An Interview with Gil Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post
by Jerry Gordon and Rod Reuven Dovid Bryant (August 2019)
Blue and White’s Benny Gantz versus Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu
On July 21, 2019 Bibi Netanyahu became the longest serving Israeli Prime Minister. The occasion should have been a hallmark of his long political career. Netanyahu could take credit for significant diplomatic, national security and economic achievements, all while contending with threats from Iran in neighboring Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Instead, the reality is that he faces the daunting task of Israel’s first historic do-over election on September 17.
Following the April 9 election, Netanyahu failed to form a ruling coalition because he couldn’t sway secular nationalist Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu or even then-Labor party leader Gabbay to join his coalition, enabling him to reach the threshold of 61 Knesset seats. Liberman allegedly opposed joining the Likud-led coalition over the issue of drafting Haredi Yeshiva students. What Former Defense and Foreign Minister Liberman was endeavoring to do was force the formation of a so-called Unity government with the Center-left Blue and White alliance led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Current Ma’ariv polling show Likud and the Blue and White alliance in a virtual tie at 33 versus 30 seats, unable to reach the threshold to form a majority government. The bottom line is that it will be hard for Netanyahu to reach the required 61 Knesset seats to form a ruling coalition. What could emerge is the possibility of someone else being selected by Israeli President Rivlin to form a new government.
That is exacerbated by several developments. There is great uncertainty about possible right-wing support, including extreme Orthodox-religious parties, given a deadline of August 1 for them to file technical party lists. There is the re-forming of the United Arab Party list to foil a possible ruling coalition. No Arab joint party list would join a ruling coalition but might block a possible majority government for Netanyahu. It is complicated by a possible lower total vote turnout than the 68.5 percent who voted in the April 9 election. The Israeli polity is turned off by the political personalities and it might result in fewer Israeli Jews voting, and more Arabs voting. There is the resurrection of the Labor Party, given the recent election of Amir Peretz as party leader. He led Labor in a 2006 election, drawing 19 seats away from the centrist Kadima and Likud then led by Netanyahu.
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Recent Ma’ariv polls show the Likud right-wing coalition with 58 possible seats versus 54 for the Blue and White alliance. Netanyahu has reached out to former Yisrael Beiteinu party members. He has offered former Education Minister Naftali Bennett a possible UN Ambassadorship to replace Danny Danon, whose term is expiring.
Ayelet Shaked, former coalition Justice Minister and co-founder with Bennett of the New Right Party, failed to reach the threshold of 3.25% in the April election. She is endeavoring to form a right-wing alliance with former Jewish Home party members led by Rabbi Rafi Peretz, current party leader and coalition Education Minister. Peretz became controversial for discussing reparative therapy for gays in Israel. The New Right Party passed the threshold for possible inclusion in the do-over Knesset election with 6 seats in the Ma’ariv poll. Shaked and Rabbi Peretz of the Jewish Home party have agreed to merge so that they might gain 12 seats. Shaked is also a possible contender if she returned to Likud, despite the objections of Netanyahu’s wife Sarah.
The Left is not without its problems. Former Labor PM and Netanyahu Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, announced in June a new party list, the Israel Democracy Party, which achieved 4 seats in the Ma’ariv poll. He is currently embroiled in a controversy over an investment partnership with financier Jeffrey Epstein in an Israeli emergency services communication company. Epstein is the subject of a US Federal Court sex-trafficking indictment. Barak is scrambling with his lawyers to unwind the partnership. Both Labor, now led Amir Peretz, and Meretz rejected an alliance with Barak’s Israel Democracy Party over the Epstein disclosure. Labor and Meretz have 5 seats each in the Ma’ariv poll. Labor has announced a merger with the Gesher party excluding Meretz. The United Arab Hadash-Taal-Raam-Balad party list with 10 seats in the Ma’ariv poll might block a possible majority government for Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s strength lies in his commanding presence on Diplomacy, Security, and the Economy. He has kept Israel out of a war, despite the 140,000 rockets and missiles held by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah. He has ‘sway’ over Trump as evidenced by the recent Bahrain workshop launch of the $50 Billion “Peace through Prosperity” economic proposals, something Netanyahu proposed in 2009. There is the matter of whether the Trump peace plans might be released during the campaign for the do-over election. Those might be launched only if it does not hurt Bibi’s election outcome. Bibi has long term relationship with US Republican pollster and strategist John McLaughlin, while Gantz of Blue and White has retained Democrat Joel Benenson, strategist in the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns.
The Israeli economy may not be as strong as it was prior to the April 9 election—impacted by the cost of two elections in one year. That is reflected in curtailment of school funding programs by the Knesset Education committee. There is also the likely impact of the coming October hearing on outstanding corruption charges against Bibi, with new allegations of corruption surfacing That impact depends on the outcome of the indictment charges at the October hearing—whether Netanyahu is able to avoid possible prosecution in December. As far as the upcoming September 17 do-over election, anything at this juncture could happen. However, a repeat of the do-over is unlikely Whatever the result is on September 17, it may not block someone else (other than Netanyahu) from being asked by Israeli President Rivlin to form a ruling coalition.
Jerry Gordon and Rod Reuven Dovid Bryant of Israel News Talk Radio—Beyond the Matrix interviewed Gil Hoffman, political analyst and columnist for the Jerusalem Post on the dynamics and issues in this historic first Israeli do-over election.
Rod: I am Rod Bryant. Welcome. I have Jerry Gordon across the screen from me. We have a great show lined up for you. We have Gil Hoffman again. Why do we have him on again? Because he is the best qualified individual to talk about Israeli politics. He is with the Jerusalem Post, has great knowledge of what’s going on about the do-over election coming in September. We call it an historic event because this has never happened in Israeli politics. It may have happened in other countries, but never in Israeli politics have we seen such a critical time as this. Jerry why don’t you give us a quick overview of Gil Hoffman and what we are going to be talking about.
Jerry: Gil Hoffman is the premier political analyst and columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He is an American graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism who made Aliyah to Israel. He has really done a terrific job of telling the world about the political dynamics and identifying the trends. This program is an example of that. Israel came out of the April 9th election with no ruling coalition because of problems between Bibi and former members of previous coalitions—in particularl, Avigdor Liberman. There are also dynamics going on in Israel on the left as well, including the possible resurrection of the Labor Party under a previous leader who has a demonstrable economic appeal to the less well-off in Israel. There still are those people who might consider voting for Amir Peretz. We also have the re-forming of the Arab Joint List that is seeking to exploit this and other alliances that might form a ruling coalition, if Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, can’t.
Rod: The reason why we say exploit this is the number of people that may return to the polls on September 17 may be significantly less than the 68.5 percent that showed up last time to vote on April 9. Once again, we have Gil Hoffman from the Jerusalem Post. Gil, thank you so much for coming on the show. We have less than two months left to the campaign for the do-over Israeli election, September the 17th. How hard is it looking for Bibi to form a ruling coalition currently?
Gil: Virtually impossible at this moment because he needs to get sixty-one seats on the right without Avigdor Lieberman, his Former Foreign Minister/Former Defense Minister/Former Political ally who stuck a knife in his back on the last day to form a government last time that led to this election being initiated. He’s not getting anywhere close to that in the polls. Maybe fifty-five and that means he would either must swallow his pride and run the country together with Blue and White or Avigdor Liberman saying he won’t join without Blue and White. I don’t know what else can happen.
Jerry: Israeli Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein raised the possibility that the Knesset would cancel the do-over election. Whatever happened to that proposal?
Gil: You know Jerry I was the last one who still thought it could work. Ha’aretz and others said it was just a bluff, it’s a spin, it’s not really going to happen. Till the last minute I was saying this is how it can still happen. Yuli Edelstein announced that it is not going to happen. He’s given up because Blue and White wasn’t willing to even talk to him.
Jerry: We have an old competitor, coming back to this campaign. His name is Ehud Barak. What’s behind his entry into the do-over morass at this point?
Gil: What brings him back is hate, hate and more hate for Netanyahu. If you want to give him the benefit of the doubt, he has an uncontrollable desire to save the country from Netanyahu. He believes that Netanyahu is a disgusting figure who cares only about himself and will destroy Israeli democracy in order to prevent himself from going to prison and that he and only he could be there to save the country. You need to be arrogant to get that point of view, but that is his view.
Rod: How is that resonating with Israeli millennials who tend to be more conservative?
Gil: Rod that’s true, unlike America where you are. Ehud Barak has virtually no appeal to any of those people. He put a couple of young people on his list thinking that would work. He’s not doing well in the polls. The only poll that he was doing relatively well in was the poll taken by his own pollster who he pays.
Rod: Now what do you think about this speculation that Barak’s new party was really a ploy to force the Blue and White alliance with Gantz to the right to form this Unity Government?
Gil: That is one idea out there. You know Bibi is not what Barak wants. If anything, he would want to push Blue and White to the right to take votes away from Bibi and therefore strengthen the center left block. The affect that Barak has had is he has taken votes away from Blue and White, and not too many. That could prevent Blue and White from becoming the largest party. In which case it could very well be that Barak is hurting Blue and White and helping Netanyahu.
Jerry: Polls show Avigdor Liberman’s party, Israel Beytenu, gaining additional seats. The question is what kind of a card can he possibly play to convince Bibi that he would join him?
Gil: The card that Avigdor Lieberman is playing is that he would join only a government of Likud and Blue and White together. That is what he is campaigning in his new ad. That showed a slot machine where if you hit the slots you get a coalition of Netanyahu together with extremist and ultra-orthodox. If you play the slot again you get Benny Gantz with Arabs and extremists. If you hit the slot again you get Liberman together with both Netanyahu and Benny Gantz which is obviously what the people want. It’s a smart ad if you believe Liberman. Since that is what he ran on last time maybe people shouldn’t believe him.
Jerry: Where does that leave Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett?
Gil: People have forgotten him. Ayelet is very much sought after by Rafi Peretz and the other orthodox parties. Netanyahu’s wife, Sarah, hates her from the past. Naftali Bennett isn’t sought after by anyone after he led his New Right party that wasn’t able to cross the electoral threshold The divided religious Zionists on the right takes pride in being united .The only way that Naftali Bennett will benefit is if Ayelet takes him along with her, which is looking extremely likely. She will take him along and save his political career.
Jerry: She was criticized by a Rabbi in Israel as basically a woman who should not lead a government. Is that appropriate?
Gil: Forget about him. He doesn’t matter.
Rod: When we last discussed Netanyahu’s prospects in the April 9 election, the issue about Liberman’s opposition to Haredi extremist orthodox religious parties in the Likud-led right wing alliance surfaced. Will that remain a challenge for him to form a ruling coalition?
Gil: Yes. Liberman ruling out the ultra-orthodox would be a very bad headache for Netanyahu because he likes having the ultra-orthodox there. If you remember, Netanyahu cares about three things, diplomacy, security, economy. He believes he can handle those three things better than any other human being in Israel. He might be right. If he would have to make a coalition together with Blue and White and Liberman, then he would have to give them the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and the Finance Ministry. He does not want to do that. He would rather make a deal with the ultra-orthodox who do not get in his way on diplomacy, security, economy. On matters of religion and state Netanyahu could not care less.
Jerry: There is another contender this election, Labor’s Amir Peretz who was elected party leader. Why did he come back?
Gil: He never left.
Jerry: He came back to quell an “internal dispute” in what is left of the Labor Party. Does that mean the Labor party has virtually disappeared?
Gil: No. The labor party can have new life now. Amir Peretz is very appealing to the poor people on the periphery. He can take votes away from Likud like he did in a very similar election in 2006, when he ran against a centrist party called Kadima led by Netanyahu. He received 19 seats. Netanyahu’s Likud received 12 in that election—in part because he was taking votes away from them. Amir Peretz is certainly a much stronger candidate than Avi Gabbay who is not liked by anyone not even in the family of Avi Gabbay.
Jerry: Is this do-over election in September going to be, pardon the expression, a crapshoot?
Gil: I wouldn’t go that far. I assume between now and election day there might be some issues brought up that people might vote on. In the end, it’s not a crapshoot, it’s Shakespeare. It’s back to the “to Bibi or not to Bibi” that remains the question. Moreover, we’ll keep on answering it until we get a different answer.
Rod: The three Arab parties in the Knesset have re-formed the Joint Arab party list for the do-over election. What contending Israeli left parties would you think would align with it?
Gil: No Arab party would ever join a governing coalition in Israel until the Israeli Palestinian Conflict is solved. However, what they can do is be part of blocking the ruling majority that could prevent Netanyahu from forming a government. In that regard they are counted in that majority that could be formed by Benny Gantz if the election goes his way.
Jerry: During the April 9 election, the Trump administration tried to make a play in Israel. There have been discussions by Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt about possibly releasing the Peace Plan Political Proposals prior to the September election. This is a reversal of what the administration had originally said. The question is, if these political peace plans were released, how would that impact on the election?
Gil: I would only see him releasing it if it would not harm Netanyahu, who he is close with. Further, the plan must not have too many concessions for Israel if he would decide to release it. It would further undermine any confidence in the plan if it ended up being used as a ploy to help Netanyahu win the election. That certainly isn’t going to attract the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table. I heard that he said that he would release the plan. I was surprised when I heard it and I will be very surprised if it happens.
Rod: If there isn’t a big problem with the plan as far as it is causing problems for Bibi, I would assume he is going to release it early.
Gil: If he would release it early then everything would be coordinated with Netanyahu.
Jerry: What is the impact of the so-called Peace Through Prosperity $50 billion Economic Plan announced at the Bahrain workshop?
Gil: That doesn’t apply to our election. Israel is not giving anything up. If anything, it just proves that Netanyahu has his persuasive ability over Trump’s people. Netanyahu talked about economic peace in our election of 2009 when he came back to power.
Rod: I think most of the finances for this deal are coming from other countries and private corporations.
Gil: Yes; from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and private corporations as you said.
Rod: Israel is faced with continuing threats in the Gaza, Lebanon and Golan Heights frontier with Iran. How effective has Netanyahu been in carrying out Israel’s National Security Policies?
Gil: We haven’t escalated into a war, have we? He’s done quite well keeping us out of trouble. We have 140,000 rockets aimed at us from Lebanon and we have a relentless regime like Hamas in Gaza that doesn’t care about manipulating its own people to harm us. The fact that things haven’t deteriorated is a great accomplishment for him.
Jerry: How strong is the Israeli economy under Netanyahu?
Gil: Not as strong as it was a few months ago. During the April elections it was going very well, since then we have had cutbacks in part to finance the election. It doesn’t look good. Netanyahu lost in the Knesset education committee. It was about payments for school trips and school parties. It has gotten into that kind of minutiae.
Rod: As in any election in any country, money or the lack thereof, talks.
Gil: Thereof indeed.
Jerry: Gil, what are these parties in Israel doing about preparing for ultimate succession?
Gil: You mean Netanyahu ever leaving?
Gil: No one is preparing for that. It could never happen. It may never happen. He might be around forever. Seriously, there are candidates in Likud that want to build themselves up. Moshe Kaplan joining Likud said he wants to run there in the future, Ayelet Shaked trying and failing to join Likud shows that she wants to be there. It could very well be that Avigdor Liberman being rejected by Likud would force them to consider alternatives. There is always that elephant in the room of Netanyahu not being able to last forever unless he can.
Jerry: Speaking about that when are the so-called prosecutions to begin there?
Gil: Only in December because there is a hearing in October. In the October hearing, he will be presenting his side for the first time in all the cases. If the hearing is a knock-out or a ‘hail Mary,’ then maybe the indictment will happen. If so, that is likely to happen in December.
Rod: Has there been any new information on the investigation?
Gil: There have been reports about an investigation concerning whether Netanyahu helped an Indian businessman together with Israeli mogul Arnon Milchan, who gave him the cigars. It concerned arranging a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan. They even went by helicopter to Amman. The investigations are continuing. More will come out about what Bibi allegedly did wrong and I am sure more will come out every day.
Jerry: How about the contenders on the Blue and White alliance side? What is their future if they again fail again to create a unity government?
Gil: Anything can happen, that is the beauty of democracy. The partners could be there, they could not be there, too soon to say.
Rod: Has this do-over election ever happened before in Israel?
Rod: So, this is historic?
Gil: Historic things are often good things. This is not. To answer your question, it has happened in Spain, it happened in England, but it never happened here and shouldn’t have.
Rod: When you say it shouldn’t have happened what caused this?
Gil: Avigdor Liberman and Bibi were not able to reach an agreement. Bibi should have realized earlier on that Liberman was going to stab him in the back. He should have been able to make a deal with Avi Gabbay and Tal Russo and break off from Labor. He didn’t succeed in doing that. Lieberman initiated this election out of his own hatred for Netanyahu. They should have known that was going to happen.
Jerry: Looking forward to September 17, is there the distinct possibility that once again Bibi might not be able to form a government?
Gil: I don’t think that there would be a chance of him initiating a third election and avoiding giving somebody else the chance to form a government. There is not going to be a ‘three-peat’.
Rod: Basically, if he fails to bring this together even if he’s elected then this is somebody else’s turn to form a coalition.
Gil: He could not block somebody else from having a chance. President Rivlin, I don’t think would let that happen.
Jerry: You had spent this past spring in the United States talking to various Jewish communities. What were their views about the do-over election?
Gil: No one thought that it would happen. There are left-wing Jewish communities who would like to see Netanyahu leave office as soon as possible. There are people less to the left that have a great respect for Netanyahu and want him to continue to serve. It is a democracy in America, right? You really have a wide spectrum of opinion.
Jerry: There was a little to do from both the GOP and the Democrats in Israel when Ehud Barak announced the Democratic Party of Israel. What was that moment about?
Gil: I think I’m the one who started that fight. I’m the one who told the Democrats abroad, “People in Israel, look at what they are doing!” They said, “Oh, this is misleading.” Then I talked to the Republicans’ overseas people, and they said “Who would want to be connected to a bunch of anti-Israel losers in the Democratic party?”
Jerry: There was a recent trilateral summit in Jerusalem that drew together U.S., Israeli and Russian National Security Advisors all concerned about how to dislodge “Iran from next door in Syria.” It was prefaced by a remark from Putin who said he’s interested in the security of Israel because there are “two million Russians” there. Does that have a factor in this election at all?
Gil: What Putin thinks? Not really. It’s nice to hear that he cares about the Russian immigrants that are here. The Russian immigrants can play a serious role if Avigdor Liberman holds the balance of power and forces formation of a unity government from the right and left. That has nothing to do with Putin. We’ll let Donald Trump interfere and that has more of an impact. Netanyahu has the same pollster strategist—John McLaughlin—that Trump has and Gantz of the Blue White announced that it will also have a very respected American Democratic strategist working for them, Joel Benenson.
Rod: Speaking of polls what do the latest polls show of parties running in this do-over election?
Gil: Likud and Blue and White both have the same number of seats, thirty. Avigdor Liberman’s party polled nine seats. The Arab Joint Party list polled nine seats. Of the Left-wing parties, Amir Peretz’s Labor polled seven, Meretz six and Ehud Barak, at best, five. The Union of Right-wing parties and then the New Right party might end up joining together, so 12 seats. We will find out in a few weeks.
Rod: Has anything really moved since the April election?
Gil: Big changes will happen. However, the changes are yet to happen because the deadline for parties to decide to run together is August 1. We Israelis tend to do things only at a deadline.
Jerry: What are the major domestic issues for Israelis in the do-over election?
Gil: I’m going to be honest with you, there aren’t any. I mean at the beginning, they made it look like maybe Israelis would vote over drafting ultra-orthodox yeshiva students. It is not true, it wasn’t true, it’s never been true. People don’t vote on that, people vote on personality, politics, and “Yes, Netanyahu,” “No, Netanyahu,” “Yes, Gantz,” “No, Gantz”.
Rod: Basically, they want to keep a status quo. They like what they are getting but the problem is getting a coalition government put together.
Gil: What you might see is a much lower turn-out in the September election than you had with the 68.5 % turnout in April, because people did not want this do-over election. They are fed up with our politicians and there is not really a protest party out there to give their vote to. Their protest would be to stay home on a very comfy couch.
There would be less turnout among the Jews, more among the Arabs, because less Arabs voted last time. Last time, the Arabs were upset at their party leaders for not uniting. Now they are going to be uniting. The Arab turnout will go up, while the Jewish turnout will go down. That is bad news for Netanyahu. That takes more votes away from him.
Jerry: Gil, have we answered the question of who the likely contenders for succession may be in Likud? Among the names mentioned are Yuli Edelstein and Gideon Sa’ar. How realistic is that for Ayelet Shaked?
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Gil: Ayelet Shaked would be joining Likud the moment that Netanyahu leaves. Then she could potentially be part of that succession battle. Right now, the top candidates, as you mentioned, are Gideon Sa’ar, Interior Minister Yuli Edelstein, Knesset Speaker. Maybe Israel Katz, the Foreign Minister. Maybe Liberman will try to join. Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu has already re-joined and would run. Dany Danon, who is coming back from the United Nations, would try to run. There are a lot of names out there. Then there is always that possibility that Netanyahu either never dies or that he does die and then rise from the dead and win the election as a zombie. That is also a possibility that cannot be ruled out as much.
Rod: Gil, thank you so much. If people want to read your work obviously, they can go to the Jerusalem Post online. Is there any other that you would like to share with them?
Gil: Sure, @GilHoffman on twitter. They should download the Jerusalem Post app. They can request me at [email protected] to speak in their community in the US when I come back in October. I will be in the U.S. from October 25 to November 11.
Rod: Awesome, we really appreciate it. Thank you very much and have a great week. Shalom. As usual it’s great to have Gil on the show. He contributes so much.
Jerry: Yes, he does. He holds candid views on what the dynamics are in what is going to be a very tough election. We noted that the Arabs feel emboldened to re-form their joint list thinking that they can somehow deny a coalition that Bibi might form. There is also the question of how united the right wing is.
There are actors there we have mentioned like the Former Justice Minister Ayelet, who may come back into Likud and has potential to be a dynamic leader. We also have the question of the rise of the left that was considered crippled in the context of bringing back a veteran like Amir Peretz of Labor who, as Gil said, has an appeal to the less well-off in Israel.
Rod: I did not realize that this whole do-over election had never happened in Israeli politics. I just thought this was something that’s happened before and it wasn’t a big deal, but this is really a big deal!
Jerry: Right. This is going to be a hard election because none of the contenders want to have a do-over. We are still left with a conundrum: Can Bibi form a coalition with these disparate political interests?
Rod: It can still happen.
Jerry: Yes, he must reach the magic 61 Knesset-seat total. In order to achieve that, he must be engaged in rather intensive horse-trading regarding Ministries for coalition partners to go forward with a ruling coalition.
Listen to the original Israel News Talk Radio – Beyond the Matrix interview.
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Jerome B Gordon is a Senior Vice President of the New English Review, author of The West Speaks, NER Press 2012, and co-author of Genocide in Sudan: Caliphate Threatens Africa and the World, JAD Publishing, 2017. Mr. Gordon is a former US Army intelligence officer who served during the Viet Nam era. He is producer and co-host of Israel News Talk Radio – Beyond the Matrix. He was the co-host and co-producer of weekly The Lisa Benson Show for National Security that aired out of KKNT960 in Phoenix Arizona from 2013 to 2016 and co-host and co-producer of the Middle East Round Table periodic series on 1330amWEBY, Northwest Florida Talk Radio, Pensacola, Florida from 2007 to 2017.
Rod Reuven Dovid Bryant is creator and host of Israel News Talk Radio-Beyond the Matrix.
Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast