Right-wing split may not matter

Saeed Okasha , Thursday 12 Sep 2019

Said Okasha examines the composition of domestic political forces that may see an unusual alliance form

Ultra Orthodox Jews
Ultra Orthodox Jews attend an election campaign rally of the Yahadut Hathora (United Torah Judaism) at the centre of Jerusalem on September 15 2019. (AFP)

Israel is headed towards general elections amid domestic and external developments that favour Netanyahu. The latest surveys before polling stations open 17 September give the Likud Party a comfortable lead over its main rival, the Blue and White alliance led by Benny Gantz. But the more important question regarding these elections is whether Netanyahu will be able to forge a coalition government afterwards.

Although his party won 36 seats in the April elections, and despite his ability to secure the support of a number of small right-wing parties, he still couldn’t muster enough support to form a government because Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, refused to lend him the party’s five seats which Netanyahu needed to pass the majority plus one quota in order to form a government.

According to the survey published by i24 news on 9 September, the right-wing bloc (Likud, Yamina, Shas, United Torah Judaism, UTJ and Otzma Yehudit) would win a total of 58 seats (31, 8, 8,7,4 respectively), which is not sufficient to form a government.

Netanyahu would therefore need to turn to other parties to obtain the necessary minimum of 61 seats. His choices are limited. He could try to coax Lieberman, whose party is predicted to win 11 seats, back to the right-wing bloc. Lieberman split from the coalition last year in protest against Netanyahu’s policy towards Hamas which he believes fails to create a sufficient deterrent and ensure the safety of Israelis.

He also refuses to succumb to the blackmail of the religious parties (Shas and UTJ) which will back Netanyahu in a coalition in exchange for the prime minister’s support against legislation that would oblige ultra-orthodox Jews in these parties to serve in the army.

In the event that the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu cannot strike a deal, Netanyahu will have to turn other parties to form a broader based coalition. This could only be the Blue and White (which stands to win 30-31 seats) or its constituent parties, as it would require quite a stretch of the imagination to picture a coalition between the Likud and any of the left-wing parties (ie Labour led by Amir Peretz; or the Democratic Union, which includes Meretz, led by Nitzan Horowitz; Democratic Israel, led by Ehud Barak; and the Greens, led by Stav Shaffir), let alone any of the Arab parties in the Joint List.

It is also difficult to imagine Israel opting for a second snap election in a year in order to enable Netanyahu to form a government, especially given the tense and complex security situation with respect to Iran and Hizbullah.

Therefore, in order to form a stable coalition following the forthcoming polls, Netanyahu will have to choose between the compromises he would have to make to Lieberman or those he would have to make to Gantz (Blue and White).

With regard to the former, it is hard to picture a reconciliation between Netanyahu and Lieberman when the vitriolic exchanges between them in May are still fresh in their, and in Israeli voters’, memories.

Also, the animosity between the two persists. Netanyahu took advantage of the surplus vote agreement that Yisrael Beiteinu signed with the Blue and White (a system that permits parties to pair up in the competition for leftover seats in the house) to charge that Lieberman and his party had severed their ties with the right and defected to the “left”. Even the Blue and White and the Labour Party, which has traditionally been classed as left-wing, shun this label because of the ring it has among the general Israeli electorate which has come to look askance at “leftist” security and social policies.

Lieberman, for his part, said that if the Likud chose another leader, he would return to the right-wing bloc, enabling them to form a strong and stable coalition (according to surveys, his party’s prospective 11 votes would give the bloc 69 seats in the Knesset). In addition to getting rid of Netanyahu, the Likud would have to meet another condition which would be to support legislation for a military conscription law that would eliminate the exemption for ultra-orthodox Jews.

Apart from the fact that Netanyahu will never forgive Lieberman for sabotaging his bid to form a government in Spring and, on top of that, for trying to turn the Likud against him, it would not make mathematical sense for Netanyahu to alienate Shas and UTJ by conceding to Lieberman’s condition on the conscription legislation. Shas and UTJ have 15 seats between them to offer Netanyahu, according to opinion polls, whereas Yisrael Beiteinu would only give him 11.

Since re-entering into an alliance with Lieberman, even if feasible, would probably prove too costly to Netanyahu, he might find the prospect of a broader-based coalition with the Blue and White more attractive, especially in lihgt of recent reports concerning tensions between the alliance’s two leaders, Benny Gantz of the Israel Resilience Party and Yair Lapid who heads Yesh Atid.

Theoretically, even if the Blue and White won the same number of seats as the Likud, the question of whether to join in a coalition government, if approached by Netanyahu, or to remain in the opposition could precipitate a rupture in the alliance.

In such an event, Gantz and the elected MPs from his party might be in a position to work out a deal with Netanyahu that would enable the prime minister to form a government that would be as strong if not stronger than the one he would form if Lieberman returned to the fold. Interestingly, Lieberman himself had suggested such a possibility.

Despite the surplus vote agreement signed between his party and the Blue and White, he charged that Gantz would be willing to enter a coalition government with Netanyahu after the elections in exchange for being handed the defence portfolio.

For the moment, however, Netanyahu is probably banking on a more favourable outcome than the opinion polls predict. He has learned from his personal experience since 1996 that such surveys can prove wide off the mark and that last-minute surprises and swings in opinion can make a big difference.

Therefore, he might calculate that if the i24 news opinion survey gave the right-wing bloc (without Lieberman) 58 seats, then the ballot box could conceivably hand him another four seats in the event of an eleventh-hour shift of the Israeli electorate further to the right, at the expense of Lieberman and/or the Blue and White. In such a case, Netanyahu would have much greater chances of forming a right-wing government to his liking.

Meanwhile, developments have worked in his favour so far. Domestically, his adversaries were unable to have him appear in court on charges of corruption and abuse of power before the elections as they had hoped. Also, his adversaries themselves are divided while Lieberman, personally, appears unable to make up his mind over his party’s orientation even if opinion polls give Yisrael Beiteinu the hope of doubling its seats in the forthcoming parliament.

With regard to external factors, Netanyahu has put paid to his adversaries’ accusations that he is “weak” after ordering a series of successful strikes against the fronts that Israel regards as security risks (Syria and Lebanon).

To the Israeli electorate, the Israeli strikes against the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in northern Iraq, not far from the Iranian border, are a sign that their country’s deterrence power has increased in the Netanyahu era, an impression strengthened by the fact that Hamas in Gaza could not sustain its policy of firing missiles into southern Israel because of the violent deterrent responses ordered by Netanyahu who stressed his readiness to engage in an all-out war with Hamas regardless of the approaching elections.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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