seats he could still prevent the formation of another coalition.

The light at the end of the tunnel may come from the fractured and splintered parties on the right-wing. In the previous election, Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Force party wasted 84,000 votes or about 3 Knesset seats in a futile attempt to pass the threshold. In the first election, Bennett and Shaked threw away 140,000 right-wing votes as they just missed the threshold. The current election has brought a call for general primaries in the national religious camp in order to finally capitalize on their political strength which at its zenith reached 12 seats. If this is added to the Likud’s seats and if the Chareidim come to vote in their masses, they might just succeed in bringing 61 or 62 seats without Liberman’s party.

The only other scenario is another stalemate with neither right nor left bringing a majority.
In the meantime it is still unclear whether Naftali Bennett, who is enjoying his tenure as defense minister and doesn’t fancy sectorial bickering, will compete in primaries or keep his New Right party aloof of the religious camp. Bennett is targeting secular right-wingers as well and this time stands a better chance of succeeding, especially if Ayelet Shaked runs with him and does not defect to the Likud after her disappointing return as head of the United Right in the second election.

With elections less than three months away, the primaries may hold the key to breaking the deadlock, but it is also auspicious that the election is taking place in Adar (in fact they will finish on the 7th of Adar). Let’s hope Adar continues to conjure its magic and brings a fresh government to a tired electorate.

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