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Conversation with Dr. Ronald Kiener

A Middle East expert dissects the recent election in Israel 

By Judie Jacobson

HARTFORD – Dr. Ronald Kiener is a professor of religion at Trinity College and currently chair of its Department of Religion. Previously, he served as founding director of Trinity’s Jewish Studies Program, which he led for its first decade. A member of the Trinity faculty since 1983, he was also the founding coordinator of Trinity’s major in Middle Eastern studies. He teaches an annual course entitled “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” He is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Mellon Fellowship in Medieval Studies.

Kiener received his B.A. in Hebrew Literature from the University of Minnesota in 1976, and earned his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984. In 1998, he held a Lady Davis Visiting Professorship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and was a Visiting Professor at Tel Aviv University.

The author of several books, he has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs for several publications, including the Washington Post/L.A. Times wire service, via The Hartford Courant and the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Kiener about the September 17 election in Israel, its results and implications. 

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): First of all, were there any surprises in the election outcome?

RON KIENER (RK): There were some surprises here. One surprise was the pathetic showing of the Israeli left between what used to be the ruling Labor party and the Democratic Union [an alliance of left-wing political parties, including Meretz]. Between the two of them they have 11 Knesset seats – that’s fewer seats than the Joint Arab List [a political alliance of the main Arab political parties in Israel]. Polls showed that they were in big trouble, but they were hoping that historic voters would come back to them, but none of that emerged.

One of the interesting stories is that it looks like one of the groups that strongly believe in democracy in Israel are the state’s Arabs. The Arab vote was apathetic in April, but voters came out in big numbers in September and they have the real possibility in a certain configuration of becoming, for the first time, the head of the opposition. And the head of the opposition is entitled to special briefings and consultations. The idea that the head of the Joint Arab List will receive security briefings at some point in the future is revolutionary. I wouldn’t call it shocking, but I would say that that would be a feature that has never been seen in the history of Israeli governance. [See story that follows.]

But that’s not the big story. The big story is that there is no winner – but we certainly know how the loser is. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party officially lost four seats, although actually they lost eight seats, because in the April election there was a tiny party called Kulanu led by Moshe Kahlon, a former member of Likud who broke away in 2016 and formed his own party. Kulanu achieved 10 or 15 seats the first time out, which dribbled down to four seats in April. In May, Kulana joined with Likud, bringing to 39 seats Likud’s numbers going into this election. Now, Likud has 31 seats – a loss of eight seats. 

Netanyahu is the big loser because this means he’s lost all hope for getting parliamentary immunity from the indictments that are looming over his head.  

That was the whole point of the election. Netanyahu is trying to avoid the trap of being formally indicted. The way things stand now, he doesn’t have any inconceivable hope of getting a majority of the new parliament to vote for some kind of prime minister immunity for fraud; for violation of public trust and bribery. The hearings on those indictments come the day after Rosh Hashanah and a final decision after the hearing will come in December. So, he was hoping to use either the last election or this one as a mandate.

JL: What’s the next step? 

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz casts his ballot at a voting station in Rosh Haayin, Israel. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

RK: For the next hundred days Israel is going to be locked in this game of forming a coalition government. On Sunday, Sept. 29, the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, will announce he’s giving responsibility to one of the two party leaders – Benny Gantz [head of the Blue & White party] or Bibi Netanyahu – to form a government. [Rivlin’s decision] will be based on what the smaller parties report to him. This procedure is excruciatingly slow; it will take about 100 days. The person whose given responsibility to form a government has 28 days to do so; if he fails after 28 days he has 14 more days; if he fails after that he goes back to the president and reports that he failed to form a government. That’s what Netanyahu did back in May of this year. 

Normally, the president would turn to another party and ask them to take a shot at it. But Netanyahu convinced the Knesset to dissolve itself. That’s why there have been two elections this year. Netanyahu was afraid of allowing someone else to form a government and he persuaded enough of his people in his coalition to vote for self-dissolution. Israeli constitutional law provides that the current government is the caretaker government, as it has been for the last three months.

JL: It’s been reported that Netanyahu invited Blue & White to form a government with him, but Gantz refused. Is that a possibility?

RK: The next option would be what is called the “national unity government” –  a kind of coalition of everyone. For the sake of the country, no one wants a third election in 10 months. So, one possibility is the two largest parties ,and some satellite parties, agree to set aside their personality differences etc. and try for a national unity government. Then the question is who will be the prime minister in that government. Will it be Gantz or Netanyahu? Or will it be a rotation, similar to what hey tried with in 1984 with Shamir and Peres? And keep in mind that Gantz has an agreement to rotate the prime ministerships with one of his own people,Yair Lapid.

The trouble with a national unity government is when you start dividing up the cabinet positions no one can agree and everyone is disappointed. There will be defections. There will be tempting offers made in order to induce people to cross over the lines in the sand that they have drawn in order to form a government – promises that were made such as I will never sit in a government with a prime minister who is under indictment” and “I will never sit in a government that relies on the Arab bloc of parties to survive.”

But it’s going to take time. One wonders, what if there’s a security crisis in the next 100 days? Or, how does Sheikh Nasrallah of Hezbollah or the leaders of Hamas in Gaza look upon their Israeli enemy when their enemy is locked in a kind of inexplicable democratic haggling.  The haggling they understand – but they will interpret that as weakness. 

JL: Where does Avigdor Liberman, leader of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, stand?

RK: Avigdor Liberman, who was former defense minister under Netanyahu, was enraged Tuesday night [Sept. 17] to hear that Benny Gantz had a phone call with the head of the Joint Arab List, because Liberman is very hawkish. He has also said he will never sit with Netanyahu. Everyone suspects that these promises of “I will never do this” and “I will never do that” will all melt away when it comes down to the actual coalition negotiations. For the moment, however, Liberman, who was at five seats in April and is up to eight seats now, is being described as the kingmaker. He ran against the Ultra Orthodox parties basically, and he says he won’t be in any government that makes Israeli close their mini-marts on Friday and calls for allowing yeshiva boys not to serve in the army. He picked up votes because of his anti ultra orthodox campaign message.

JL: Speaking of the Orthodox parties – are they still in the game?

RK: Absolutely. First of all, the vote get-out is absolutely solid. United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenzai Ultra Orthodox party, had 260,000 in the last election and they got 260,000 in this election. Shas, the Sephardi Ultra Orthodox, actually picked up a seat, and the head of Shas said this morning [Friday, Sept. 20] that he would be willing to sit in a government with Avigdor Liberman. 

JL: Is the strong turnout of Israeli Arabs in the election a good sign for Israel?

RK: Twenty-five percent of the citizens of Israel are not Jewish. If Israel is a democratic country they need to be enfranchised and they need to participate, and many of them know that. They know that if they are going to get a piece of the state budget and if they’re going to get infrastructure and improvements in the lives of their people they have to participate with the Zionists parties. Some of them have served in the past as second level ministers in various ministries that are of particular importance to the Arab sector of the population. 

So, yes, I think it is a good thing, a very good thing. The participation of its Arab citizens is the best counteraction to all of the BDS debates and accusations of apartheid. Many Arabs used to vote for Jewish parties. There was a sizable number of Arabs who voted for Labor or for what was Meretz and is today the Democratic Union. I think many of those voters this time decided to strategically shift their vote to Joint Arab List, which went from 10 seats in the last election to 13 seats in this election, which is about 10 percent of the Knesset.

JL: The Joint List has now recommended to President Rivlin that Gantz head up a new government (see story p. 20). What are the implications of that move?

RK: Much is being made of the Joint List expressing its preference for Gantz. It is not the first time this has happened – back in 1992 some Arab MKs expressed a preference for Rabin to the President. The willingness of the Joint List to engage in this discussion is a good thing for the future of democracy in Israel – but we should note that there is a dissenting voice within the Joint List factions of the formerly separate Balad party. Aymen Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, has been masterful in keeping the electoral strength of the Arab parties intact and is leveraging the strength of the Joint List in the aftermath of these inconclusive series of elections. Netanyahu is arguing that the support of the Joint List essentially nullifies Blue & White to any claim of validity. Avigdor Lieberman agrees – he has made it clear that he is dead set against including the Joint List in any coalition. Ultimately, whatever government is formed will not include the Joint List as a coalition partner – instead, I view this as part of a blocking maneuver designed to deny Netanyahu the first opportunity to form a cabinet and a government under his rule.

JL: Where does President Trump fit into this equation?

RK: It’s pretty clear that Trump reached the conclusion, particularly after Netanyahu was unable to form a government in April and May, that even after he moved the embassy to Jerusalem and tore up the Iran deal and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan heights and cut off all aid to Palestinian NGOos…after he did all he could, Netanyahu couldn’t put a government together. 

So, this time around there were people who thought that Trump would make a last minute visit to Israel or he might announce that he’s acknowledging Israel’s of sovereignty over the West Bank or he was going to  announce a security treaty between Israel and the U.S. But instead the most he tweeted was to say, “I had a phone call [with Netanyahu] in which we discussed that possibility and we’ll talk about it when Bibi comes to the UN general assembly.” A trip that Bibi has now cancelled because he has to deal with governmental crisis. It’s clear that this phone call and this tweet was the minimum; it was essentially throwing Netanyahu away.

What we do know is that Trump has at least an initial infatuation with generals. And Israeli generals command a high degree of respect amongst the American military and amongst American politicians – in some ways even mores than American-raised generals. And it’s interesting that the Blue and White party is headed up by three former chiefs of staff of the Israeli army. So that may bode well for Blue and White.

The proof of the pudding was last night when Trump was out West and he was asked what do you think about Netanyahu’s problems after this election. And he said, “Look, our relationship is with the state of Israel.”

JL: Is there a chance that President Rivlin will choose Blue & White to form the government?

RK: Well, there’s good precedent why he should because, normally, the task of forming the government falls upon the party with the most seats – and Blue and White has 33 seats to Likud’s 31. But it also requires the indication from the other smaller parties that they would like you to give that responsibility to Gantz. If they say that, then I think Rivlin, who personally despises Netanyahu even thought they’re both from Likud, would be more than happy to tap Gantz to form a government. But Gantz may have a different calculation. He may say, “Let’s have Bibi try and fail, and defending himself from the indictments. And then we’ll come in as the savior.”

Now, understand that Blue & White and Likud don’t disagree about a whole lot of things. When it comes to matter of security, settlements, standing up to Hamas, fighting in Syria and standing up to Iran, there is very little difference between Likud and Blue & White. Think of blue and white as Republicans who have a  spine. Just as there is a segment of the Republican party that call themselves “never Trumpers,” so  Blue & White is the “never Netanyahu” camp of the political center

Of course, there’s another possibility. Likud party leaders may look at each other and say you know what we’ve had enough of Bibi.

JL: Is it a real possibility that Likud will oust Netanyahu from the party’s leadership position?

RK: I do. There are people who have been standing in the wings for some time. But I don’t think that just the electoral results themselves are enough to prompt that kind of revolt. it’s going to take further failures: either a very bad performance on the part of Netanyahu’s lawyers during the hearings on the indictments that will take place Oct. 2 and 3, or an inability to form a government. Then they might say: “Bibi, you’ve been our leader for 15 years, but there’s no way forward with you.” I think that Bibi-exhaustion, which some observers have been talking about for years has finally reached its palpable reality. Likud would then have a meeting of the central committee. It would be very ugly because Netanyahu and his wife Sarah are in deep trouble and they understand that where they’re sitting right now is the best protection they have from ending up in prison.

JL: We haven’t touched on the Labor party. It seems as if its disappeared?

RK: It’s amazing that the political movement that created the “yishuv” [the Jewish population living in Palestine before the State of Israel] built the country, guided the nuclear bomb program, fought Israel’s wars…that movement is almost gone. Founded on socialist labor ideas combined with Zionism, it was pragmatic and effective. Now, it won’t even use the word “progressive” or “left” to refer to itself. So, they’ve rendered themselves irrelevant.

JL: What about some of the other left-wing parties, such as the Democratic Union? 

RK: Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak became a very strong Twitter presence during this election cycle and joined hands with the most left-wing Jewish party running – the Democratic Union. But his presence was a disaster for that party. Typically, the Democratic Union could have counted on tens of thousands of Arab votes because it’s the most left-wing Jewish Zionist party. But Ehud Barak is remembered by Arabs as the prime minister during the intifada, and then there’s the problem of Ehud Barak popping up on Jeffrey Epstein rolodex. Ehud Barak who many American journalists turn to as someone to get insight from, has become irrelevant. He was [the voice of] doom and gloom, tweeting that this is the end of Israeli democracy and Netanyahu must be voted out. The leader of the Democratic Union was quoted the other day as saying that the biggest mistake his party made was letting Ehud Barak into its fold. He didn’t bring in a single vote.

JL: Is it possible – or even likely – there will be a third election in a few months?

RK: Another former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, two weeks before the election was quoted as saying for sure there’s going to be a third election. It’s certainly a real possibility that in 100 days time neither Likud nor Blue & White will be able to form a government and then the Knesset will have to dissolve itself again. 

JL: Meaning what for Bibi Netanyahu?

RK: In the case of Netanyahu, let’s assume that he survives and both he and then Gantz fail to form a government. He’s still prime minister for the next 100 days and then for the 2 or 3 months until the next election. His problem is that in December Israel’s Attorney General Mandelblitt is going to have to make a decision as to whether the indictment is formally put forward. If Netanyahu becomes an indicted prime minister, for many Likud politicians and for the Israeli body politic, he would likely be rendered tref. Like Ehud Olmert was. So things will get interesting in late November/early December.

Main Photo: An Israeli election billboard in Jerusalem for the Likud party shows President Trump shaking hands with Prime Minister Netanyahu, also the Likud party chairman. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

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