Breaking the Israeli logjam

Lamis El-Sharqawy, Friday 23 Apr 2021

While an Israeli high court ruling has lifted his risk of disqualification, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to form a new coalition government

Breaking the Israeli logjam
An Israeli Arab woman walks past a campaign poster showing Israeli-Arab candidates in Kfar Menda, northwest of the city of Nazareth (photo: AFP)

An Israeli high court ruling has ended months of speculation over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eligibility to form a new government by rejecting a petition that called for disqualifying him for being under a criminal indictment.

However, while the ruling gives Netanyahu the ability to form a new coalition government, he still has a lot of work to do before this can take effect, including reconciling his allies from across the political spectrum to support him and to increase his current 52 seats in the Israeli parliament the Knesset to the 61 required to form a government before the deadline of 5 May.

The recent Israeli elections were the fourth in two years that ended in deadlock and failed to give any contender an easy route to forming a new government. If Netanyahu is unable to form a new government, the opposition parties will try to cobble together an alternative. If they also fail, the country faces an unprecedented fifth consecutive set of elections later this year.

To assemble the coalition needed to form a government, Netanyahu needs to bring on board members of extreme right-wing and Arab parties and even some of his rivals in order to put together the number of seats required in the Knesset. But Israel’s extreme right-wing parties will find it hard to stomach the idea of cooperating with the Arab parties, which they perceive as a potential “fifth column” led by terrorist sympathisers.

After the election results, Mansour Abbas, leader of Israel’s Raam Arab Party, portrayed himself as an “Arab kingmaker” and declared his support for a right-wing government led by Netanyahu. However, Abbas has now reneged on this support, shifting his alliance to the right-wing Yamina Party, which has seven seats in the Knesset and is led by Naftali Bennett, because of attacks from the Religious Zionist Party

“Netanyahu kept silent about the incitement by the extremist Religious Zionist Party of Smotrich against Raam, as he accused the party of supporting terrorism. This provoked Abbas to vote for the Change bloc, saying he could not be in the pocket of either the right-wing or left-wing,” commented Yasser Okbi, a journalist at the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

The Change bloc is backing Bennett to form a coalition government if Netanyahu fails to do so.

Netanyahu is thus having difficulty gathering right-wing and Arab political groups to set up a coalition formula, but he also faces an unusual challenge from other right-wing contenders, in addition to the conventional opposition of the left wing.

Bennett, once a Netanyahu loyalist, is expected to ally with the opposition parties in a vote on the establishment of a key parliamentary committee, despite having openly expressed his support for a right-wing government led by the Likud Party’s Netanyahu.

Bennett has voiced support for the anti-Netanyahu bloc, but neither right-wing grouping has a clear majority, and either would likely need at least tacit backing from Raam. This indicates the importance of the Arab parties in forming a new government, even as teaming up with the Arabs has been excluded even with the current deadlock.

“The results of the four elections over the past two years have proved that Israel’s stability relies on forming a coalition with Arab Knesset members because it is difficult for any Zionist coalition to amass 61 seats without them,” Anwar Mhajne, a political science professor at Stonehill College in the US, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Bezalel Yoel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, considers that any collaboration with the Arab parties would create not a new right-wing government but a government based on “terrorists.” He said he would “do anything” to prevent its formation.

Responsible for an anti-Netanyahu bill last year that prevented a candidate under a criminal indictment from running as prime minister, Yair Lapid, who leads the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party with 17 seats in the Knesset, may lead a new government if Netanyahu fails during the coming two weeks.

He has announced the securing of some 45 lawmakers who would endorse him after Netanyahu’s mandate to form a coalition expires. Netanyahu can still ask for a two-week extension from the Israeli president, however.

Lapid seems to be the obvious alternative if the deadlock over Netanyahu’s coalition continues. The Israeli president has also said that he would prefer to find an alternative candidate rather than run another set of elections.

Part of the challenge is that the fragmented opposition in Israel has no clear path to power, with no single agreed candidate leading the anti-Netanyahu camp and limiting the options of who it can partner with to form a coalition.

Israel also has a complex election system that allocates parliamentary seats according to each party’s share of the vote, making it easier for smaller parties to enter parliament and harder for larger parties to form a majority.

The stalemate can also be attributed to Netanyahu’s refusal to end his 12 years of rule despite standing trial over accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

“It is not possible to predict where Israel will go,” Okbi told the Weekly. “Will this lead to a fifth round, or will the pro-Netanyahu bloc succeed in enacting a law directly electing a prime minister based on the current parliament to get out of the impasse?”

“What is certain is that given Netanyahu’s refusal to quit the Likud leadership, other election rounds will not be decisive between the camp supporting Netanyahu and the camp opposing him. These rounds could lead to the internal disintegration of the Israeli political and legal system and severe conflicts between the two camps.”

Netanyahu is now under pressure to form a new coalition government before the end of his current mandate.

On Friday, he called on a longtime political rival Saar, a party with only six seats, to join a coalition with Likud to allow the formation of a right-wing government. The Israeli media said that Netanyahu intends to offer Saar several lucrative posts, including deputy prime minister and Knesset speaker. However, Saar does not appear to have welcomed Netanyahu’s “open arms” offer.

On Monday, Netanyahu produced a “test-balloon” bill, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that would allow a one-time-only direct election of the prime minister, giving him a chance to circumvent Israel’s election laws and allowing him to stay in power while facing a corruption trial.

“The bill only requires the winning candidate to gain 40 per cent of the vote, which is roughly the percentage support for Netanyahu in the opinion polls. In the unlikely event it was to pass and Netanyahu were to win, it would not solve the need for a Knesset majority to support the government,” said John Strawson, co-director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict at the University of East London in the UK.

“This system existed in 1996, 1999 and 2001, but it was regarded as a failure,” Strawson said.

He also said that “Netanyahu is determined to prevent anyone else, especially Yair Lapid, that opportunity. He has increased his pressure on Naftali Bennett by accusing him of helping in the creation of a left-wing government led by Lapid.”

“I think Netanyahu’s strategy is to hold out for a fifth election but to prevent anyone else from gaining the mantel of appearing as an alternative prime minister.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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