A strange near-serenity settled upon Israel during the holiday period, when the cadence of daily life is interrupted. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, there is a string of festive days in the Jewish calendar when everything pauses.
Yom Kippur aside, the tone is light, and the daily news much lighter. Everyone, it seems, is on holiday, including the politicos and pundits. For the most part, newsroom understudies get to sit in the anchor chair. Ratings plummet.
What little political discussion persists is listless and has, until recent days, focused on the possibility of a third election. A month ago, the suggestion of such an outcome was met with shock, horror, and lots of yelling on panels. At a certain point, resignation set in. People were fed up, wanted to enjoy the holidays, come what may.
Before Yom Kippur, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was threatening to return his mandate to negotiate a governing coalition, unfulfilled, to President Reuven Rivlin.
Immediately following Yom Kippur, Avigdor Lieberman—whose party won eight seats, thus making him, at least theoretically, this election’s kingmaker—released a proposal for a unity government, which attracted almost no notice whatsoever. The real wheeling and dealing will take place during this week, the Sukkot holiday, when politicians host hordes and smaller groups in their traditional outdoor and semi-sheltered structures in which it is a blessing to eat meals and entertain.
All politicians have been paying lip service to the importance of avoiding a third election but, until the last few days, there has been no interest expressed in moving on the entrenched positions that have caused this impasse. Should Netanyahu fail to form a coalition, then it behooves him, this time, to return the mandate to the president and allow Blue and White to have a go. Following the April election and fiasco, Bibi chose instead to dissolve parliament rather than risk the slim chance that Blue and White might succeed. For the PM to do this a second time will be vengeful and, most importantly, disdainful of the electorate.
The state needs a functioning government, and that imperative is more fundamental and important than any leader or party.
And it appears, now, that the deliverance from this national stasis may have come in the form of White House chaos. Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria has plunged the region into a new round of volatility and chaos. Overnight, a reasonably stable situation in Syria became an opportunity for ISIS to resurge, Turkey to engage in mass slaughter, and Iran and Syria to revel in their greatly enhanced power, backed by Russia. And all of this, of course, perilously close to Israel.
Trump’s erratic conduct seems to have jolted Israeli leadership into a more wakeful state of mind, and catalyzed discussions around the possibility of a unity coalition being formed imminently.
The jarringly abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria and the ensuing mayhem present a critical security challenge to Israel. Suddenly, yesterday, we heard grudging rumblings: that Blue and White will sit with Likud under Netanyahu’s leadership and “hold its nose”; that the ultra-orthodox Haredim are even grumbling along the same lines and may sit with Blue and White and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu.
As Shalom Cohen of the Shas party commented recently, if Blue and White’s #2, Yair Lapid, and Avigdor Lieberman would agree to sit in a coalition with the ultra-orthodox MKs, then he was certain they’d be ensured a spot in Heaven. Lapid and Lieberman are both secularists.
There are now reports of further discussion to cobble together a quick governing coalition in order that the country may function, primarily because of the increasingly volatile and deteriorating regional security situation. The “compromise” being discussed is that there will be no legislation considered on matters of religion and state, in effect putting on ice, for the meantime, the root of the ongoing political impasse.
However, soon after, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz dismissed the buzz as meaningless chatter, saying that Netanyahu is looking for “immunity” from his imminent criminal indictments, not “unity,” which the country needs, desperately.
Netanyahu intends to include his extreme allies, ultra-orthodox and religious nationalists, in any coalition. Blue and White says it will wait to receive a mandate from President Rivlin so that it can lead negotiations for a true unity government and not be a prop in Netanyahu’s stage management.
Bibi and two ultra-orthodox allies (deputy minister of health Yakov Litzman, and Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri) are reportedly to be indicted on various charges very soon. And they know that as long as Bibi is prime minister, the first order of business for a new Knesset will be passage of the so-called “Immunity Law” that will inoculate a sitting prime minister and, likely, any MKs, from criminal prosecution for the duration of their term.
That appears to be the primary concern for these three parliamentarians: their individual legal travails. Events in Syria and the region, however, may well overtake their personal interests and thus stave off the surreal possibility of a third election in one year.