What to Watch in Israeli Democracy: Israel’s Elections End with a Giant Question Mark

25 September 2019

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Israel’s election campaign may have ended, but in many ways, it has ended with a giant question mark. Israel’s politics are tied in a political knot — and possibly deadlock. Neither side — the center-left nor the right-wing-haredi bloc — has emerged with the capacity to form a coalition of 61 Members of Knesset. Though Benny Gantz emerged narrowly ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu, neither one emerged after the elections as a clear designee who could reliably form a government.

Both the right-wing-haredi and the center-left blocs are unable to form a coalition on their own, without the eight seats of Avigdor Lieberman, who emerged from this repeat election strengthened and in the much-touted position of kingmaker. Though he leads a small party comprised mainly of secular and hawkish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, he has made himself seemingly indispensable. He has adopted the position of refusing to recommend either Gantz or Netanyahu to the president, insisting that he will only support a broad coalition comprised of the two leading parties, Blue and White and Likud, without the ultra-Orthodox parties or the ‘messianics’ of the far right.

Where does that leave us? Mathematically, since the polls closed, there have been some minor shifts with major implications. The center-left bloc, initially emerged with a plurality of 57 MKs recommending that Benny Gantz have the first chance to form a government. But when Balad, a faction of the Joint List, retracted the recommendation of its three seats, Gantz was left with 54 recommendations, and the right wing bloc of Netanyahu had 55.

After failing to broker a unity agreement between Blue and White and Likud, President Reuven Rivlin will recommend that Prime Minister Netanyahu have the first chance to form a government. In this regard, the president enjoys a significant degree of leeway. He is not constitutionally compelled to recommend the candidate from the largest party — or even a candidate who is the head of a party. What the law demands is that the President offers the opportunity to a Member of Knesset “prepared to accept the task.” And if the President has been clear about anything, it’s his preference for a broad-based unity government that includes the two largest parties.

Nevertheless, these particular coalition negotiations are not straightforward, and it is hard to see how they will turn out. This column is being written at a time of much uncertainty. At the moment, the hard numbers just don’t match the politicians’ election-time pronouncements. Gantz is not prepared to sit in a unity government with Netanyahu as the head of the Likud party, though it is not clear he will maintain this commitment in the face of pressure from the President. Netanyahu is dead set against giving up his seat. He knows too well that the prime minister’s chair, and his status as the head of the Likud party, is his strongest position to face his personal legal problems. This is the structural impasse on the road to a broad-based unity government.

Gantz may be willing to consider constituting a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties, but for now, they have sworn fidelity to Netanyahu. (Netanyahu compelled his partners on the right to sign an oath binding their political fates to his–though the strength of these commitments may be tested in the weeks ahead, and there is no precedent or mechanism for enforcing them). Indeed, the past decade has seen change in the hareidi vote, which is less narrowly focused on securing their own sector’s interests (and therefore flexible), and more ideologically aligned with the nationalist right.

A center-left government that also includes the right-wing Israel Beiteinu party, while relying on support from the Joint List, is theoretically feasible. But in practice, this is beyond the realm of real possibility. As Avigdor Lieberman has made quite clear, he is unwilling to lend his support for a government which relies on any Arab party. Following the Joint List’s endorsement of Gantz, Lieberman announced that he does not consider the Joint List to be political adversaries, but rather enemies.

However, Lieberman’s demand for a broad-based secular national unity government depends on Netanyahu stepping aside as the head of the Likud. Similarly, the pressure is on Gantz his commitment to his party’s base not to sit with a prime minister actively under indictment.

Was this all confusing? Good. Because if it was, it means that you are catching on. The permutations of possible alignments and the horse-trading involved in such coalition formation can distract from the main point: there is currently no clear way out of this constitutional pickle. Gantz and Bibi and Lieberman have each climbed up a tree.

Someone will have to find their way back down to earth and retract explicit commitments and campaign promises in order for this process to move forward.

At moment, the likelihood of these paths to a 61-seat majority seems equally faint And that is why it is wholly possible that in just a few months time, as the clock runs out, Israel may find itself returning to a third round of elections within one year. That indeed may be the preference of Mr. Netanyahu, who will technically remain the prime minister for that period of time.

While we don’t know where this period of coalition talks will take us, we do know one thing about the results of the election. While there may be no winners, there was certainly a loser: Netanyahu. He took Israel into a second election campaign to secure his position as prime minister. For the second time in a year, he failed to produce a majority to form a coalition. His spell over Israeli politics has been broken, even if he has not yet taken his exit.