One of the surprising things about the Israeli education system is the prevalence of second-chance tests, for students who either failed the first time around or who simply want to improve their grade averages. On Sept. 17, Israel is headed for a second-chance test – the second election this year – not because the citizens failed, but because the principal, Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to form a coalition government following April’s election. His main political challenger, Benny Gantz, who heads the Blue and White party, couldn’t have either.
If Netanyahu had garnered the support of Avigdor Lieberman, whose right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party got just five seats in the 120-seat Knesset, it would have given him a majority of 65 seats. Lieberman, a smart, populist, Soviet-born former barroom bouncer, refused to join Netanyahu’s government, ostensibly because he, Lieberman, was unwilling to weaken legislation requiring more ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to serve in the army.
According to the polls, Lieberman will increase his strength in the Knesset and be even more of a kingmaker this time around – again holding the balance of power. On the campaign trail, Lieberman is saying he will only join a broadly-based coalition government that includes both Gantz’s party and Netanyahu’s.
In April, I voted for Gantz’s Blue and White party because I thought the imperative was to get Netanyahu out of office. This time, however, I think it’s possible that Blue and White – despite ruling it out now – would join a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud. I’m voting instead for the Democratic Union, a joint slate of the left-wing Meretz party and a new party headed by Ehud Barak, the former prime minister. They would only join a Gantz-led coalition and their positions on the issues are closer to mine.
The Democratic Union is one of 32 party slates on the ballot. In Israel’s proportional representation system, you vote for the slate of your choice. If the slate gets 10% of the vote, it gets 10% of the seats. But if it doesn’t get enough votes for four seats, it gets no seats at all.
In April, a lot of votes were wasted on two small right-wing parties that didn’t get into the Knesset because they fell below the four-seat minimum. This time, some politicians on the right learned their lesson and banded together to form a joint slate, the United Right. In a sign of their desperation not to repeat April’s mistake, they chose Ayelet Shaked, a popular secular woman, to head the largely Orthodox ticket.
As a left-of-center voter, I am thrilled two fringe far-right parties on the ballot are going it alone -- Otzma Yehudit, led by followers of the late extremist American rabbi, Meir Kahane, and Zehut, led by Moshe Feiglin, who lives in my Cleveland Jewish News colleague Marcy Oster’s settlement of Karnei Shomron. If they fall below the four-seat minimum, it would be more difficult for Netanyahu to form a government.
Israeli democracy in general would also benefit if the Kahanists and Feiglins don’t get to spew their ideologies from the Knesset rostrum. Israel’s democratic values are well-entrenched, but I am worried about continued attempts Netanyahu and the right might make to undermine the independence of the courts. I’m also concerned about the impending disaster the right could bring upon us by walking away from Israel’s commitment to the peace process and a Palestinian state.
But in the end, I predict all of this will again come down to Lieberman. The country’s future the day after the election may depend upon which side of the bed he gets up on.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel.