Op-eds

Third time, I’ll scream

  • ZvikaOpEd
In Hebrew, when you meet someone coincidently for the second time the same day, you point at them and say, “Third time – ice cream”, meaning if you meet them unexpectedly again shortly thereafter, they owe you an ice cream.
by ZVIKA ARRAN | Feb 20, 2020

This bizarre saying is believed to be based on similar idioms in German or English. The most common explanation is that Israelis translate, “If we’ll meet again, I’ll scream,” to the similar phonetics of having “ice cream” at our next meeting.

In two weeks, Israel will hold its third general elections, and we will neither scream nor eat ice cream. The Israeli public is tired. Exhausted. Apathetic. Hopeless.

The polls consistently indicate the same results: deadlock.

This political situation probably won’t change within the next two weeks before the unprecedented third general voting day in less than one year. On the one side, there is the centre-left parties of Blue and White and Labor/Meretz combined with the Arab Joint List. On the other, with almost the same number of mandates, is Netanyahu’s Likud ruling party with the religious right-wing Yamina alliance and the Haredi parties (Shas and Yahadut Ha-Torah).

None of the blocks (alliances) hold a majority of seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). And, in the middle, in between those blocks, you can find the kingmaker, Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), who has already twice refused to crown a king. Lieberman rebuffed Likud in forming a government with haredi and “right-wing extremists”, although this was for decades his natural leaning. He also rejected a Blue and White government supported by Arab votes.

So, we continue to have a dead-end. No government. Another election.

The leaders of the various parties have shown commitment to the promise not to sit with specific parties, thereby ensuring their inability to form a government. For example: Blue and White and the Labor Party promised not to sit down at a table with Netanyahu, and Lieberman refused to meet the Haredi or Yamina parties.

And so, no compromise was found in the past two elections. The result of the upcoming election is likely to have a similar outcome to the last two. Should we start talking about a fourth general election in September?

Almost three-quarters of the Israeli public believe Israel could soon head to the ballot stations for a fourth time.

There is only a slight chance that the polls are wrong. Israeli Arab citizens voted in higher numbers in the last election, rising from 10 to 13 Knesset seats. Trump’s plan to swap Israeli Arab citizens with the Palestinian state angered this constituency. Together with the regular anti-Arab Likud campaign, the Joint List could potentially bring in new voters that have never voted before. Meaning new mandates for the centre-left block.

Besides those fresh new votes, there are many tired, unmotivated, sceptical voters, mainly from the Likud party, who might ultimately choose not to participate.

Having said that, in order to create a game-changer, all the parties are working hard against the indifferent atmosphere of the Israeli public. For Bibi, it’s a case of bringing back tens of thousands of voters who abandoned Likud from the first to the second elections. For other parties, it’s to energise and encourage fatigued crowds to vote once again.

With a blessed stormy winter this year, the weather forecast predicts more than a 50% chance of a rainy election day on 2 March. This means it’s going to be a huge challenge to ensure the typically high Israeli turn out rates (68%-69%) at the polls.

So, are we going to have a fourth election this year?

I assume once again, like I did after the second round, that we won’t have another election. But this time with much more confidence (and again, with nothing to lose).

Israel isn’t just exhausted from its continual political shenanigans. As of January, the end of the financial year, Israel doesn't have a budget. It needs a new government in place to allocate a budget. Without it, there can be no new tenders and non-governmental and other organisations won’t get funding. So, there is now an urgent need for a new government.

Under these circumstances and with an Israeli public willing to compromise in order just to move on, I believe these are the last elections with the current scenario and characters.

The main breakthrough could be the formation of a minority government with Benny Gantz, Lieberman and Labor/Meretz support. The Joint List (the Arabs) would abstain.

Afterwards, Netanyahu wouldn’t be in office anymore, and so the game to maintain a larger coalition would start. This scenario, for example, was not acceptable after the second elections, and now it’s being pushed publicly by Blue and White as a legitimate and feasible option.

On the other hand, Bibi’s whole campaign is now based on a threat, claiming that if you don’t vote for him, you’re voting for an Arab leader. His slogan, “Its Bibi or Tibi” refers to Blue and White wanting to form a government supported by Israeli Arabs and specifically Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the Arab Movement for Change.

A new factor in these elections and the post-election period is Netanyahu’s status as a criminal defendant. His trial will start in coming weeks, and he will be in the Jerusalem District Court on an almost daily basis for a while to come. His interest, of course, is to stay in power, with or without a new coalition. Even as a temporary prime minister.

In fact, he is already a transitional prime minister for a year, but in office with full authority. So, fourth elections are a valid option for Netanyahu. Legally, he can be prime minister until the final ruling (which will take years).

But what about Israel having a prime minister defending charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust against him? This moral question is probably the main issue on the agenda for the coming election in less than two weeks, namely, is Netanyahu to carry on running the country during his days in court?

Once again, our elections focus on one topic: Bibi – yes or no. But it isn’t just personal. It’s what Bibi stands for. Netanyahu is an internationally talented, experienced leader. He is Trump’s close friend. He is the charismatic, long-lasting new Israeli father figure. And then for many Israelis, he is Bibi the accused. The instigator and split personality. The one who keeps challenging and attacking the Arabs, the media, civil society and law-enforcement entities.

We are waiting for the public to provide the best and smartest answer, which we probably won’t get.

  • Zvika ‘Biko’ Arran is an Israeli podcast host, social entrepreneur, lawyer, and policy advisor. He has been living in South Africa since his wife, Liat, took up her position as director of the Israel Centre last year.

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