Uncertain outcome of Israeli election will affect US vote

Trump has been silent on the Israeli election results but he clearly wants Netanyahu to remain in charge.
Sunday 08/03/2020
An Israeli election monitor wearing gloves holds envelopes as votes are counted following Israel’s national election, in Shoham, Israel, March 4. (Reuters)
Back to square one. An Israeli election monitor wearing gloves holds envelopes as votes are counted following Israel’s national election, in Shoham, Israel, March 4. (Reuters)

Results from Israel’s March 2 election indicate that the right wing will remain in the ascendancy even if no new government is formed soon, which will have reverberations in the US presidential race.

The right-religious bloc won the plurality (58 seats in parliament) but is three seats short of the 61 needed to form a governing coalition. This bloc includes Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party (36 seats), religious parties (Shas with nine seats and United Torah Jerusalem with seven seats), plus the right-wing Yamina party (six seats).

The centre-left bloc won 40 seats, which includes 33 seats for the Blue and White alliance led by Benny Gantz and seven seats for the Labour-Gesher-Meretz coalition.

Outside of those blocs are the Arab List, which won the most seats (15) in its history, and former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party (seven seats).

Normally, the Israeli president asks the party with the most seats to try to form a government. Hence, it is likely Netanyahu will get the first nod to do so but he is again facing obstacles. He would like to bring Blue and White into his coalition but Gantz continues to say that joining with Likud is only possible if Netanyahu, whose trial on corruption charges begins March 17, steps down and the prime minister has said he has no intention to do so.

That leaves Lieberman as the spoiler or kingmaker. Israeli media reports suggested Lieberman will recommend that Gantz form the next government, which implies he would throw his support to him. However, that would only reach 47 seats, if one counts the Labour-Gesher-Meretz parties in this equation.

Without the Arab List of 15 seats, such a government cannot be formed and Lieberman has a toxic relationship with the Arab parties, as they have with him.

Lieberman, like Gantz, is not opposed to joining a coalition with Likud provided Netanyahu is no longer leader. He said he would back legislation that would prohibit a sitting prime minister under indictment from remaining in his job but that can only come about if a new government is formed under Gantz, which would mean reaching out to the Arab List.

The chairman of the Arab List, Ayman Odeh, said he would only consider doing so if Gantz changes his position on key issues, including his support for the government’s plan, blessed by US President Donald Trump, of annexation of settlements in the West Bank.

This means the Israeli political situation is again up in the air but Netanyahu and his right-wing partners will remain at the helm, perhaps for many months, until it is sorted out or new elections called.

In the United States, Trump has been silent on the Israeli election results but he clearly wants Netanyahu to form a new government or remain as the caretaker prime minister. Trump knows that Democrats in general are opposed to Netanyahu’s policies and the US peace plan, which basically endorses the Likud agenda.

As the presidential campaign heats up, Trump wants nothing better than to harp on what he claims is the “anti-Israel” position of Democrats. This will help him consolidate support with his Christian evangelical base, which is strongly in favour of Netanyahu, as well as right-wing elements of the American Jewish community.

Trump’s surrogates have already chimed in on this theme. The Republican majority leader of the US Senate, Mitch McConnell, at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, said: “We cannot ignore that in today’s Democratic Party… standing with Israel [is] controversial.”

US Vice-President Mike Pence, at the same conference, blasted US Senator Bernie Sanders, who refused to attend the gathering, charging that it gave a platform to “bigotry” and, in a recent Democratic debate, called Netanyahu a “reactionary racist.”

This put former Vice-President Joe Biden, who has had a remarkable rebound in the Democratic contest of late and is slightly ahead of Sanders, in a bit of a quandary. To win the Democratic Party nomination and later the presidency, Biden must unite centrists and progressives. However, the latter, particularly young people in that wing, share Sanders’ views on current Israeli policies.

Significantly, Biden has had his problems with Netanyahu in the past. When he was vice-president in 2010, he was visibly angry when, arriving in Israel, the Netanyahu government announced new settlement building in East Jerusalem. Biden is hoping to straddle the fence by differentiating between support for Israel and opposition to Israeli policies.

Biden’s video speech at the AIPAC conference noted that, while he “will always stand with and for a secure, democratic Jewish State of Israel,” he is against plans to annex parts of the West Bank, which he said would preclude a future, contiguous Palestinian state. Biden also noted that current Israeli policies on settlements and annexation are “undermining support for Israel in the United States, especially among young people.” He is likely to stick with this message.

Biden’s speech was praised by Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of the J Street organisation, a liberal Jewish alternative to AIPAC. This support was important to Biden because he hopes it will deflect Trump’s attacks as well as differentiate himself from Sanders, who was criticised for his remarks not only by Republicans, as was expected, but by some Democrats.