In Israel’s do-over election, Netanyahu needs the religious right to survive

Once more, with feeling.

This week, Israelis go to the polls for the second time in six months, in a vote very much in danger of delivering the exact same result as the last one — or at least something very much like it.

With the political stage already crowded with voter apathy, anger and disillusionment, finding that feeling won’t be easy — at least not the one politicians are hoping for.

Much of the country seems to be engaged in one giant “don’t ask” shoulder shrug, making this election all about voter turnout.

The Groundhog Day feeling began in April, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved Parliament and called new elections rather than offering another party the chance to try and form a coalition government where he had failed.

There are 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset, and Netanyahu fell short of the 61 needed for a majority by just one vote.  Netanyahu’s Likud Party won 35 seats, as did his main challenger, Benny Gantz’s centre-left Blue and White Party.

Israeli flags fly in Jerusalem near the Dome of the Rock mosque. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Those two camps — the centre-left versus a right-wing propped up by ultra-Orthodox religious parties — haven’t shifted very much in the intervening months, according to Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think-tank.

“Those two camps are pretty stable and reflect, I would say, deep differences, or differences in understanding, about what Israel is all about and where it should be headed,” Plesner said. “At the same time, small differences in some small movements can make the difference.”

Election highlights religious-secular divide

One of the things the April election did was make Israel’s ever-present religious-secular divide plainly evident. 

Avigdor Lieberman, a former defence minister and Netanyahu ally, refused to throw his support behind the Israeli prime minister without iron-clad guarantees that religious students would no longer be exempt from having to serve in the Israeli army like other young Jewish men and women.

It is one of the few issues to likely prompt a potential shift in voting patterns when Israelis cast their ballot on Tuesday.

This campaign billboard in Jerusalem features Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, the main challenger to Netanyahu’s party in Tuesday’s election. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

According to Plesner, about 30 per cent of Lieberman’s new supporters are coming from the centre-left, even though his secular party positions itself on the hard-right.

“Mainly centrist liberals … feel that finally there is a strong politician that can to some extent thwart the appetite of the ultra-Orthodox parties and establishment for more and more power when it comes to domestic affairs,” Plesner said.

Many Israelis complain about mainstream politicians offering the ultra-Orthodox greater influence in society in exchange for bloc support.

These voters resent religious concessions such as state subsidies for large families that often include men who study the Torah instead of taking on traditional jobs; public transportation shutting down on Shabbat; and growing ultra-Orthodox influence on education.

“I don’t want this country to become too religious, and I’m worried about [Netanyahu] going together with religious people and changing the nature of what I love about this country,” said Michal Saks, an Israeli woman from Tel Aviv, who was still trying to make up her mind about who to vote for. 

Avigdor Lieberman, a former Israeli defence minister, could play kingmaker in this week’s election. Six months ago, he refused to throw his support behind Netanyahu over religious-secular issues. (Nir Elias, File/Reuters)

The ultra-Orthodox made up 12 per cent of the Israeli electoral vote in April. It’s a small percentage perhaps, but one that can be counted on to turn out at the polls in high numbers.

“The rabbi tells me what to vote,” said 21-year old Shmuel Levi in a Jerusalem neighbourhood called Geula, part of the city’s ultra-Orthodox heartland.

“If [he did not] tell me what to vote, maybe I’d vote for whatever I wanted to, but since I have a rabbi to tell me what to vote, I haven’t even thought of what I want.”

Earlier, a young woman on the same street was scolded by another Haredi woman for speaking with journalists without her rabbi’s permission.

The young woman, a 22-year old named Tova, confirmed she, too, would be voting according to her rabbi’s instructions. “We listen to them and we believe in whatever they say.”  

Arab-Israeli vote has ‘serious power’

Beyond Lieberman’s potential kingmaker status, there is another possible wild card in the election in the form of the Arab-Israeli population — Palestinian citizens of Israel who have traditionally failed to turn up at the polls in large numbers.

Some refuse to participate in protests against the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while others say they feel discriminated against in Israeli society.

But they also make up about 20 per cent of the Israeli population, which could form a formidable bloc if they managed to get a big turnout on Tuesday.  

“We are going to their houses, we are going to their neighbourhoods. We are going to visit them all over where we can,” said Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Palestinian-Israeli running for the Balad party.

“Most of them are also not that aware of their serious power. Nowadays, the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel now have something like 950,000 people who can vote.”

Ultra-Orthodox voter turnout is generally higher than in other segments of the Israeli population. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Abu Shehadeh admits the Arab-Israeli parties made a mistake by not joining forces in April, when they took just 10 seats. They’ve since re-created a “Joint List” in the hopes of capitalizing on their numbers.

Netanyahu has been accused of racist scare-mongering aimed at the Israeli Arab community in the April election and in the 2015 election before that.  

This time around, he launched a campaign to have video cameras placed at Arab polling stations in a move critics say was aimed at intimidating voters.

His Instagram account also posted a picture of a Tel Aviv skyscraper draped in the Palestinian flag and a message saying it would be the face of the future if Israelis didn’t vote Likud.   

“If you don’t go vote, this is how it will end up,” it read.

Netanyahu is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He’s also facing three possible corruption indictments with pre-trial hearings scheduled for October. 

Analysts say it makes this election especially critical for Netanyahu if he hopes to pursue some kind of immunity down the line.  

Plesner said Netanyahu is resorting to tactics that have served him well in the past, by summoning issues that divide.  

“It’s very much firing up his own base,” said Plesner. Netanyahu understands “the movement between the [voting] blocs is quite minimal, and therefore one has to fire up the enthusiasm and ensure turnout is within one’s own base of supporters.”

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