What has Happened to Lulu?: Ponderings Over Israeli Elections

 By Dr. Manjari Singh
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While following the recent Israeli elections, one is reminded of Charles Stanley Causley’s famous poem titled What has Happened to Lulu? The poem is recited from the perspectives of a child whose elder sister, Lulu, has possibly eloped! The younger child is curious and keeps asking her mother as to what happened to her sister. Even though, details of Lulu’s disappearance do come to the surface, the younger child is never given definite and rational answers and that further increases the curiosity of the child![1] Similarly, Israel has seen two general elections in one single year, and is headed for unprecedented third one in March and this ups the curiosity of the political watchers as to what exactly is happening or is going to happen![2]

There are no definite answers but certainly a lot of speculations globally, regionally and domestically. Most importantly, given the changing dynamics of the Middle East and Israel’s stature as one of the major regional players, its inability to form a stable government twice in a year reflects badly of the Jewish nation and reveals that domestically everything is not right! Additionally, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successive failure in both the elections to form a government has raised many eyebrows over the leadership crisis that the country might be facing. If not Netanyahu then who?! The question remains unanswered! Therefore, what has happened to Israeli elections is a question worth pondering upon.

Owing to three major alleged corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aka Bibi and the February announcement by the Attorney General to slap indictment, Bibi was forced to dissolve the Knesset in December last year.[3] It is noteworthy that fresh elections were to be held in November 2019 but because of the charges against the incumbent, early elections were called in April.[4] The election results were mixed and maximum seats were secured by Likud Party under Netanyahu and newly formed Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party. There was a tie and both the parties secured 35 seats each of the total 120 seats. Benny Gantz is the former Chief of Army Staff of the Israel Defence Force (IDF). He is known for his moderate views on Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank against the Palestinians. This and his other views on the domestic developments of the country along with these alleged corruption charges on Netanyahu have fetched large number of votes for Gantz. However, President Reuven Rivlin called on to Bibi to form the government first because of him having more chances of forming a coalition with the Right wing parties. That did not happen! For a while it seemed that the former Defence Minister Avigdor Leiberman’s secular nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu’s siding to any of the two leading parties will be a decisive factor for the election. The former Defence Minister has had ideological differences with Bibi over the latter’s negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. However, Lieberman supported Netanyahu to form a government but refused to join it citing ideological differences with the ultra-orthodox parties supporting Netanyahu over a controversial ultra-orthodox draft law.[5]  The said draft law has become a bone of contention between the right wing ultra-orthodox parties and Yisrael Beiteinu party and both try to downplay the other. In the process majoritarian government under Netanyahu could not be formed as the two major blocs refuse to sit together on the same table.[6] Interestingly, even Gantz could not form a coalition and therefore next election was declared to be held on 17 September.

Nonetheless, the second round of elections could not declare a victor again and there was a close electoral fight between Bibi and Gantz. While Netanyahu’s party secured 32 seats, Gantz on the other hand bagged one extra seat.[7] Again because of lack of support to join the coalition from the ultra-orthodox parties and Lieberman’s party, results could not be declared in anyone’s favour. Moreover, even Netanyahu’s tactics to appease the right wingers by announcing to annex Jordan valley (that is a large chunk of the occupied West Bank territory), failed miserably. After Netanyahu was unable to form the government and owing to the same course followed by Gantz, unprecedentedly, third elections were called for on 11 December to be held in March 2020.

It is no surprise that defence and security parameters generally are the drivers for elections in Israel. National security is paramount for the Jewish nation given its geopolitics! However, some analysts like Jake Novak, host of the Nachum Segal Network’s weekly show “Novak Now” argue that this time it is different! He further argues that once one digs deeper into dispute over the draft law which has become the deciding factor in the election declaration; one would notice that “economics and spectre of growing economic inequality is playing just a bigger role”.[8] There is a divide in the society based on individual struggles to meet the daily requirements and in such a situation the growing Haredi population (population growth rate in Haredi is far more than others as the ultra-orthodox faith does not take into consideration family planning practices) which constitute a substantial 10.1 per cent of the total is only contributing to the population pressure. And this has begun to bother the rest of the population who join the conscription and thus face a break in their regular jobs. The point to be noted is that when there are clear signs of the region embroiling in conflicts, civil war like situation in some and proxy war in others; how long can Israel be undecided on its election results? How long can the electoral deadlock be extended?

Major highlights from the region during 2019 being: exit of Qatar from Organisation of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC); ongoing Yemen conflict; continuing Iran-Israel proxy wars; re-imposition of sanctions on Iranian oil; attacks on oil tanks; Warsaw summit and allegedly growing Saudi-Israeli bonhomie; OIC summit; President Trump’s ‘deal of the century’; attack on Saudi Aramco facility and oil field; removal of waivers on Iranian oil exports; probable Iran-Saudi peace talks; Turkish military expedition in north-eastern Syria, Iraqi and Lebanese uprisings, ; Israel’s alleged airstrike attack in Syria; the US airstrikes on Iran backed militia named Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq. If these were not enough, the region witnesses a power shift, emergence and re-emergence of new players and their influence in the region such as Turkey and Russia and the bonhomie the two share with Iran. This is certainly is not what the Israelis wish for!

In all, the most visible development is Israel going to polls thrice in the same year. All these developments reaffirm the fact that the Middle East continues to be volatile and unstable. Under these circumstances, Israel’s inability to form a stable government is certainly a bad news both for the Jewish nation as well as is harmful for the stability of West Asia. When so much is happening in the region, Israel cannot afford to be callous in its attitude and ought to decide fast on who should be its next Prime Minister and the individual needs to be a stronger one as the present and future scenarios will require a smart decision maker!

While Bibi has serious corruption charges and his declaration to annex West Bank does not go down well with many; it is the military draft law that has become the major hurdle in the declaration of results. The ultra-orthodox and secular right parties that even though support Likud but refrain from joining the coalition because of issues between themselves owing to the draft law. Even though, few days before the declaration of the third round the ultra-orthodox parties showed willingness to “compromise” and will join the coalition if Bibi is able to convince Lieberman.[9] Is this change in attitude because of the changing dynamics in the region? Will Bibi be successful in winning the next round of elections? These questions are worth pondering and are crucial for the stability not just within Israel but in the region as a whole.

When it comes to the Indian political analysts interests in Israeli elections, it is clear that since the normalisation of relations in 1992, India has had close relations with the Jewish state. This has transformed into a strong friendship in the current times. Given that the present Indian establishment shares bonhomie with their Israeli counterpart based on leader-to-leader friendship; India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will certainly look forward to Netanyahu being the victor. However, since state level relations take precedence over personal equations and owing to strong foundations of relations between the two countries; any chosen Israeli leader will face the same warmth from Indian side as Netanyahu. Nonetheless, owing to larger stakes and security concerns in the region New Delhi is closely watching the Israeli elections as it is in its interest that Israel stands stronger to maintain the regional stability.

References:

[1]Charles Stanley Causley (n.d.), “What has Happened to Lulu?”, Available at: https://www.gold.ac.uk/media/documents-by-section/departments/research-centres-and-units/research-centres/centre-for-language-culture/What_Has_Happened_To_Lulu.pdf, Accessed on 31 December 2019.

[2] David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner (2019), “Israel Heads to Record Third Election, Extending Deadlock”, The New York Times, 11 december 2019, Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/world/middleeast/israel-election-vote-netanyahu.html, Accessed on 21 December 2019.

[3] Yuliya Talmazan and Paul Goldman (2019), “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be Indicted on Corruption Charges”, NBC News, 1 March, Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/israel-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-indicted-bribe-fraud-charges-n977571, Accessed on 24 October 2019.

[4] Manjari Singh (2019), “Israel in Warsaw 2.0: An A+ In Netanyahu’s Report Card?”, CLAWS Web Article, No. 1996, 23 April, Available at: https://archive.claws.in/1996/israel-in-warsaw-20-an-a-in-netanyahu%e2%80%99s-report-card-dr-manjari-singh.html, Accessed on 24 October 2019.

[5] The ultra-orthodox draft law calls for inclusion of ultra-orthodox Jews, the Haredi community, into the Military service. As of 26 September 2019, the Haredi  constitute 10.1 per cent of the total population. It is noteworthy that the Haredi have traditionally enjoyed a military draft deferment which has resulted in de facto exemption from compulsory military service. This arrangement was made during Israel’s first Prime Minister and Defence Minister David Ben Gurien considering the need to prevent Yeshiva (an orthodox Jewish seminary) from closing in Israel which will require rigorous studies by the Haredi. This was considered after the realisation that most of the Yeshivas were destroyed in Europe during Holocaust. Thus, preservation of religious scriptures was necessary. However, since 1998 the objectives were already met and Yeshivas are flourishing in Israel since then as per the Supreme Court and therefore the court ruled that there is no harm in drafting Haredi students into the Army. This ruling by the Supreme Court found impetus in Avigdor Lieberman drafting the law for inclusion of ultra-orthodox in the military but has been questioned and refused by the ultra-orthodox parties who want the exemption to prevail. The draft law has become a bone of contention between the right wing ultra-orthodox parties and Yisrael Beiteinu party and both try to downplay the other. In the process majoritarian government under Netanyahu has not been able to be formed as the two major blocs refuse to sit on the same table. For details please refer to: Israel Library of Congress, “Israel: military Draft Law and Enforcement”, Available at: https://www.loc.gov/law/help/military-draft/israel.php#IV.

[6] Jonathan Lis and Aaron Rabinowitz (2019), “This Hot potato Threatens Netanyahu’s Government Even Before its Formed”, 18 April 2019, Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/.premium-the-ultra-orthodox-military-draft-bill-dividing-netanyahu-s-natural-allies-1.7137165, Accessed on 21 December 2019.

[7] Oliver Holmes (2019), “Benjamin Netanyahu Tells Israeli President He cannot Form Government”, The Guardian, 21 October 2019, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/21/israels-benjamin-netanyahu-fails-to-form-government, Accessed on 31 December 2019.

[8] Jake Novak (2019), “The Surprising Issue that Could Decide Israel’s ‘Do-Over’ Election Between Netanyahu and Gantz”, CNBC, 17 September 2019, Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/17/surprising-issue-could-decide-israels-netanyahu-ganz-election.html, Accessed on 31 December 2019.

[9] The Times of Israel (2019), “Ultra-Orthodox Parties Said Willing to Compromise to Stave off Third Election”, 18 November 2019, Available at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/ultra-orthodox-parties-said-willing-to-compromise-to-stave-off-third-election/, Accessed on 31 December 2019.