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Will Israel hold its first elections on time in three decades?

August 17,2018 11:21

By law, elections in Israel are held on a Tuesday in the Jewish month of Heshvan, which falls in October or November. They are held on the third Tuesday of the month, except if the previous year was a leap year, in which case the race is advanced to ...and more »


On November 1, 1988, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, the Staten Island Ferry received its first pay phone, “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys topped the Billboard charts, and Israel held its last election on time.
Twenty-one years and four days later, it could happen again. No, Kokomo is not coming back, but Israel could end up having an election that is not advanced.

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By law, elections in Israel are held on a Tuesday in the Jewish month of Heshvan, which falls in October or November. They are held on the third Tuesday of the month, except if the previous year was a leap year, in which case the race is advanced to the first Tuesday, as would happen with the year ahead, resulting in a November 5 election.
It is very rare in Israel for a general election to be held at its set date, because prime ministers tend to either get overthrown or tell the president they can no longer work with the Knesset, so elections are moved up.
At a few different points during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current term, it looked like elections were on the way, mostly due to disputes over matters of religion and state, which is the greatest rift in his relatively homogeneous coalition.
In March, it seemed like a June election would be initiated, ostensibly over drafting yeshiva students, but really because it would have been convenient for Netanyahu to have the race right after the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem and left the Iran deal and Israel celebrated its seventieth birthday with great fanfare.
But there was no majority for an early election then, because Bayit Yehudi leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked opposed timing that would be too good for Netanyahu and got the support of coalition and opposition parties to block the move.
(function(w,d,s,i){w.ldAdInit=w.ldAdInit||[];w.ldAdInit.push({slot:10834723912266086,size:[0, 0],id:"ld-9628-9059"});if(!d.getElementById(i)){var j=d.createElement(s),p=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0];j.async=true;j.src="//cdn2.lockerdomecdn.com/_js/ajs.js";j.id=i;p.parentNode.insertBefore(j,p);}})(window,document,"script","ld-ajs");It also appeared that an election was around the corner in September 2016, when United Torah Judaism and Shas clashed with the rest of the coalition over railway work done on Shabbat.
That election was averted by a special joint meeting of the Councils of Torah Sages of Shas and the two haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties inside UTJ, the hassidic Agudat Yisrael and Lithuanian Degel Hatorah.
It looked briefly like Israel was sure to go to an election in February 2019 just 10 days ago, when the Supreme Court set a December 2 deadline to pass a new haredi conscription law. It appeared very difficult to pass a new law because of the opposition of the head of the Agudah Council of Torah Sages, Gerrer Grand Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh Alter.
The thinking was that the election would be initiated about two weeks after the Knesset returned from its extended summer recess on October 15 and then passed a promised new Basic Law on the Druze sector. The latest the election could have been initiated before the December 2 deadline would have been November 28, likely resulting in a February 26 election, 90 days later.
But since then, it has become clear that the Gerrer Rebbe and his faithful servant, UTJ leader and Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, do not want an early election. They were just pushing for minor changes in the bill drafted by the IDF that now appear unexpectedly achievable.
Just like with the train scandal, the Gerrer Rebbe is up such a tall tree that he needs help coming down. So for the first time since that scandal two years ago, the three Councils of Torah Sages are expected to meet again in two weeks.
They might have already met by now, but the Grand Rebbe of the Vizhnitz dynasty, Israel Hager, is undergoing surgery in New York and will only return to Israel next Thursday. At the meeting, Alter will receive support for backing down from Shas Council of Torah Sages head Rabbi Shalom Cohen, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein of Degel Hatorah, and the grand rebbes of Belz, Sadigura and Sanz.
“No one really wants elections among the rabbis,” a source in Agudat Yisrael said. “They realize the current coalition is the best they could get, and they want it to last as long as possible.”
Netanyahu’s aides cooled the brief election fever on Monday when they reached out to Litzman and told him that what was seen as an ultimatum the previous day had been misinterpreted by the media.
The prime minister was quoted as saying in a meeting of coalition party heads that a solution must be reached within two weeks.
What he really said was that the coalition party heads should discuss when they want elections in their second meeting ahead, which would usually be two weeks later, but in August could be any time.
Then comes September, when the fall Jewish holidays will occur relatively early this year. By October, when the Knesset comes back, it now appears the dispute will be over, and legislating the bill should not be too much of a problem.
Netanyahu has made clear to Litzman that he does not want the next election advanced either. It suits his legal cases to hang on to power for as long as possible before testing the waters of an election, during which details of the criminal charges are likely to be leaked and make him look bad.
The prime minister is also the son of a historian, and cares about making history. Not only could Netanyahu achieve the rare accomplishment of completing a term for the first time in 20 years, he would also pass up David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
A study by Israel Democracy Institute researcher Ofer Kenig found that while Netanyahu will already pass Ben-Gurion on September 24, if the first prime minister’s term is counted from the first Knesset election in 1949, he would need to stay in office until May 31, 2019, if Ben-Gurion’s provisional government is counted from May 1948.
There are still hurdles along the way to accomplish those goals. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) will come under pressure from Yesh Atid to not even make minor changes to the proposed law. 
Liberman has become increasingly independent lately, with elections appearing on the way. When Army Radio’s Efi Triger asked him Wednesday morning about criticism from Bennett on his Gaza cease-fire proposal, Liberman did not bite, merely saying he saw the criticism as a compliment.
But when Triger asked him about Netanyahu’s silence following Bennett’s criticism, Liberman attacked the prime minister, saying that unlike him, “I don’t make decisions based on headlines and polls.”
So there might not be that smooth sailing the Beach Boys sang about in Kokomo, but when it comes to the next election, Israel apparently will not, as the song goes, “get there fast and take it slow.”

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Avigdor Liberman
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