March 6, 2020
By Patricia Sohn
The Israeli elections. What to say?
Before Spring Break, my students asked an “open-conversation” question (the most dangerous type of question one can allow in a classroom in my experience, pedagogically speaking of course). The question was, “Who do you think will win the new Israeli elections?”
Since I do not study electoral politics or political parties, I said, “Ask me about courts.” Then I offered, “Or, religion and the state.” We had just completed a section on religion and politics in Israeli state and society, so they were tired of that topic. I assured my students that I have no particular prophetic abilities either in general or in relation to elections, although I did offer that Netanyahu was “pretty popular” and had won an “awful lot” of elections in Israel since 1996. That was the extent of my brilliant offering regarding the election, which occurred, in fact, over my university’s Spring Break.
The election results are interesting to an outsider who does not study elections or political parties. By all accounts, a momentary impasse stands in which neither Likud nor the Blue & White list has amassed enough seats to form a coalition for the third time in a calendar year. Blue & White cannot advance a coalition without the Joint List of Arab-Israeli parties, which, by my count, includes two communist parties, one religious party, and one democratic party. Joining with the religious party within the Joint List in particular could be uncomfortable for Blue & White; it is not yet a given that the Joint List will support Blue & White in any case. And, of course, Blue & White is probably less likely to gain Jewish religious party support for a coalition than it is Joint List support.
The Russian-oriented party (Israel Beytenu) has said it will not join a coalition that includes either Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties or the Joint List, making it unlikely to join a coalition led by either Likud or Blue & White. Shas, the religiously-oriented party that tends to support the interests of Sefardi and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern, African, and Asian) Jewish constituencies, has more seats than does the three-party Labor list.
That leaves Likud, still, as the likely forerunner as far as coalition building is concerned. So, with whom to build a coalition? If you have read my blog pieces on Israel-Palestine questions before, I know you will know what I am going to say.
Likud is not a natural ally of the Joint List. And, yet, there is nothing inherently against Netanyahu’s goal of a “strong nationalist government” in recognizing Israeli-Arabs as part of Israel and including the Joint List (or at least parts of it) in that coalition government. If one were to set aside for a moment the question of different religions, the religious party within the Joint List might work comfortably within a Likud framework, and particularly in concert with some of the religious parties that typically join a Likud coalition. I have been told by more than a handful of religious officials in Israel that, on certain questions, particularly those relating to religion and faith, religious leaders may have more to say to one another across religious lines than they do to their secular co-nationalists. The democratic party within the Joint List could likely also work with Likud reasonably and might be willing to do so in order to gain policy-making and agenda-setting leverage within the political system. Some are calling the democratic party a nationalist party. Since at least the new peace proposal, Likud is no longer against the establishment of a Palestinian state, which is to say Palestinian national aspirations. Thus, there is no reason they could not be in coalition together. This is so particularly if that Joint List party can accept and support a common set of Israeli national aspirations as well, including a shared Israeli “civic” society of which Palestinian-Israelis are a part and the need for the Jewish state. Many of these conditions are already met on both sides, so it is not so much an idealist-dreamy suggestion as it may at first sound. Government coalition does not require party members to be good friends. It necessitates pragmatism and shared desire to be part of governance on issues that matter to each.
I doubt these parties would act as veto players. Since it would be their first time in a real political power seat within the Israeli political system, they would have an interest in keeping the coalition in place. The communist parties within the Joint List would, in my view, make the least comfortable coalition partners with a Likud coalition. But here lies the end of my already minimal knowledge of the political parties. Likud works within a social-democratic system as it is, albeit bringing to that context a neoliberal policy agenda, and might therefore be able to work with those parties despite economic differences; certainly, these parties share a certain propensity and appreciation for secularism, so there is similarity on that front.
The Joint List stands to gain a lot by joining such a coalition. Likud stands to gain a lot as well, domestically and in the arena of international opinion. It could be a pragmatic solution.
Together, Likud, UTJ, Shas, and the Joint List alone would give a Likud coalition 67 seats and an easy win. Yes, the Joint List would want policy-making influence on home construction; house demolitions; land ownership questions; minority religious affairs; and settlements. Perhaps in exchange for supporting the coalition over the long term they would take a portfolio in the Ministry of Construction and Housing and the Ministry of Tourism, or the Ministry of Religious Services? It could be the Likud’s new Status Quo Agreements, but this time with the Joint List. Is it worth it to have a coalition? Is participation the solution to difference? Is it worth it for the gains in international public opinion? I cannot answer these questions for Likud, but I would think that Likud would find itself better situated to run policy from a government that it leads, and which includes the Joint List, than it would from a Blue & White-led government in coalition with Arab parties — or any other solution in which Arab parties are in opposition rather than vested interests within a Likud coalition. Since Blue & White will not be able to convince Jewish religious parties to join it in coalition, Likud stands uniquely positioned if it can bring together Jewish religious, nationalist, and Arab parties. Stranger things have happened in the service of political agenda-setting power.
One of the extraordinary developments in this election is the extent to which the left-wing parties appear to have failed. With seven seats, the old Labor alliance appears almost a thing of the past. Blue & White is made up of parties two of which are strongly pro-economic Liberalism, which is to say, they reflect a vast move away from Israel’s Labor origins. One of the parties appears to seek to blend social democracy and Liberal economics, leaving something of an unknown in practice. The parties that make up Blue & White favor a two-state solution, but in the recent peace plan, in principle, so does Likud. If Likud can demonstrate that it can work pragmatically with the Arab parties, it stands to see electoral gains from centrists and even leftist supporters of Arab-Israeli coexistence within Israel. That could make a difference into future elections.
Perhaps it is time for new alliances and new coalitions.
Land ownership questions are complex in a context in which most of the land, itself, of the country is owned by the state or state-related agency. Yet, with each party working within its allotted policy areas, the details of certain of these always-pending policy questions could be worked out to the satisfaction of greater proportions of the population in alliance rather than in opposition.
Again, all of this is offered from the perspective of an outsider and non-elections analyst. Sometimes, lines that appear critical at the moment may become incidental – or at least less important – if the lens can be shifted to specific policy portfolios. And, sometimes lines that appear opaque to outsiders cannot be overcome on the inside in a given moment. But, it may be worth a thought. Both Likud and the Arab parties would have a lot to gain by joining forces if such a thing were reasonably possible.
Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of courts and politics, religion and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society.