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The Return of Netanyahu, the Magician

11/03/2022 08:34:28 AM


Rabbi Natan Trief

A Yiddish word that has very much entered the Hebrew lexicon and modern Israel. It is a word that the Hebrew press has used continuously in the past few election cycles to characterize the various political parties running gevalt campaigns! The sky is falling…Get out and vote or this party will not pass the electoral threshold and you’ll be stuck with a radical, left-wing government! Jerusalem is burning…Get out and vote or you’ll be stuck with an extremist, far-right government! 

Israel is a parliamentary democracy made up of at least a dozen political parties, many of which teeter on the brink of passing the vaunted electoral threshold. In order to gain representation, a party must win at least 3.25% of the vote (~140,000 votes). If the party is even one short of that number, all those votes become essentially wasted votes.

Given the deadlock of the Israeli political system, and how the country has just undergone her 5th election in 3.5 years, every mandate counts. It is a complex, mathematical game and the magic number is always 61 mandates, which allows for a majority in the 120-member Knesset. 

The results for Israel’s 25th Knesset are nearly final. After a resounding victory, it looks like Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to form a coalition remarkably easily. This polarizing politician and former prime minister, already Israel’s longest-serving in history, has regained his nickname HaKosem, the magician. Still facing trial for corruption and other indictments, and relegated to the desert of opposition with his partners restless and frustrated, he closed ranks, maintained discipline, and attacked the fragile coalition relentlessly.

He did this while Yair Lapid, Israel’s current prime minister, ran an ineffective and controversial campaign. Trying to again cobble together a fractured and highly diverse coalition, he focused on enlarging his own party at the expense of the smaller, left-wing parties in his coalition. As of this writing, no gevalt campaign could save Meretz or Balad, two small parties (far left and extremist Arab, respectively) that now find themselves hovering right below that magic number of the 3.25% electoral threshold. If even one of them were to pass the threshold, Netanyahu would lose 4 mandates, and go down to 61, a razor-thin majority. If both were to pass, the elections would be deadlocked again and Netanyahu would have no path forward. 

And so, a remarkably right-wing government is on the horizon in Israel. On one hand, it promises some much-needed political stability in Israel, stability that is essential for the daily running of the State. On the other, it is highly controversial and leans far to the right. Along with Netanyahu’s Likud party, it will be dominated by the ultra-orthodox and newly-resurgent Religious Zionist party and one of its leaders, the hardliner Ben Gvir with a checkered history of racism and incitement. An obvious statement but deserving of mention: Israel is not immune from the winds of nationalism and populism that have blown over many parts of the world. 

Many questions arise with this impending and peaceful transition of power. How will this rightward swing of the government affect relations with the US government and US Jewry? Even though they voted in higher-than-anticipated numbers, how will Israel’s large ~20% Arab minority react to this staunch and nationalistic Jewish government? Will it further inflame existing tensions in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, or will Netanyahu surprise everyone again and balance these great tensions?  

The verdict is out on all of these questions, but Israeli democracy has once again proven itself remarkably resilient. Nearly 72% of eligible Israelis voted, one of the highest turnouts in decades, and a number significantly larger than our average here in America. Hate the new government or love it, join us here at Sinai in the coming months for many opportunities to discuss the context and implications as we continue to celebrate Israel’s 75th birthday. 

As outlined in this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, Abraham and Sarah initiated a Jewish journey that has echoed throughout the generations for thousands of years. Whether in Israel, America or throughout the Jewish world, we proudly assume a part in this unfolding drama. 

May the modern State of Israel always remain strong and just.    

Sat, December 10 2022 16 Kislev 5783