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Len’s Letter #39   Israeli Democracy is different from ours

2021               Governing elsewhere

Benyamin.                    Yair Lapid                Naftali Bennett


Let’s take a trip.  I’ll bet you haven’t taken a trip in a long time.  This trip is to Israel, which had its election on March 23.  Now, Israel is in its post-election period.

Like the United States, Israel has had a boorish leader who has been accused of  criminal behavior.  Israel’s leader has been in office longer than the American leader and he’s still in office.  The post-election period will determine who Israel’s next leader is.

Israelis feel as if the enemy is always at their gate.  They have faced terrorists for longer than Americans have.  The terrorists have almost always been Palestinians, though Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli Jew.   As for more recent days, the My Jewish Learning website describes Palestinian “lone wolf” knife attacks since 2015.  In the same article and covering the same period, My Jewish Learning notes the “price tag” terrorism by Israeli West Bank settlers.  The consciousness of danger is a factor in Israeli politics that can’t be forgotten.

Israel’s system of elections is different from ours.  Predominantly, the United States has a “first past the post system.”  In our districts a candidate can win with 40% of the vote if opponents each get 30%. Control of the House of Representatives or the Senate requires winning the most individual seats.  The President is elected separately.  I am not going to explain the Electoral College here.

Israel has a lot of political parties because the system encourages it.  Parties submit slates of candidates ranking individual candidates in order.  Israelis vote for a slate rather than the individuals.  If a political party gets 3.5% of the vote or more, it meets the minimum requirement for representation in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).  Seats are distributed according to the proportion of votes a political party gets.  Individuals are seated in the Knesset based on the party’s pre-announced list.  If a party wins six seats the candidate who is seventh on the list remains a civilian.

Each party indicates its leader.  After an election, Israel’s president, who is chosen separately, selects the party leader most likely to be able to form a government.  If no government can be formed, even after the leader of another party is selected and fails, Israel has another election.  The old government remains in place as a caretaker until a new one is created.  Israel just had its fourth election without forming a long-lasting new government.  It is in danger of scheduling a fifth.

Benyamin Netanyahu has been Israel’s Prime Minister since 2009.  Like our Donald Trump he is loved by some, hated by others.  Unlike our Donald Trump, he has actually been indicted and is awaiting trial.  Because Netanyahu does not have a clear path to creating the next government, he has borrowed a slogan from Donald Trump – Stop the Steal.  That slogan has equal credibility in both countries.

Isael’s Knesset has 120 seats.  To create a winning coalition, a party needs 61 votes.

Here is the lineup after the election:=

  • The single largest party
    • Likud has 30 seats. This is a Center Right to Right Wing Party and has become Benyamin Netanyahu’s personal vehicle – until it isn’t. It has the support of the religious parties.  With those parties, the Likud Bloc has 52 seats. 
  • Religious parties aligned with Likud
    • Shas (Shomrei S’farad or Sephardic Guardians) has 9 seats. Led by Aryeh Deri and Shalom Cohen, this party represents orthodox, ultra-orthodox, and traditionally observant Jews who have roots in the Middle East and North Africa.
    • United Torah Judaism (Yahadut HaTorah) has 7 seats. Led by Yaakov Litzman, this party represents ultra-orthodox Jews who have roots in Europe. Like Shas, they do not include women in their list of candidates.
    • Religious Zionism (HaTzionut HaDatit) has 6 seats. Led by Bezalel Smotrich, this party favors annexation of the West Bank, is deeply conservative on social issues, and includes ultranationalists and Kahanists.
  • The second largest party – in this election.
    • Yesh Atid (There is a Future) has 17 seats. This is a Centrist Party led by former television anchor Yair Lapid. Several progressive, centrist, and conservative parties are committed to combining to oust Netanyahu. With all of the anti-Netanyau committed parties, counting the Israeli Arab Joint List, the Yesh Atid bloc has 57 seats.
  • Centrist and left-wing Parties preliminarily committed to a Yesh Atid bloc. Consider them from right to left.
    • New Hope has 6 seats. This is a Center right to right wing party created and led by Gideon Sa’ar, whose break from Likud and Netanyahu was so bitter the likelihood of reconciliation is slim.
    • Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Home) has 7 seats. This center right party with ties to Russian immigrants is led by Avigdor Lieberman.  The party is strongly secular; it is nationalist, but says it is willing to work with Palestinians.
    • Kahol Lavon (Blue and White) has 8 seats. This is a centrist party led by former general Benny Gantz. Gantz broke with Likud and led what was in 2019 the largest party. He promised not to join a government with Bibi Netanyahu, then broke that promise angering many of his supporters. Gantz’s deal led him to expect to become Prime Minister after Netanyahu had completed part of a term.  A government collapse, that may have been instigated by Netanyahu, prevented Gantz from having a turn as Prime Minister.
    • Labor has 7 seats. This is a Social Democratic party that was based in Israel’s once-powerful labor union. Years ago, it was Israel’s dominant party.  Labor seeks a two-state solution with the Palestinians.  Under the leadership of Merav Michaeli, the only woman among this list of leaders, the party did better than expected in the 2020 election.
    • Meretz (The name is composed of 3 smaller parties that have joined together) has 6 seats. Led by Nitzan Horowitz, this party is secular, socialist, progressive on social issues, and favors a two-state solution.
  • One right-wing party has not aligned with either bloc. It broke away from Likud with sufficient bitterness to make it difficult to return to a government led by Bibi Netanyahu
    • Yamina (Rightwards or The New Right) has 7 seats. This is an alliance of right-wing parties led by Naftali Bennett, child of immigrants to Israel from San Francisco.  He is a young multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur who is Modern Orthodox.  HIs mostly successful military leadership was controversial.  He is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.
  • Arab Parties
    • Joint List (al-Qa’imah al-Mushtarakah) has 6 seats. Led by Ayman Odeh, this is a coalition of four Arab parties which could be characterized as secular and socialist and as favoring a two-state solution. In the previous election, the party was Israel’s third largest with 15 seats. This party might not join the Yesh Atid bloc, but could, without joining, support it.
    • United Arab List (Ra’am or Thunder) has 4 seats. Led by Mansour Abbas, this is a socially conservative, Islamist party supported by Bedouins among others. Like Yamina, this party is not committed to a bloc and could conceivably support Likud in the same way that the Joint List could support Yesh Atid – without actually being part of the government,

The Likud bloc and the Yesh Atid bloc will court Naftali Bennett of Yamina.  Yamina’s 7 seats are not enough to gain the Likud bloc a majority.  Likud would need the additional support of either the United Arab List or a couple of individual defectors from another party to get to 61.  The Yesh Atid bloc needs to stay together (no small feat) while it attracts Bennet’s Yamina.

Consider the leaders of three parties – Likud’s Netanyahu, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, and Yaina’s Naftali Benett.

Likud’s Benyamin Netanyahu is 71 years old.  Over the course of his career, he has held a dozen ministries, mostly along with being Prime Minister.  He served as the Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999 and since 2009.  His father was a well-known historian who specialized in the Jews of the Golden Age of Spain.  Benyamin Netanyahu spent much of his growing up near Philadelphia while his father taught at Dropsie College – a Jewish institution that eventually became part of the University of Pennsylvania.  Benyamin Netanyahu graduated from high school in the United States and went to college here.  He has a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree from MIT.  He was enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard, but did not complete it.

After high school he returned to Israel to join the armed forces.  He was trained for combat, served as a member of an elite force, was wounded more than once, and participated in a raid that recovered a highjacked passenger plane.  As distinguished as his military career was, his brother Yonatan’s is better remembered.  Yonatan Netanyahu died, as the only Israeli casualty, in the raid on Entebbe rescuing a highjacked airplane.  In the late 1970s, Benyamin ran the anti-terror institute named for his brother.  He developed political ties during the 1980s and served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

Back in Israel he gained the leadership of the Likud Party.  He won an election leading the party, lost, then won again in 2009.  Since 2009 he has been the central figure in Israeli government.  His 2009 election roughly coincided with the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Obama sought to move Israel and the Palestinians toward a two-state solution.  Netanyahu’s understanding of Obama’s goals was that they were dangerous for Israel. The outcome of the two different perspectives included results like Netanyahu agreeing to a partial freeze in West Bank settlements which, in fact, had no effect on construction in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s deep suspicions of the Palestinians and other opponents of Israel were expressed in his inaccurate claim that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem gave Hitler the idea for the Holocaust, his support of Republican opponents of President Barack Obama, and his opposition to the six nation anti-nuclear agreement with Iran.

Cynics about Netanyahu were not surprised when his deal with Benny Gantz to alternate as Prime Minister collapsed before Gantz had his turn.  They see Netanyahu as driven by a desire to deflect criminal charges.  Israel has established that Members of the Knesset and Ministers other than the Prime Minister can be subject to criminal charges.  Whether or not the Prime Minister is subject to criminal charges is less clear.

Netanyahu’s standing had been undermined by criminal charges for obtaining favors from businessmen and, in particular, making a deal with the Yedioth Ahronot newspaper for favorable coverage in exchange for legislation that weakened the newspaper’s competitor.   Critics see the dissolution of the government before Netanyahu had to step down in favor of Gantz as part of Netanyahu’s effort to stay out of jail.  They also see his effort to negotiate a new coalition government in which he would remain as Prime Minister as having the same goal.

Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid is 57 years old.  He and the leaders of the parties that make up his bloc have decided that Benyamin Netanyahu is dangerous for Israel’s future, that he is a danger to Israel’s democracy.  Lapid grew up in Tel Aviv.  His father was a journalist who had a stint as Justice Minister.  His mother was a playwright.  They lived in a building known as journalist house.

Doing poorly academically, Lapid dropped out of high school.  His military experience was briefer than Netanyahu’s.  During the 1982 Lebanon War, he suffered an asthma attack from the downwash of a helicopter.  He was pulled out of combat duty and assigned as an army journalist.  After the army, he would go on to write poetry, to box, and to become a journalist.  His American experience was briefer than Netanyahu’s.  After a divorce from his first wife, he went to Los Angeles to work in the American film industry.

Yair Lapid returned to Israel and to journalism.  He married his journalist second wife. He wrote a newspaper column, acted in an Israeli movie, anchored television talk shows and current affairs shows.  He wrote novels, a television drama series, and a play.

In 2012, he left television to form the Yesh Atid political party.  The political party was initially as much of a hit as his journalist and literary work.  In 2012, Yesh Atid gained 19 seats in the Knesset. In the 2013 election, it dropped to ten seats.  In 2014, Netanyahu fired him as Finance Minister.

In 2015, Yair Lapid traveled to the United States again.  An American journalist described him as a leader of Israel’s “disillusioned centrists.”  Out of government, Lapid established himself as a skeptic about the Palestinians willingness to actually negotiate peace with Israel, but was, nevertheless, willing to try.  He established himself as secular, in favor of more public transportation on Saturdays and for civil marriage in Israel.  He argued for Israel’s recognition of all branches of Judaism.  At the same time, he was critical of the BDS movement and of Poland’s effort to control a revision in the understanding of that nation’s role in the holocaust.

If there is to be a new government that grows out of the 2021 election, Netanyahu or Lapid will have to negotiate successfully with Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and bring him into a coalition government.  Bennett’s parents and grandparents (who had left Poland for the US 20 years before WW II) immigrated to Israel from San Francisco.  Bennett is 49 years old and was born in Haifa. His parents and he are Modern Orthodox Jews.  Through a paternal great grandmother, the family claims to descend from the famous 15th century Rappaport rabbinic family of Mainz Germany and the more famous medieval rabbi Rashi.  In connection with his father’s work, Bennett’s family returned to North America for a couple of two-year stints during his childhood  — to Montreal and to New Jersey.

After high school, Bennett served in special forces units of the Israeli Defense Force.  One combat incident later in his military career occurred during the Lebanon War and was controversial.  Under mortar attack during what journalists have called an unauthorized intrusion, he called for return artillery fire.  The return fire hit a UN compound, killing more than 100 civilians who had sought shelter from the fighting as well as four UN peacekeepers.

Bennett returned to the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the United States at the end of the 20th century.  He co-founded an anti-fraud software company and sold it for $145 million.  He sold his next software venture for more than $100 million.   A wealthy man, he returned to Israel, rejoined the armed forces, and fought in the Lebanon War – including the controversial incident described above.

He left the military to found what he hoped would be a movement – a Zionism that reconciled right of center religious and secular Israelis.  While making that effort, he resigned from the Likud Party and joined the Jewish Home party which gained 13 seats in the 2013 election.   Bennett served in various ministries in coalition with Likud, but in 2018 Netanyahu rejected Bennett as a possible Defense Minister. Later that year, Bennett and other members of Jewish Home created the New Right party.  That party failed to achieve 3.5% of the vote in the 2019 election, but the 7 seats it gained in the 2021 election may be crucial for creating a government.

Benyamin Netanyahu would be delighted to have Naftali Bennett part of his coalition.  Bennett’s view of religion in the public sector is not the same as Shas or United Torah Judaism.  He has led efforts to integrate ultrareligious men and women into the workforce – a goal that could  seem strange to the religious party leadership.  I don’t know what to say about Yamina and the Religious Zionist Party.  I could wish that no Israeli parties would work with them, but I’d be disappointed.

Yair Lapid can offer one thing that Benyamin Netanyahu cannot – a rotation as Prime Minister that Naftali Bennett would believe.  That would be spectacular – going from not being in the Knesset in 2019 to the possibility of being Prime Minister.  Lapid would need the cooperation of the other party leaders.

New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, age 54, would be envious.  He is a lawyer who knew Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, while growing up.  He favors bold action and, in a bold action in 2019, he challenged Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud and was trounced 3-1 in a party contest.  Sa’ar had been critical of Netanyahu for appearing to be open to a two-state solution.  After the 2019 loss, he led a group out of Likud to New Hope.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, age 62, may have had hopes to become Prime Minister. Born in Kishnev, Moldova, he is the founder and leader of a party that represents immigrants from the Soviet Union.  He strongly favors a secular state and would not join a coalition with the religious parties.  Even if the Yesh Atid bloc moved left, which is unlikely if Bennett is to be influential, Lieberman would remain in the bloc.

Kahol Lavon’s Benny Gantz, age 61, is a former paratrooper and General, the former Chief of Staff of the IDF.  He created his party as part of a Centrist alliance to challenge Netanyahu in 2019 and again in 2020.  In both years, he was asked to form a government, but could not.   He was elected Speaker of the Knesset in 2020 – a precursor to his joining Netanyahu’s coalition despite his previous promise not to join that coalition.  Gantz had expected to be Prime Minister after Netanyahu served for half a term.  His expectations were dashed when Netanyahu’s government collapsed forcing a new election.  Gantz may not have abandoned his ambitions.  Many of those who trusted Gantz have abandoned him.

Labor’s Merav Michaeli, age 54, was a journalist and a feminist activist. She was elected to lead the Labor party in January, 2021.  In a brief time, she revitalized the party from a point where pundits suggested Labor would lose a place in the Knesset.  As she considers deals the bloc makes, she will be interested in ensuring that Labor does not weaken.

Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, age 56, was a journalist and an environmentalist.  A gay man, he has advocated approval of same sex marriages.  Meretz remains a political entity to the left of Labor.

The Joint Lists’ Ayman Odem, age 46, is a lawyer.  A Muslim, he attended a Christian school – sent there by his father because of the school’s high quality.  He studied law in Rumania and is certified to practice law in Israel.  His wife is a gynecologist.  He has argued for the right of self-determination for Jewish people in Israel and the same for Arab people.  He expresses a willingness to work with Jewish partners and is particularly appreciative of Mizrahi culture.

The left-wing parties in the Yesh Atid bloc are eager to oust Netanyahu. They would probably accept Bennett into the coalition whatever his role despite his free-market views of the economy and his opposition to a Palestinian state.  Bennett is compatible with the centrist and right-wing members of the Yesh Atid bloc.  Is Bennett someone that Ayman Odem would be pleased to work with?  Could Israel have a government not led by Benyamin Netanyahu?

One Reminder About American Politics

The TX 06 multi-party primary is on May 1.  Jana Lynne Sanchez could use every bid of help you can provide.  Getting a Democrat into the run off creates the possibility of adding to the slim Democratic majority in the current Congress and creates momentum for ensuring a Democratic majority in the next Congress.  Add to Jana Lynne Sanchez’ resources