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Iran Top of Mind as Israelis Head to the Polls … Again

An Altamar podcast interview with Washington Bureau Chief for Israel’s Reshet News

Israel’s third election in less than a year takes place next month amid corruption scandals, regional tension and a poorly received Middle East peace plan. Will this be the last stand of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? 

Israelis head to the ballot box — again — on March 2 in hopes that either Prime Minister Netanyahu or challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party (Kahol Lavan in Hebrew) can form a new coalition government. 

The backdrop is rife with drama: Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing a criminal corruption investigation, but could be helped by Donald Trump’s lopsided Middle East Peace Plan. Meanwhile, the near-Biblical Syrian exodus to Turkey and the death of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani have upended the region. With 120 seats up for grabs in the Knesset, Israel’s legislative assembly, winning the magic number of 61 has proven to be remarkably elusive in 2019’s two elections, and could be just as difficult in 2020. 

Top Israeli reporter Gil Tamary joins the Altamar podcast team of Peter Schechter and Muni Jensen to examine the political landscape through an independent lens. Tamary is the Washington bureau chief for Israel’s Reshet News. He has worked for Israel Broadcasting Authority, Israel Public Radio and “Good Morning Israel” as anchor and chief editor. 

The Trump Peace Deal

As Tamary explained, “Israel is at a pivotal point as of right now.” President Donald Trump’s peace plan brought the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the forefront of front pages–at least, briefly. 

Following the plan’s unveiling, “it was a really useful 48 hours, maybe. But the Palestinian issue is not an issue that the Israeli public is interested in. The Israelis see Iran, Iran and Iran,” he said.

Neighboring countries have meanwhile zeroed in on the heightening tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran: “Netanyahu very smartly was able to create and to form a coalition with other Muslim states that see Iran as a threat for them and to join with their forces … And that’s the reason that, even when, eventually, the Arab League didn’t accept the Trump deal and they rejected it, it was not a huge rejection,” Tamary said. 

Tamary explains the context around Israel’s alliances with other Muslim states.

Tamary explained that it will take a different political gambit to bring people out to the polls: “If you ask the Israeli public if they think that the Palestinian issue is now an important issue in their life or in the coming election, the answer will be ‘definitely not.’” 

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ganz have little hope of convincing voters on the other side of the aisle to switch sides, so “the only question is, who will energize his base better?” Tamary said.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conservative party, Likud, which has been a mainstay of Israeli politics for years, tends to cater to voters who “care more about their quality of life, about how expensive it is to have an apartment in Israel today, why it’s not affordable. … This time, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s doing everything he can to bring any Likud voter, any right-wing voter to the polls,” Tamary said. 

Tamary says the election game-changer depends on who will energize their voter base better.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s corruption trial coinciding with the election has also had a dramatic effect: “We have a Prime Minister that, in the morning, will go to court to defend himself, and in the afternoon, will deal with the important issues that any Israeli prime minister has to deal with on a daily basis,” Tamary said. 

If convicted, Prime Minister Netanyahu would, in theory, go to jail, but if he can secure the much-desired 61 seats in the Knesset, “he can have legislation that postpones and freezes the procedure until after he finishes his term … he’s again King Bibi,” Tamary said.

Tamary explains how Prime Minister Netanyahu could freeze his trial if he were to be convicted.

The Opposition

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s challengers have their own obstacles to overcome. Benny Gantz faces an uphill battle in the coming election: “I don’t know how he’s doing the arithmetic, but if you believe the polls, and the last two previous campaigns, the numbers do not add up,” Tamary said. 

Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman, the founder and leader of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, has stated his opposition to forming a coalition with religious parties and refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition in April 2019. 

Tamary said he predicts Lieberman will secure about 7 or 8 seats in the Knesset, giving him enough room to “be the guy that will determine who will be the Prime Minister of Israel.” If Lieberman believes Israel is ready to move on from the Prime Minister Netanyahu era, he might throw his support behind Gantz–though he’s avoided it during the campaign. 

Can Netanyahu Win Again?

The big question remains: Will Netanyahu be able to pull off a victory? Despite the unpredictability that Lieberman brings to the table, “The only logical scenario is some unity government between Kaḥol Lavan and the Likud, because they have no real differences between them, no ideological differences, and also, this kind of government will represent the will of the majority of the Israeli public. That’s, I think, the only real outcome that will be able to survive as a government for a significant period of time in Israeli politics.”

Altamar is a global politics podcast hosted by former Atlantic Council Senior Vice President Peter Schechter and award-winning journalist Muni Jensen. To hear the full episode with Gil Tamary, click here.

 

Gil Tamary

Washington Bureau Chief for Israel’s Reshet News @giltamary

Gil is the Washington chief reporter of Israel’s Reshet News, covering the US and Israel for more than 20 years.

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