No one who has followed Israeli politics can be surprised by the outcome of the recent elections. It was nearly a foregone conclusion that another right-wing government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, would follow the most recent government.
The biggest surprises, in my mind, were that the voters cast most of their ballots for two major parties: the latest version of the Likud Party, and the newcomer, Blue & White. Landing 71 of the 120 seats in Knesset hasn’t happened since the 1990s. No other party managed to capture double digit seats this year.
The other big surprise is that the popular Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Naftali Bennett weren’t able to win enough votes to make it back into the Knesset with their new party, the New Right.
But now it’s time for the real surprises. It’s been 40 years since the first Likud government was chosen to lead the country. But this current Likud Party isn’t the Likud Party of Menachem Begin, who signed a peace treaty with Egypt and gave up Israel’s hold of the Sinai Peninsula. It’s not even the Likud Party of his son, Benny Begin, who was essentially pushed out of the party a few years ago.
It’s not even the Likud Party of President Reuven Rivlin, who still speaks in terms of the Jewish and democratic state cited in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
We don’t know exactly where Netanyahu will lead his next government, although we have some clues. The ultra-religious parties of Shas, United Torah Judaism and the Union of Right-Wing Parties are certain to bargain for powerful positions in the government, for financial support for their communities and against any requirement that their young people serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Combined, the three parties represent 20 Knesset seats, which Netanyahu needs to create a coalition government.
But there are already some potential glitches there. The current interior minister is Aryeh Deri of Shas. It’s possible that the Israeli attorney general may not allow him to keep that position because he is likely to be indicted on various charges. Ironically, Deri had been convicted for bribery when he was interior minister in the 1990s and was required to stay out of politics for seven years after completing his prison term in 2002.
Speaking of indictments, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced prior to the election that he intends to indict Netanyahu in three separate cases of alleged corruption, including bribery, breach of trust and fraud. Mandelblit agreed, however, to delay a hearing that precedes an actual indictment until after the election. That is expected by early July.
However, the latest is that Netanyahu’s attorneys refuse to pick up evidence from the attorney general’s office until they are paid and the multi-millionaire Netanyahu has so far not been allowed by the courts to accept millions of dollars from friends and family that he wants to use to pay those attorneys. This could delay his hearing, which could delay actual indictments and a potential trial.
In Israel, a prime minister isn’t required to resign until actual conviction, unlike other government ministers who must resign upon indictment. Netanyahu is the first sitting prime minister to be indicted. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, resigned prior to his indictments, which led to his time in prison.
It is widely believed that part of the coalition negotiations will require his partners to agree to pass legislation that would protect him from indictments while he is prime minister. And since there are no term limits on that job, Netanyahu could conceivably remain unindicted and prime minister for many years to come.
So, Netanyahu’s potential indictment is a huge question mark sitting over the new government.
Healthy democracies need a strong opposition for a real balance of power, and Blue & White, the largest opposition party, is an amalgamation of a politically disparate group of members who disagree on almost everything. How will party leader Benjamin Gantz keep the party on the same page?
Another enormous question was raised by Netanyahu’s hail Mary days before the election in which he pledged to extend sovereignty over West Bank settlements, some of which currently are illegal by Israeli law. Already four Jewish U.S. Congressmen have warned against this move and nine American Jewish organizations have written an unprecedented letter to President Donald Trump, urging him to dissuade Netanyahu from fulfilling this campaign promise, stating that it would prevent any possible two-state solution.
Trump is expected to release his promised peace plan after a new Israeli government is sworn in. What will it say? That’s another much-anticipated surprise awaiting us.