With Israel’s 2019 legislative election just over a month away, the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) invited former Times of Israel Washington correspondent Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil to give a crash course on Israeli politics for its board. Shimoni-Stoil’s Feb. 28 address at the offices of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore came a mere hours after Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced plans to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges stemming from three separate investigations.
During her talk, an unscripted and enthusiastic Shimoni-Stoil, now a political historian at Loyola University of Maryland, explained that Israel’s government is a coalitional system in which political parties form alliances to control, at minimum, 61 of the 120 seats of the Knesset, the parliamentary legislative branch of the Israeli government. In Israeli elections, citizens do not vote for politicians, but rather for a political party that releases lists of prioritized candidates ahead of the election. The amount of those candidates who earn a Knesset seat is determined by how many votes the party receives during that election.
Even after the indictments were announced, Shimoni-Stoil was skeptical that Israeli left-wing parties will fare well in the upcoming election, calling their current predicament a “lose-lose scenario.”
“As of right now they actually will get the plurality of votes,” Shimoni-Stoil said, referring to the Blue and White coalition, an alliance of left-wing parties. “But if the elections are going to be tomorrow, they will be tasked by the president, Reuven Rivlin — who on the one hand is an old Likud hack, and on the other really personally hates Netanyahu — with forming the government, which is getting to this magic number of 61. And it looks like it’s not going to be possible, as of right now.
“If I look at all of the polling of all of the parties up until today, they can win the election, but lose the parliamentary formation.”
The same thing happened to the liberal Kadima party in 2009. After receiving a plurality of votes, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni could not find 61 members to join her coalition. Seeing that Likud had enough allies to form a narrow coalition, then-President Shimon Peres instead tasked Netanyahu with forming the government.
Shimoni-Stoil believes the only way for Blue and White to reach a coalition of 61 now would be to bring in a collection of small Arab parties. However, if Blue and White announces before the election that they will add the Arab parties to their coalition, Shimoni-Stoil says it is likely they would lose Jewish Israeli votes, possibly costing them their plurality.
“Or they could bring in the [haredi] Orthodox party, but there is super-duper personal bad blood between the journalist Yair Lapid, who’s one of the headliners of the Blue and White party, and Shas,” said Shimoni-Stoil. “Because Yair Lapid’s dad was Tommy Lapid who campaigned on one agenda alone, and that was breaking the religious authority in Israel.”
The Times of Israel reported on Feb. 24 that the leaders of United Torah Judaism, another haredi-Orthodox party, have already ruled out joining a government led by Lapid.
A board member in the audience asked Shimoni-Stoil if Netanyahu’s endorsement of Otzma Yehudit, the far-right descendant of the banned Kach party, would have a negative impact on his numbers on Election Day. Shimoni-Stoil noted that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has disavowed Netanyahu for doing so, but that Blue and White has not taken the opportunity to capitalize off of it.
“For AIPAC to publically disavow [Netanyahu’s] merger with Otzma Yehudit was a momentous signaling within the American Jewish community,” but not as much in Israel, where Netanyahu’s appeal is his claim that he knows how to make Israel’s place in the world secure, said Shimoni-Stoil. It would be smart for Blue and White to say, “Look, you managed to get AIPAC mad at you? How did you do that?” “I think it could be a more significant development than it appeared to be initially,” she added, “but only if it’s used effectively in the hands of those who yield it.” JT
The BJC hosts Shimoni-Stoil for an Israeli Elections 101 event open to the public at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC on March 13.