Editor’s note: At press time, the Israeli election was still too close to call, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party in a virtual tie with former military chief Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party.
Israel’s hyper-democratic parliamentary system is being put to the test once again as the second round of elections in six months has yielded no clear winner.
The two largest parties—Netanyahu’s reigning right-wing Likud Party, and left-wing challenger Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid—are nearly tied, though some 10 percent of the votes have yet to be counted.
Among the other seven parties to enter the government, the alliance of right-wing and religious parties that pledged to support Netanyahu’s premiership secured only 55 mandates—five seats short of a parliamentary majority. At the same time, secular and left-wing parties that pledged to support a Gantz-led government secured only 52 mandates. The Joint Arab List secured 13 mandates, making it the third-largest party in the government.
Since the founding of the State of Israel, no Arab party has ever joined a coalition government. Joint List leader Ayman Odeh has pledged not to support a Netanyahu-led government; however, if the Joint List were to break its longstanding tradition and join an Israeli government led by Gantz, the left would have a clear majority.
Meanwhile, Gantz himself, and other natural Blue and White allies, have pledged not to sit in a government with the Arab parties, whose vision for the State of Israel is clearly at odds with that of the Jewish parties. At his post-election speech, Netanyahu called the Joint List a union of “anti-Zionist Arab parties that oppose the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state—parties that praise and glorify bloodthirsty terrorists who kill our soldiers, our citizens, our children.”
In the days ahead, each party will send a delegation to meet with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin and recommend their preferred candidate for prime minister. Based on the recommendations, Rivlin will select the Knesset member he believes is most likely to form a majority coalition. With both the right-wing and left-wing blocs short of an obvious coalition, Netanyahu and Gantz will attempt to recruit factions within larger parties to break party discipline and cross over to provide one side with a majority. Should those attempts fail, as is expected, Rivlin will seek to convince the Likud and Blue and White parties to form a national unity government.
Following the publication of initial results, Gantz himself has called for the parties to unite, stating, “For a long time, we were busy with the campaign, and now the time has come to work on what matters. I’ll wish the State of Israel a strong unity government.”
Together, the two largest parties total 64 seats, enough to form a government by themselves. Should they agree to join a coalition, other parties both to the right and left would likely attempt to join, creating the possibility of an even larger government. While neither party has ruled out a unity coalition, Gantz supporters have pledged not to join any government led by Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, Likud maintains strong party discipline and appears unwilling to support either a Gantz-led government or a Likud-led government headed by someone other than the current prime minister.
Following exit-poll results, Netanyahu told Likud members that “all of the Likud’s partners want to move forward together to build a strong government and not permit a dangerous anti-Zionist government.”
The results are similar to those of the April elections, which left Netanyahu just one seat short of a majority after the stunning defection of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party and its five seats from the pro-Netanyahu camp.
Lieberman has successfully bolstered his popularity in the September elections, securing nine mandates. He has been publicly calling for a secular unity government that would cut out the ultra-Orthodox parties that have supported Netanyahu.
After the April elections, Netanyahu convinced the Knesset to disband itself and go to the polls for the second time in a year, rather than form a unity government.
With neither the pro-Netanyahu camp nor the anti-Netanyahu camp in a clear majority, party leaders will need to put egos and pledges aside to cross bloc lines in order to create a functioning government. Such scenarios could include secular or left-wing party members joining a Netanyahu-led government; Likud members joining a Gantz-led government; a Likud-led government with someone other than Netanyahu at the helm; or a rotation arrangement.
Within Likud, there is no clear heir apparent if Netanyahu is unable to serve. Furthermore, prior to the elections, Netanyahu had all party members sign a (non-binding) declaration that they would not support any other Likud candidate for prime minister, though all bets may be off if he proves unable to form a Knesset majority.
Complicating matters further is a rotation arrangement already in place within the Blue and White Party, whereby party co-leader Yair Lapid would become prime minister should Blue and White lead the country for two-and-a-half years.
If the parties cannot come to some sort of coalition arrangement, Israelis would be sent back to the polls yet again—a scenario that Rivlin and Knesset members have pledged to avoid. It is unlikely that the Knesset would vote to dissolve itself as it did following April’s election. As such, the makeup of a new government may not be known for many weeks.
Unless Netanyahu can find at least a handful of supporters from among parties who have committed to ending his reign, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister may find himself passing the keys to a political opponent on the left or another member of the Likud Party.
By Alex Traiman/JNS.org