Just like in April, Israeli elections on 17 September led to a sharp divide which means neither the political right nor the politically and socially diverse centre and left can form a government by themselves. The only two choices are either to form a national unity government composed of the two major parties (Likud and Blue and White) or holding elections for a third time in one year, which is unprecedented in Israel’s history. Any other options are close to impossible.
Of the 31 political parties and electoral lists contesting the last elections, nine won more than the required 3.25 per cent of votes. Blue and White won 33 seats followed by Likud with 31 seats, the Joint Arab List with 13 seats and the radical religious Shas Party with nine seats.
The nationalist secular Yisraeli Beiteinu Party, led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the extremist right-wing pro-Ashkenazi party United Torah Judaism (UTJ), each won eight seats. With seven seats, the radical Yamina list came next, followed by six seats to the Labour Party and five to the left-wing Democratic List.
These results reveal the following facts. First, both major parties lost seats they won in the April elections; Blue and White lost two seats and Likud lost four. Second, the right-wing front composed of Likud, Shas, UTJ and Yamina coalition — which is expected to recommend Binyamin Netanyahu to form the next government — have 55 seats only.
It needs at least another six seats to guarantee a cabinet, which could be difficult or even impossible because Yisrael Beiteinu (with eight seats) refuses to join a coalition that includes religious parties (with 17 seats).
Third, the parties ready to support Benny Gantz in his bid to become prime minister have (along with Gantz’s Blue and White party) only have 43 seats, which makes it even weaker than the camp rooting for Netanyahu. Fourth, the Arab bloc with 13 seats theoretically increased its political influence, but in reality does not usually join coalitions because Jewish parties — irrespective of their outlook — are not willing to partner with Arabs to form a government.
Fifth, although Yisrael Beiteinu won eight seats, the party will dash expectations as the kingmaker unless Lieberman returns to an alliance with Netanyahu. Joining Gantz’s side will not benefit him in becoming prime minister, especially since Lieberman insists on excluding religious parties.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and the majority of the public, are trying to avoid going to a third round of early elections, and support a national unity government that would include Blue and White and Likud by themselves.
Accordingly, what are the possible scenarios that Israel could face in the near future?
First scenario: a broad cabinet along one of two distinct paths. One is proposed by Lieberman to form a coalition with Blue and White and Likud parties which would have the support of 72 Knesset members. This would be a stable cabinet able to face challenges from religious parties opposed to the secular outlook of the state and the principle of equality (religious parties refuse to pass a law calling for conscription of its followers).
Such a government would also be able to face serious regional security challenges more than a narrow government or coalition. The obstacles on this path are many, including Gantz’s insistence on leading the coalition by himself, while Netanyahu will not accept anything less than rotating leadership with Gantz during the expected four-year tenure of this Knesset.
This would be similar to the arrangement between the Likud and Labour parties in the 1980s. This path is also marred by Netanyahu’s concern of losing his leadership of the right-wing front which would nominate him to become prime minister. It puts him in a difficult situation if he wants to return as the leader of this front in the future.
The second path in a possible broad government is to remove Lieberman from the equation and bring in the religious parties. Such a coalition would be stronger than the aforementioned government since it will have the support of 81 Knesset members.
While this may lessen the anger of the right against Netanyahu, it will not solve Gantz’s refusal to share power with Netanyahu as leader of the coalition. Gantz could face defections in the hardcore secular camp in Blue and White which refuses to cooperate with religious groups, which means he is unlikely to lead the cabinet by himself or in partnership with Netanyahu.
The second scenario is a narrow government. This is possible if Gantz is able to form a government that includes Blue and White and left-wing parties, bringing their total to 43 seats with at least one of the two religious parties (Shas or UTJ) to either have 51 or 52 seats, along with the Arab bloc which could support this cabinet in the Knesset without being included in it.
While this scenario provides Gantz with several advantages, including single-handedly forming a government and pushing Netanyahu — who will very likely be prosecuted on corruption charges — to the periphery in the future. This is the goal of the Arab bloc and all centrist and left-wing parties as well.
However, the flaw in this scenario is that such a coalition would be weak and very unstable, either because it includes religious parties which are known for their political opportunism and have in the past destroyed many coalitions they were in, or because the coalition is relying on an outside bloc (the Arab bloc) that will either make demands in return for supporting Gantz as prime minister or increase pressure on this cabinet for more Arab demands, some of which will be impossible to accept. At that time, Gantz would be accused by the right-wing of allowing Arabs to rule Israel.
The third scenario is elections once again. Everyone wants to avoid this possibility because it would enrage Israeli public opinion which already accuses political parties of pursuing their own interests at the expense of national interests. Statements by Netanyahu, Gantz and Lieberman show the three trying to disclaim liability for a third round of elections in less than one year. Each is trying to blame the others for such a possibility if it happens, to influence their chances in the next elections.
In light of the difficulties facing the above scenarios, what will likely happen is a third election if Netanyahu’s criminal charges do not take their course. His party will pressure him to step down as party leader and if he submits to that, then forming a coalition government with Blue and White and Likud will be possible. It will also be a broader cabinet if it includes Yisrael Beiteinu.
Netanyahu has become the largest boulder on the path of Israeli politics in recent years.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Israel after elections