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Israel Knesset Fails to Form Government Forcing New Elections as Tensions Rise Between Secular and Religious Factions

June 12, 2019

Nicholas Fadanelli graduated with a B.S. in Cellular Molecular Biology: Biomedical Engineering in 2018 and a M.S.E in Biomedical Engineering in 2019 from the University of Michigan. Throughout his time at Michigan he has been passionate about international policy, serving as a part of Model United Nations at the University of Michigan from 2014-2019, and working through institutions to create positive change for the community, serving as the President of the Student Government for the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts from 2017-2018.

 

Source: Wikimedia Commons 

 

The April 9th Israel parliamentary elections were initially declared for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His center right coalition had narrowly secured the simple majority needed to form a new government under his leadership, and its formation seemed all but assured by the time the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tasked him with forming a new government.

 

On May 30th, nearly two months after the election and close to the end of the deadline extension granted by President Rivlin, the Knesset passed legislation to dissolve and call for new parliamentary elections in September. Prime Minister Netanyahu had come just one vote short of forming a new government. In order to avoid President Rivlin tasking center left coalition and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with forming a coalition government, the incumbent Prime Minister begrudgingly backed the legislation.

 

For the first time in Israeli history the Knesset has failed to form a government following the result of recent elections, and has instead opted to call for new elections.

 

In recent years hostility towards ultra-Orthodox Jews on both the left and the right has intensified over a number of issues - most notably tax exemptions granted to the ultra-Orthodox and issues surrounding the military draft. While united on many issues, the center right coalition fractured between its more secular and more religious oriented wings regarding these issues. The nationalist and more secular Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman supports abolishing a draft exemption granted to yeshiva students studying the Torah, who largely hail from the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community. The Haredi parties in the coalition oppose abolishing this exemption on religious grounds.

 

The Israeli military currently conscripts all Jewish and Druze men and women for three and two years of mandatory service respectively, and requires participation in the national reserve until the age of 51 and 24 respectively. One notable exception is for Jewish men who study at a yeshiva, who are effectively exempt from mandatory military service. This exception was originally granted when the Haredi community was a very small portion of Israeli society. As of 2019 they have grown to represent approximately 10 percent of Israeli citizens, and by 2059 may grow to as much as 27-59 percent of Israeli society, something often cited by those who support ending the exemption.

 

Prime Minister Netanyahu, needing the support of Yisrael Beiteinu and the Haredi parties, tried to no avail to reach a consensus solution. Netanyahu sided with the Haredi parties opposing the amendment, which caused Avigdor Lieberman to withhold his vote to support the formation of the new government.

 

Meanwhile, the dissolution of the Knesset has delayed the passage of legislation to grant Prime Minister Netanyahu immunity from current corruption investigations underway against him. These investigations, and the potential immunity legislation, were key issues in the April 2019 elections. Now the passage of any such legislation will have to wait until after the September elections and a new government takes power.

 

While the major parties focused primarily on the corruption investigation into Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israeli policy regarding the West Bank during the April elections, issues surrounding religious expression and special rights will likely play a more pivotal role in the September elections. The center left Blue and White party have stated they view this as a “second chance” to win control of the Knesset.

 

Although the likelihood of individual voters changing who they’ll vote for is minimal, due to how close the April elections were even a small change in voter turnout could either secure the center right a stronger coalition, lead the center left into power, or cause even more political uncertainty.

 

Therefore each group shall be trying to focus on different issues to encourage their voters to turn out. The Haredi parties will likely use the threat of the amendment to the military draft and the potential loss of other privileges to increase turnout from their constituency. Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely appeal to Lokud supporters to vote in order to secure his legal safety and pass the legislation granting him immunity. Secular center right parties like Yisrael Beiteinu will likely focus on continuing nationalistic policies but ending special privileges granted to the ultra-Orthodox. The center left led by the Blue and White party will also likely seek to tap into sentiments against the ultra-Orthodox community but preach an anti-nationalistic agenda.

 

The political and legal fate of both Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Haredi community lies in the hands of the Israeli electorate as the mixture of nationalism and religious identity that have held both in power for so long is tested yet again. Should Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party - Lokud - and the Haredi parties in his coalition gain seats it will signal that voters continue to support his nationalistic policies and the ultra-Orthodox community. Should the nationalistic Yisrael Beiteinu and other center right secular parties gain seats at the expense of Lokud and the Haredi parties then the Israeli electorate will have signaled that they continue to support center right policies, but that they seek a curb on the influence of the ultra-Orthodox. Should the center left coalition win, then voters will have signaled that they wish to take a different path altogether, likely reshaping not just future Israeli policy but indirectly that of its chief ally, the United States.

 

Regardless, the increasingly partisan and divisive nature of these elections, coupled with an embattled political leader seeking support from their voting-base against a myriad of political and legal charges, and the debate of the role of religion and traditional values in public life, suggest a parallel with the upcoming 2020 American presidential election. Like the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote served to foreshadow the 2016 American presidential election results, maybe the September Israeli elections will foreshadow the results for 2020, or at the very least mentally prepare us for what lies ahead.

 

 

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