News from October 1-October 6

Israeli election update, diplomacy with the Gulf states, and a Jewish death row inmate

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Israeli election update:

Does Israel have a government yet? Nope.

Okay, so what’s going on? There have been two pretty substantial developments this week. Both have to do with the politics of electoral “lists” which can be confusing, so you should have some background first. 

Background: In the Israeli election system, citizens vote for parties, not individual candidates. In reality, voting for a party means voting for an ordered “list” of prospective members of Knesset (MKs) determined ahead of time. If a party wins 13 seats in an election, then the top 13 candidates on the list become MKs. To make things more complicated, parties will often form electoral alliances with other parties to ensure they reach the minimum number of seats to get into the Knesset. To do so, the parties merge their lists and form an agreement on the new order of their combined list. In the case of the 2019 elections, Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party merged with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem combined to form Blue and White. They combined their parties so that there could be a single party with enough support to challenge Netanyahu for a plurality of seats (and thus the mandate to form a coalition (Yikes!)). Here is the breakdown of the top ten spots on Blue and White’s list by party so you can visualize this:

  1. Israel Resilience (Benny Gantz)

  2. Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid)

  3. Telem (Moshe Ya’alon)

  4. N/A (Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi) (He’s a special case)

  5. Israel Resilience (Avi Nissenkorn)

  6. Yesh Atid (Meir Cohen)

  7. Israel Resilience (Miki Haimovich)

  8. Yesh Atid (Ofer Shelah)

  9. Telem (Yoaz Hendel)

  10. Yesh Atid (Orna Barbivai)

So what happened? To form Blue and White, Gantz and Lapid agreed to rotate being Prime Minister while Blue and White was in power. Gantz would serve two years, and so would Lapid. Their arrangement quickly became a difficult hurdle for unity coalition talks between Blue and White and Likud. Since any arrangement would require a Prime Minister rotation between Blue and White and Likud, and Blue and White already had a rotation agreement within the party, a unity coalition would have to have three different Prime Ministers. Everyone agrees that three Prime Ministers in four years would be too many, so something had to give. Earlier this week, Lapid announced that he would drop the rotation agreement with Benny Gantz, removing what would’ve been a significant obstacle to a unity coalition agreement.

You said there were two things this week! The other big news concerns Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As you may recall, coalition talks are at an impasse right now because Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and Gantz’s center-left bloc both do not have the number of seats necessary to form a coalition. Interestingly, coalitions don’t have to be made up of whole parties in the Israeli system. Instead, a Prime Ministerial candidate just needs the support of 61 total MKs. If those MKs come from another political party, that is fair game. Fearing that rebellious Likud MKs might defect to Gantz’s bloc, Netanyahu was reportedly considering holding leadership primaries within Likud. His calculus was probably that with a lack of a viable challenger, he would dominate the primaries, strengthening his bargaining position as he continues coalition negotiations. If Likud looked divided, Likud MKs might be more willing to defect. Conversely, if Likud looked united, Netanyahu would continue to look like the only viable Likud leader, positioning him well against a Likud rebellion if he is indicted on criminal charges.

However, the very same day that the news of the primaries dropped, a Likud MK and political rival of Netanyahu, Gideon Sa’ar, hinted that he would run against the longtime leader of Likud. Shortly afterward, Netanyahu reportedly called off the primaries and is now considering a proposal that would see the primaries taking place a year from now. This is something to keep an eye on. Even though it’s unlikely that Sa’ar could beat Netanyahu, the fact that someone within his party would challenge him is evidence that Likud might not be as united as it may seem from the outside. That being said, I wouldn’t get your hopes up for Likud defections. 

Further reading:https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5602088,00.html (Ynet)

Israeli foreign minister working on a non-aggression pact with the Gulf states:

What’s going on here? At the recent U.N. General Assembly meeting, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz reportedly engaged in talks with the Gulf states on improving relations between Arab nations and Israel. The agreement would mark a significant easing of relations between Israel and the Gulf states, who have long refused to overtly work with Israel as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The agreement includes a non-aggression pact and plans to establish bilateral relations between the countries involved. 

Does this represent something new? Not really. The Gulf states have long been suspected of working with Israel behind the scenes, especially on security matters. Rumored initiatives include covert sales of military equipment and intelligence cooperation. Some of the moves are even public; in 2018, Saudi Arabia allowed a flight from India to Israel to transit its airspace, a significant deviation from its previous policy of banning flights going to Israel from crossing its territory. What is significant here is that all of the countries involved seem to be willing to make their cooperation public.

What’s the bigger picture? You’d be hard-pressed to say that these relationships are born out of anything other than convenience. Israel and the Gulf states have a mutual regional interest in containing Iran, so they will work together as long as Iran poses a threat. As Iran continues to try to expand its influence, expect Israel and the Gulf states to work together more and more. These relationships are not based on mutual understandings of freedom and democracy like that of the United States and Israel. They are mostly a product of the current geopolitical reality of the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing. In many ways, the more friends Israel can get in the region, the better. Yet, it's almost certainly a situation of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” so it’s fair to question whether it is wise. 

Further reading: https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Israel-working-to-advance-alliance-with-Gulf-states-603807 (JPost)

Court stays the execution of a Jewish inmate over claims that the judge was antisemitic:

What happened? Randy Halperin, a Jewish man sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 2000, had his execution stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He was scheduled to be executed on Thursday, but his lawyers successfully argued that the judge who sentenced him, Vickers Cunningham, may have been antisemitic and racist, introducing an unconstitutional element of bias to the case. Cunningham allegedly called him “that [expletive] Jew” and other awful names during the trial. It’s hard to say if Cunningham was antisemitic or not, but some details are emerging about the judge that raise some red flags. For example, one of his longtime friends detailed in an affidavit that Cunningham once said: “Jews needed to be shut down because they controlled all the money.” Halperin has appealed to the Supreme Court to intervene to hear his case.

Further reading: https://www.dallasnews.com/news/courts/2019/10/04/texas-sevens-randy-halprin-execution-stayed-after-attorneys-allege-judge-anti-semite/ (Dallas News)

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