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Indictments could scramble Israeli elections, KU expert says

Friday, March 01, 2019

LAWRENCE – How will this week’s announcement of corruption charges against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu affect the country’s April 9 parliamentary elections?

Rami Zeedan, University of Kansas assistant professor of Jewish studies, said it might boost the chances of the moderate coalition led by former army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. On the other hand, Netanyahu's right-wing supporters might heed his cry of witch hunt and rally to his side, ensuring that he retains power. Zeedan is available to comment on developments leading up to next month’s vote.

Zeedan, who joined the KU faculty in fall 2018, has published extensively on Israeli electoral politics, with an emphasis on the condition of Arab society within the Jewish state. He is a member of Israel’s Druze religious minority, and his latest paper is titled “The Role of Military Service in the Integration/Segregation of Muslims, Christians and Druze within Israel,” published in the most recent edition of the sociology journal Societies.

Last week’s news was the jockeying that led to the closing of party lists, an important deadline in Israel’s system of proportional representation. Given that voters vote for parties, and not individual candidates, and that parties must get at least 3.25 percent of all votes cast to win a seat in Israel’s Knesset, parties that fear lesser vote totals are impelled to join together in coalitions or lists. That happened on both the right and in the center of Israel’s Jewish political spectrum, as well as on the Arab side, Zeedan said.

Zeedan said Netanyahu helped convince leaders of a small, extreme right-wing party, including acolytes of the virulently anti-Arab former parliamentarian, the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, to join a far-right list in hopes it might help him form a governing coalition after election day.

No Israeli political party has ever won a majority of votes cast, Zeedan said.

“As the leader of the right-wing camp, Netanyahu wants more seats, even at the expense of including and legitimizing the extreme right-wing and racist people that will get into the contest,” Zeedan said.

Also at the deadline, two centrist parties came together — the established Yesh Atid (There is a Future), led by journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, and the new Hosen L’Israel (Israel Resilience), led by former Israeli Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz. They formed the Blue & White Party but have yet to put forth a coherent political platform beyond opposing Netanyahu's alleged corruption, Zeedan said.

Based on his reading of the polls, Zeedan said, Netanyahu’s center-right Likud remains likely to win a large share of votes, despite the leader’s indictment. The formerly dominant center-left Labor Party is a shell of its old self, predicted to win about 10 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

Zeedan said Israel’s four large, traditional Arab political parties (Balad, Hadash, United Arab List and Ta’al), which ran a united campaign in 2015, have realigned this year in a 2-2 split.

Transforming point

Last year’s passage of the so-called “nation-state law” defining Israel as the national home of the Jewish people cast non-Jewish citizens deeper into second-class status, Zeedan said. The Arab parties obviously oppose it, but so do some on the center-left of the Jewish political spectrum.

“The Basic Law that was approved last year is a transforming point in Israel's history,” Zeedan said. “This is how I see it.”

Its passage, Zeedan said, was a reaction to various supreme court decisions in the 1990s recognizing more equal rights for Arab citizens.

“Even though throughout 70 years of Israel's history there has been discrimination against non-Jewish people,” Zeedan said, “the basic character of the state did promise a higher level of democracy — a higher level of equality, at least by most of its laws. The nation-state Basic Law changes this formula.”

For example, Zeedan said, the next time Israel expropriates land from an Arab citizen, the judges in the case will have to take into account the nation-state law, which holds that expanding Jewish settlement in the biblical land of Israel is a national goal.

Obviously, Arab parties oppose the law.

“The more interesting thing is among the Zionist parties,” Zeedan said. “All of the parties on the right wing support it. Among the center-left there is a divide. The far-left parties such as Meretz and Labor think it’s a mistake, and this Basic Law must be canceled or amended. The small center parties, such as the newly established ones, they have made some confusing statements. Some members said the Basic Law is OK and should stay, while some other said that the Basic Law needs to be amended to include rights for some other groups, mainly the Druze, who were affected by this. And some others said that this Basic Law should be canceled. So we don't know, exactly, if one of those center parties will win how will they deal with the nation-state Basic Law.”

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in 2015 with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias. Credit: Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs