In 17 September 2019, Israelis went to the polls for the second time in five months, and the results were much the same. Indeed, few, if any, significant changes were expected, although it was hoped that a number of ad hoc party mergers would result in a clear winner.
This was especially the case on the left. Fearful that their parties, Labour and Meretz, would not garner enough votes to pass the 3.25 per cent threshold required to enter the Knesset (parliament), leading members of Labour, together with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his Independence party, joined forces with Meretz to create the Democratic Union.
Meretz was doubly concerned it would not pass the threshold if it ran alone, as it had gained additional support from Arab Israelis in the April elections. This was due primarily to the fact that the four Arab parties ran separately, and Arab voter turnout was consequently low.
In the September elections, the Arab parties returned to their Joint List option of the pre-April period. The result was a larger Arab voter turnout and 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, up three from April. Meretz indeed lost many of the earlier Arab votes, in part because of Arab hostility toward Barak for injustices that took place under his leadership in 2000.
The Democratic Union won five seats in September, one more than in April, and Israel’s founding party, Labour, remained at six, despite promises by the new leader, long-time Labour stalwart Amir Peretz, to reach double digits.
There were also alliances on the right, with the far-right parties joining together in somewhat different formations than in April. Yet despite the changes on both the left and the right, the elections again resulted in a stalemate, with neither bloc able to gain a parliamentary majority of 61 seats.
Under Israeli law, the president has three options: to ask the party with the best chance of gathering the 61 seats (usually the largest party); if that fails, he can turn to the next largest party; and if both those options fail, to any individual in the Knesset who could gather the necessary seats.
President Reuven Rivlin gave Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, with its 32 seats (compared to 33 for Benny Gantz’s Blue and White), the chance to form a coalition. However, Netanyahu was unable to scrape together more than 55 seats. On 21 October, Netanyahu returned the mandate to Rivlin who then approached Gantz.
In view of the divided but centrist to centrist-right sentiments expressed by the voters, Rivlin had originally suggested a unity government formed of both leading parties, with rotating prime ministers.
Since Gantz had already pledged not to sit in a government with Netanyahu if the Likud leader – who is facing multiple corruption charges – were indicted, Rivlin’s plan was for Netanyahu to temporarily disqualify himself if indicted.
Gantz rejected the plan and argued for the creation of a liberal coalition, interpreted to mean excluding the ultra-Orthodox parties with their combined 16 seats. There was also disagreement between Gantz and Netanyahu over who would serve as prime minister first.
Unable to form a government by the deadline of 24 October, Netanyahu could have asked for an extension. However, since it was unlikely that Rivlin would have agreed to an extension, Netanyahu returned his mandate to the president a few days early.
It appears that Gantz will also be unsuccessful, putting Avigdor Lieberman, former defence minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, back in the picture. With his party’s eight seats, three more than in April, Lieberman holds the key to a stable coalition and is demanding a unity government composed of his party, Blue and White and Likud.
He has, however, stated that he will not serve with Netanyahu as prime minister.
Negotiations were interrupted by the many holidays after the elections, leaving the threat of yet another round of elections hanging over the country.
Another critical factor is the pre-trial hearings Netanyahu attended in early October, in which he attempted to head off a corruption indictment. The attorney general will decide within the next few weeks, possibly even days, whether to press charges.
Technically, a sitting prime minister may remain in office even if indicted, but there has been speculation that Netanyahu believes the more serious charge of bribery would be dropped if he were already the newly elected prime minister. He has moved quickly to shore up his support, including eliciting written commitments from his own party and the far-right parties not to abandon him or Likud in the coalition-building process.
If Gantz is unable to form a coalition as well, any Knesset member able to garner 61 seats could be asked to form a government. Lieberman may be hoping to profit from such an eventuality, but for this to happen the pledges made to Netanyahu would have to be shelved; there would have to be defections from the right-wing bloc or a rebellion in Likud that placed someone other than Netanyahu at the helm. In such a scenario, Gantz would likely be able to form a government or at least agree to a unity government. That said, such defections seem unlikely.
This is a complicated process and an unprecedented one for Israel. It is further complicated by Netanyahu’s precarious legal position. Still, both elections have told the same story: despite widespread opposition to Netanyahu’s continued rule (ten years and counting), there is no clear public preference for anyone else. Indeed, the Blue and White alliance put together in an attempt to oust Netanyahu has not presented any significantly different policies, and certainly none that are a convincing enough alternative to Likud.
In other words, the public prefers a right-wing or at least a centre-right leadership. The biggest losers of both elections are Meretz and Labour. Gantz could ask Meretz to join a coalition – in fact he would need both Meretz and Labour – but it is not certain that Meretz would agree to sit in a government with Lieberman.
The Joint List has done well in these elections and now constitutes the third largest party, demonstrating that Arab voters want to be a genuine part of the political scene. Most, although not all, of the Joint List parties have expressed their willingness to support a coalition government led by Gantz, still leaving him short by seven seats.
In theory, Gantz (or anyone else) could set up a minority coalition with the backing, outside the government, of the Arabs, as was the case for Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s. However, in the past, Gantz said that he would not work with the Arab parties, and Lieberman, given his nationalist (often racist) positions, would likely reject such a government as well. Thus, this option appears farfetched and unlikely to be supported by Lieberman and many other members of the Knesset.
At the time of writing, a third round of elections seems almost inevitable. This leaves the country with a caretaker government in place and without a budget, although the Knesset members elected on 17 September have been sworn in.
Many questions remain, perhaps most pressing of all being whether Netanyahu will be indicted. Another question is whether a government led by Gantz would introduce significantly different policies. Gantz is perceived by voters to be more honest and less inclined to attack the democratic institutions of the country such as the Supreme Court, as Netanyahu and his allies have been wont to do.
Regarding the occupation and peace, however, Blue and White’s policies are less distinctive. Indeed, the positions it put forward in the lead-up to both elections included a ‘united Jerusalem’ as the eternal capital of Israel, the Jordan Rift Valley as Israel’s eastern security border and Israeli control of security in the entire ‘Land of Israel’. These are the very positions that have been obstacles to a peace agreement, in the 1960s with Jordan and to this day with the Palestinians, in addition to permanent control of the disputed Golan Heights and strengthening of the settlement blocs.
Although there was mention of negotiations with the Palestinians, the two-state solution was absent from any of the pronouncements by Gantz or his colleagues, some of whom, such as former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, have expressly opposed the creation of a Palestinian state.
If Israel finds itself holding a third election, there is little reason to believe the results will differ much from the other two elections this year. Netanyahu appears to prefer a new election, even as he blames Gantz for necessitating it.
The deciding factor may well be whether Netanyahu is indicted on one or more of the charges against him. While many of his supporters might remain loyal to him through another election, there is still the option of avoiding a new election entirely if Netanyahu’s own party were to decide to join a coalition with Blue and White. This would only be possible if Likud replaced Netanyahu. At present this seems like a slim possibility, but these are unchartered waters in which anything could happen.