It seems like he has a string of increasingly radical moves lined up - right up until the last minute next week when he will either succeed in forming a government with his final moves (whatever they might be) or one of the other two alternatives will win out - either a new replacement government or a fifth consecutive election.
Last week, Netanyahu started to see that his chances of forming a 61 seat coalition were looking grim. He is trying to pull together two far right wing parties - Yamina and the Religious Zionist party and mix those parties with two ultra-Orthodox parties - and then have that whole package supported by the 5 seats of an Islamic Fundamentalist Arab party. The Religious Zionist party has balked at the idea and has held a number of press conferences at which they have spewed anti-Arab rhetoric and stated that they will not enter a government that is supported in any way, shape or form by any of the Arab parties. Meanwhile, the Arab party, Ra'am, has naturally called on Bibi to reign in the rhetoric of his racist cohorts if he is really hoping to get Ra'am support.
So Bibi came up with a new plan. He decided he would call for a two track election system with a separate election for the position of Prime Minister Obviously, this is an attempt to create a U.S. style President with separate executive powers and to circumvent Israel's current system. As any constitutional student would realize, it doesn't mesh at all with a Parliamentary democracy. It is a different governing system. So, essentially, Bibi's position is - "if I can't win - we have to change the system so that I can." One would have thought that this would be dismissed out of hand, especially since it was tried and failed in Israel in the past. But since Bibi only needs 61 votes to get a proposal like this passed, he is pushing it as hard as he can.
Some of the actual changes that have been proposed are even more ridiculous. The "Prime Minister" could be elected with only 40% of the vote. He would then instantly have all of the powers of a sitting Prime Minister rather than an interim one - even if he could not cobble together 61 seats. Further, under Bibi's plan (as presented by Aryeh Deri, the former fraud convict and current leader of the Ultra-Religious Shas party), the winning Prime Minister would instantly get 12 additional seats in the Knesset as a bonus for winning the 40%. Taking everything into account, this is essentially a plan that one might see presented by Putin or Erdogan. The problem is that Bibi only needs a bare majority to pass the plan and the issue is whether he can pay off or horse trade with enough members to get this proposal through. So far, the leader of Yamina, Naftali Bennett, has said he would not support it but the possibility of Bennett changing his mind cannot be ruled out.
Seeing that his "direct election" plan did not seem to be working out, Bibi upped the stakes. Earlier today, he proposed that a Bibi loyalist, Ofir Akunis, be named to be the Justice Minister, a position that has been sitting vacant since the government collapsed (leading to the election). Contrary to Parliamentary and cabinet procedure, he did not provide advance notice of intention to put forward a candidate. Contrary to the current coalition deal with the Blue and White party, which is in place until a government is formed, he presented a Likud candidate instead of a Blue and White candidate (as required by the coalition deal). And contrary to the Supreme Court's stated guidelines, he did not recuse himself from being involved in the appointment of a Justice Minister while he is in the midst of an ongoing trial.
The Attorney General noted that this was an illegal nomination, an illegal vote and an illegal procedure. Bibi effectively stated that he didn't care and demanded that a vote be held. The vote was a tie which meant that he could not proceed. In lightning speed, the matter arrived at the Supreme Court of Israel by the evening and will be heard in greater detail tomorrow and perhaps even shown on live TV. The Supreme Court does not want to wade into political decisions but Bibi's actions, by all counts, are a clear attack on the rule of law. Not that he or his party are strangers to this type of attack. After the last election, one of Bibi's henchmen, Yuli Edelstein, locked up the Knesset to avoid a vote which would have replaced the speaker of the house. Even then, the Supreme Court was reluctant to interfere. Some commentators have suggested that this is all part of a plan by Bibi to get the Supreme Court to rule against him so that he can run a populist campaign against the Supreme Court in the next election. Does that sound familiar to anyone across the ocean? *Late Addendum - added at 1 p.m. Israel time on April 28, 2021 - Netanyahu has now agreed to back off and allow Blue and White to continue to hold the Justice Minister position - his announcement came just three hours before the Supreme Court was scheduled to being the hearing.
Given the manner in which Bibi has been escalating his tactics, it is hard to predict what he might try between now and May 4, 2021. This week, he offered to allow either Gideon Saar (leader of the New Hope Party and one of the most virulent anti-Bibi Knesset members) or Naftali Bennett (leader of Yamina) to go first in a two-year coalition deal. His condition is that he would stay in the Prime Minister's house and be called the "alternate Prime Minister" while some else "officially" fills the role. We don't know what else he has requested as part of these offers but his demands are bound to be significant. Neither Bennett nor Saar have rejected the proposals outright but even if Bennett were to agree, Netanyahu could still be short of the 61 that he needs.
So all in all, it is fair to say that things are extremely volatile, unpredictable and, definitely, new and unique, even for Israeli politics. That being said, it seems likely that things will go in one of three directions by May 4th. If Bibi can come up with the right mix of promises, threats, payoffs, carrots and sticks, he might still form a government by the deadline. I don't think we can rule it out yet. It seems that he will need to convince Gideon Saar or some of his New Hope party members to bend and join Netanyahu. That would cause Bennett to join as well and would create a government. But Saar has sworn up and down, over and over, that he wouldn't join Bibi. So it will take quite a lot. I think this is still in the 40% range, perhaps now a bit less.
On the other hand, Bennett, Saar and Lapid are actively negotiating to try and form an alternate "unity government" made up of parties across the political spectrum. They have many challenges, which is inevitable when one tries to combine such a disparate range of political philosophies. From the far left, egalitarian, anti-nationalist Meretz party to the far right, extremely nationalist, religious Yamina party, held together by centrist Lapid of the Yesh Atid party. And this coalition might only have 57 seats unless they can recruit an Arab party or an ultra religious party. It looks like a tall order to get to 61. I'm still not convinced that the chance of this group forming a government is higher than 30 to 35%.
And if you do the math, that leaves us with a 25-30% chance of another election, at least according to this prognosticator. But we should know by May 4th or shortly thereafter. If it is to be a fifth election, it may be in August or September. Perhaps by then, a greater number of Israelis living abroad will be able to travel to Israel to participate in the vote. For the last election, ballot stations were actually set up in the Ben Gurion airport so that Israelis could arrive at the airport and vote before heading off to a quarantine.
As you probably know, things have been opening up everywhere here based on the use of a vaccination certificate system. Concert venues, inside and outside, restaurants, malls, sports events - everything is almost back to normal, for those with Green Certificates, at least. But is it just a lull? We are hearing of significant challenges now coming from the "Indian Variant" which may be impervious to the Pfizer vaccine. If a variant arrives in Israel that can beat the vaccine, we may wind up heading back to square one - after a period of ostensible normalcy. So far, Israel is still pushing ahead with plans to allow for international tourism (for vaccinated tourists only of course), a resumption of the Birthright Program and an expansion of flights, outbound and incoming. But we really can't say how long this "golden period" will actually last. Hopefully, in Israel and the rest of the world, the vaccine will help turn things around in a lasting way.
Heat Wave and Upcoming Holidays
As you might have seen - we reached temperatures of more than 40C last week - more than 100F and it was only April. Fortunately, things have cooled off somewhat and the weather is actually quite nice now. People are arranging their Lag B'Omer bonfires for Thursday night and planning their all night study sessions for the holiday of Shavuot which is 17 days after Lag Ba'Omer. We are picking out our best Blintz and Cheesecake recipes and figuring out how we will best observe the Chag. We may have to visit a winery or two between now and then to find some nice White or Rose wines that could best accompany our anticipated dairy bonanza.
I don't mention it that often in this blog - but as many of you might know, I have a hobby of collecting, teaching and playing a wide range of board games. One of my future projects (hopefully sooner rather than later) is to design one myself. These are complex strategy games - "Euro games" as they are often called that include game categories such as worker placement, territory control, engine building, and economic decision making. They are rarely winner take all games but are won by the player who has amassed the highest point total. Given that I have been here for such a long stint, I have found a few reliable partners - who are quickly becoming equally addicted. Recently we have managed to play three fantastic games - Viticulture (which is all about developing and running your own winery), Brass Birmingham (an economic game set in 19th century England) and Barrage (a worker placement/economic game in which players build dams and try to control water flow and develop energy). These are all terrific games - so if anyone is looking for something fun to do when spending extra time at home - these games will all give your brain quite a workout. Israel has a Facebook group called "Unbored with Board Games" which has more than 10,000 members - who trade tips about different games, buy and sell used games and arrange meet ups with each other. So if you thought board game playing was now a dead or non-existent past time - I think these numbers strongly suggest otherwise. Board game playing is especially common among Shabbat observant families since most of these games can be played on a Saturday afternoon without violating any of the rules of Shabbat.
That's about it for now - waiting for the political fireworks here in Israel over the next week or so and wishing everyone the best of health!