The results of the latest elections in Israel indicate that the political crisis in the country is still continuing two years on, namely that the voters and the political map are divided over the person of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Neither his supporters nor his opponents are able to form a coalition carrying them over the needed majority of 61 seats in the Israeli parliament the Knesset to form a new government.
But both camps have the opportunity, possibly over the next two months, to attempt to form a government. If they fail, Israel will hold a fifth round of elections in a period of two-and-a-half years, possibly having dire consequences for political stability in the country in the foreseeable future.
According to the recent election results, the Likud Party led by Netanyahu won 30 seats, and the right-wing parties that support him won 22 seats (Shas, nine; Yahadut HaTorah [United Torah Judaism], seven; Religious Zionist Party, six).
This means that Netanyahu now has 52 seats in the Knesset but needs at least nine more to meet the minimum number to form a coalition government.
The Yamina (Right) Party led by Naftali Bennett won seven seats and could join hands with Netanyahu, but that would still not be enough, and he would need at least two more seats to form a cabinet. His only choice would be to either reach out to the United Arab List (UAL) led by Mansour Abbas, which won four seats, or gamble on splitting the Tikva Hadasha (New Hope) Party, which won six seats.
Netanyahu will need to maintain his narrow coalition for as long as possible, which will be difficult in the light of manoeuvres by Bennett, who wants to take advantage of Netanyahu’s troubles and ask a high price to join a coalition government.
The price could be signing an agreement to rotate the post of prime minister between the two men, similar to when Netanyahu signed an agreement with Benny Gantz, leader of the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) Party in May 2020, which allowed him to serve as prime minister for 18 months and Gantz for the next 18.
Even if Netanyahu refuses to share power with Bennett, the latter could demand the position of deputy prime minister in the hope that Netanyahu will be convicted of the bribery and abuse of power charges against him, allowing Bennett to step up as prime minister.
Netanyahu is worried about moves by his rivals, most notably Yair Lapid’s, who leads the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party which has 17 seats, desire to pass legislation that prevents any Knesset member from forming a government as long as they are facing criminal charges – which currently applies to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu could try to block this legislation, even if it means appointing Bennett as deputy prime minister and reaching an agreement with Abbas to prevent the UAL from voting for legislation that would deny him the opportunity to form a government. Abbas might support a Netanyahu-Bennett coalition government from the outside, even if his party was not included in the cabinet.
Another reason why Netanyahu might navigate this tricky path is that if he succeeds in forming a coalition government, even if short-lived, it will automatically invalidate the deal he signed with Gantz.
Thus, Netanyahu is facing a complex situation, and his top priority is to block his opponents from passing legislation preventing him from forming a cabinet, meaning that he must ensure that the UAL does not vote in favour of such a law.
His next priority is to form a coalition government that would dissolve the deal he signed with Gantz, or at least drag Israel into a fifth round of elections, most likely in July or August this year.
The above scenarios focus on Netanyahu and his allies, but what of the scenarios facing his political rivals in what is known as the “Bloc for Change”? This Bloc, also known as the Anti-Netanyahu Bloc, is composed of Yesh Atid with 17 seats; Yisrael Beiteinu with seven; Tikva Hadasha with six; Labour with seven; Meretz with six; the Joint (Arab) List with six and Kahol Lavan with eight.
This bloc against Netanyahu holds 57 seats in the Knesset and needs four more to form a government. But where could these seats come from?
Options include asking Yamina (seven seats) to join the bloc, partnering with the UAL (four seats), or convincing Haredi parties such as Shas (nine seats) and Yahadut HaTorah (seven seats) to abandon Netanyahu’s bloc and join them. But these three possibilities involve several problems.
First, the Joint List, part of the Bloc for Change, is mostly Arab (and includes the Israeli Communist Party), and there is a real aversion among Jewish parties to include Arab members in any coalition cabinet under any circumstances.
Second, attracting the UAL to the bloc would be worse than the Joint List’s participation in it, since the UAL represents an Islamist current in Israel, even though there are reports of a strong relationship between Netanyahu and UAL leader Abbas.
Third, any coalition that the Bloc for Change could form would suffer from infighting about who will lead the government, due to rivalry between Lapid, Bennett and Gideon Saar, leader of Tikva Hadasha, for the position.
All three scenarios share the same problems, but the size of each within each scenario should not be underestimated. In the first scenario, if Yamina joins the Bloc for Change, political visions will collide with parties opposed to settlement building, a rallying call for Yamina which also rejects any future agreement that requires the dismantling of the settlements.
Parties diametrically opposed to Yamina’s position on the settlements include the Labour and Meretz Parties. Yamina also rejects a two-state solution, which several parties (Labour, Meretz and Kahol Lavan) believe in, and supports negotiations with the Palestinians based on this solution.
The second scenario, namely relying on Arab blocs (UAL), is the most challenging and is likely to be impossible since partnering with the Arabs, even if only to support the coalition government from outside the cabinet, would harm the credibility of the Zionist parties with voters.
The third possibility of including the Haredi parties would create a strong coalition of no fewer than 63 Knesset seats if Yahadut HaTorah alone joins, or 65 seats if Shas joins by itself, or 73 if both parties join the coalition cabinet.
Some parties in the Bloc for Change may withdraw from the umbrella group if Haredi parties come into the fold, however, especially Yisrael Beiteinu and Meretz, because the ideologies of the extreme secular parties and orthodox religious parties are diametrically opposed.
There are also concerns that the Haredi parties will take advantage of their kingmaker position in a coalition government to demand increases in government spending on their schools, academic institutions and services, and thus hold the cabinet over a barrel.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly