06/28/2022, 10.54
GATEWAY TO THE EAST
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Israel divided (and suspended) between new elections and Netanyahu's return

by Dario Salvi

The country is heading for its fifth vote in just over three years. Tomorrow the passage that should sanction the dissolution of the Knesset. From behind the scenes the former premier moves to return to power, in this or the next legislature. Pacifist rabbi: Bennett executive has made no progress on "major issues" such as "employment and peace process." 

Milan (AsiaNews) - Israel is heading into its fifth parliamentary election in just over three years, following the collapse of the coalition that emerged following the March 23, 2021 vote. The majority was born with slim numbers - 60 deputies in favor, 59 against and one (decisive) abstention out of the 120 in the Knesset -, formed by parties of different inspirations and which had as its only (or almost only) glue the opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu.

On June 22, deputies approved in preliminary reading the dissolution of the assembly, the first step toward new elections. Yesterday was a stalemate, peppered with dense yet vain negotiations between majority and opposition, alternating with palace games to procrastinate the end-of-term legal process. Nevertheless, at the end of the day came the announcement that the decisive vote should take place tomorrow. 

Behind the scenes, some parliamentary forces have been active in an attempt to forge an alternative coalition. Among the most active - along with Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party - is Moshe Gafni, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, which is moving with Likud to avert a vote in the fall. A choice, a party note explains, that came about after "consultations" between Gafni himself and spiritual leader Rabbi Gershon Edelstein. However, if the project fails - as is likely - the solution is "a return to the ballot box."

However, there is again a deep rift between majority and opposition: the outgoing coalition would like to vote on Nov. 8, while the pro-Netanyahu front is pushing for Oct. 25 or a date close to the Jewish holidays. For new elections, Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz has spoken out, saying he is "doing everything" to ensure that the country goes to a vote according to the set deadlines. 

"This new crisis situation," Jeremy Milgrom, Israeli rabbi and member of the NGO Rabbis for Human Rights, points out to AsiaNews, "is not surprising; we are facing the prospect of new elections and the prevailing feeling is one of weariness. Part of the country is impatient and worried about the prospect of Netanyahu returning to power, but the fact remains that he still has a lot of supporters and is still a strong personality."

He adds that Bennett's limitation is perhaps his "being uncharismatic and at the head of a far too broad coalition, even though he is not far from the former prime minister on an ideological level. His was a missed opportunity, because the presence of an Arab party in government could have been a positive element," but the experience foundered too soon and without tangible results. 

A fragile coalition

For weeks the governing coalition, which encompasses elements from the right, center and left, as well as the Arab Ra'am Party, had been experiencing internal tensions and fibrillations. Hence the decision by the two leaders Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid to tighten up and submit the dissolution motion to the Knesset, to start the process that will lead the country to early elections.

The transitional executive, called upon to ensure the conduct of business as usual until the polls, is expected to be headed by Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid Liberation Party and outgoing foreign minister, as per the agreements that led to the emergence of the first majority after a decade of Netanyahu's power. According to the law, the dissolution of the Jerusalem-based single-chamber parliament would require three plenary votes and a committee review in the House, although there are forces that are stalling to give MPs time to fashion a governing alternative. Led, needless to say, by Netanyahu himself, who has already branded the outgoing executive as the "worst" in Israel's history. 

From its earliest moves, the Bennett-Lapid tandem has shown difficulties in holding on to obvious internal contradictions that, as the months have passed, have been growing. Ideological clashes - the "feud over unleavened bread" just to name one - took the form of the exit from the majority of some Yamina parliamentarians, who are close to the right, but even from the Arab party came threats to quit in protest after the violence at the Esplanade of Mosques during Ramadan.

The likely end of the legislature would seemed fated by the rejection of the settler law: a "special" rule for the territories that risks triggering a new escalation of tension and opposed by part of the coalition, particularly Mansour Abbas (Ra'am). It extends Israeli civil law to settlers and has been extended every five years since the 1970s, enshrining a kind of apartheid between Israelis and Palestinians in the same territory. Noteworthy is the position of Netanyahu's right-wingers, who, despite being in favor of the law and having renewed it several times in the past, voted against it in order to give the executive branch a further shove. 

In recent months, Jeremy Milgrom explains, the Likud "maneuvered to return to power by manipulating some members of Bennett's party, who held an ambivalent attitude. The latter," he continues, "came under very strong pressure to leave the executive; after all, even the current prime minister betrayed at least part of his electorate by forming a majority with the Arab party. As for former Prime Minister Netanyahu, "his desire to return to power immediately is evident, and, after all, he is the one who won the last elections, but the most plausible hypothesis is the dissolution of the Knesset and vote in the fall." 

A country ripped a part at the polls

Noting the lack of a majority to vote on the "pro-colonial" rule, Bennett has contemplated the dissolution of the Knesset, for which a simple majority vote is sufficient. Should the process begin, the premier will resign and propose Lapid as his successor for current affairs. Meanwhile, he moves his pawns Netanyahu, who, on the one hand, is looking at possible alliances already in this legislature with the Zionist/religious wing and Yamina splinters, in order to return to power and guarantee himself a shield from the fraud and corruption trials in which he is accused. At the same time, he does not disdain the prospect of the vote knowing that while divisive he retains a broad-but not sufficient-to govern independently consensus in the electorate. 

The divisions within the (former) coalition are then likely to drag on into the campaign phase as well, where it is unclear whether the different formations will want to seek a new point of contact and revive the governmental experience. And that it has largely failed, with the exception of the approval - the first time in the last three years - of the 2021 budget law.

What emerges in a nation with a fluid political landscape characterized by alternating alliances, analysts and commentators explain, is the leading role of Likud's legacy of a consensus that still points to it as the leading party. The latest polls give it up to 35 seats (out of the 61 needed to govern), much to the chagrin of those who a year ago decreed the end of the Netanyahu era.

"This experience," Milgorm points out, "seems destined to come to an end," and is difficult to propose as an alliance ahead of the vote. "We have to understand," he continues, "where the Arab electorate will point and how the Islamic party will move. What is certain is that this government, while different in tone and dialogic than previous ones, has not made any progress on major issues such as the occupation and the peace process [with the Palestinians]. At the same time, the prospect of Netanyahu's return also seems more brutal because behind him are movements like Haredi [ultra-Orthodox Jews, now in opposition], who are exploiting a secularist like him to return to government and have full control over budget and finances." 

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