Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Israel, Failure to Form Coalition Government Leaves Politics in Flux

Israel- Benjamin netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands before a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset (Israeli parliament) on May 29, 2019, at the Knesset in Jerusalem. Photo AFP

Failure to form a coalition government after elections is not unheard of in Israel. But to have to call new elections just 40 days after the previous ones took place is unprecedented.

The normal procedure would be for the president to look to the next largest party to form a government. However, despite the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the new Blue and White party led by former chief of staff Benny Gantz both won 35 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the 9 April 2019 elections, it was clear that no party could garner enough seats to form a government. For this reason, the Knesset voted to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections.

Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, was the unwilling partner whose mere five seats prevented Netanyahu from forming a government (some potential partners refused to join a 60- or even 61-seat coalition, given the inherent instability of such a government).

There is much speculation as to why Lieberman blocked his old mentor and colleague in this way, especially since he had repeatedly claimed in the run-up to the elections that he would only support Netanyahu for prime minister.

One theory is that Lieberman was angling for the job himself. As a result, he made it a condition of allying with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that they change their military draft exemptions. It is an old demand that had not kept him out of previous Netanyahu coalitions. It is also a demand that the ultra-Orthodox parties could be counted on to reject, which they did.

Moreover, the Blue and White party’s main partner, Yesh Atid, which supports the draft, was unacceptable to ultra-Orthodox parties.

It is hard to envisage a new constellation of the major centre-right and centre-left blocs emerging from the elections scheduled for 17 September. There will most likely be changes within each bloc – some small parties that did not pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent in April may get in while others may find themselves below the threshold. In fact, such changes are likely to benefit the right-wing bloc, resulting in losses on the left.

The left-wing Meretz party managed to cross the threshold thanks to the Arab vote. That vote may be the only significant shift in the new elections. In April, the percentage of Arab voters was lower than usual, partly because of disappointment over the political rivalries that led to the collapse of the Joint List of Arab parties.

This time around, the Arab parties have decided to run together again, and so it is likely that most if not all of the Arab votes that went to Meretz will return to the Joint List. This list is also likely to win more seats thanks to a higher Arab turnout.

However, weakening Meretz but strengthening the Arab parties will not help the centre-left bloc since the leading party, Blue and White, has said it will not form a coalition with the Arab parties.

Given the likelihood that the September elections will not change the overall picture, Netanyahu will be asked to form the new government. He may be able to do so if the far-right parties do better, restoring as many as seven seats previously lost when the religious New Right Party did not pass the electoral threshold. However, this would present other problems.

The first problem, which became evident in Netanyahu’s post-April coalition efforts, is that Netanyahu will have to make significant concessions, notably to the far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties. The Union of Right-wing Parties, for example, has already demanded the abrogation of the law banning separation of men and women on public transport and wants Israel to be governed by Jewish religious law.

Netanyahu has tried to placate voters, denying that he even considered such matters in the coalition talks, but there is written evidence that such demands were in fact discussed. There is no reason to expect that they will not be raised again. Along with the usual demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties for their own constituents, such as funding for religious education, there are likely to be newer demands and significant concessions.

The majority of Israelis are secular or traditional, but the building of coalition governments has long been dependent upon the small religious parties. Indeed, this has been a thorn in the side of leading parties and the public for many years, but the small ultra-Orthodox parties now form a large part (16 seats in April) of the centre-right bloc.

The second problem for Netanyahu is the timing of the new elections. He dissolved the previous government and sought the April elections in order to save himself from prison for alleged corruption. The plan apparently was to hold the elections and, with the new right-wing Knesset majority in place, obtain immunity from prosecution for a sitting prime minister. Without changing existing immunity laws, this could be done by passing a law that would deny the authority of the Supreme Court to overturn a majority vote in favour of immunity. Agreement to such a Knesset move against the court was central to the recent coalition talks, and the prospective partners appear to have backed it.

However, it will be too late to pass such a law after the September elections. The reason is that the attorney general has already deemed the charges in three cases against Netanyahu sufficient for indictment, subject to a hearing with Netanyahu. The hearing is set for September and indictments are expected to be issued.

Across the political spectrum, the situation is in flux. Most of the possible merger suggestions by the left wing have been rejected or dropped. Labour, which is busy trying to replace its discredited leader Avi Gabbay, has not expressed any interest in Meretz’s call for a merger.

Gabbay led Labour to its worst defeat ever, reducing the once powerful party to just six seats. Two popular young contenders, Stav Shaffir and Itzik Smuli (both of whom entered politics after leading the massive 2011 social justice demonstrations) may face off against former leader Amir Peretz. Beyond Labour, there is also talk of Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni returning to politics, within an existing party or on their own.

In contrast to Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg’s interest in merging with Labour, there are calls within the party to convert it into a fully joint Jewish-Arab party, with an Arab and a Jew at the top. This idea will be raised at an upcoming party meeting, but it is unlikely to gain traction. Still, it reflects acknowledgement of the power of the Arab vote, but it is also indicative of the fear that Meretz may not pass the electoral threshold.

For its part, the Blue and White party has stated that it does not see any need to join forces with any other party. On the right, the final picture is unclear. Some former party leaders are returning, or trying to return, to the Likud party in an attempt to secure entry to the next Knesset. One key centre-right party, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, has in fact dissolved back into Likud, but Likud frontrunners are not anxious to relinquish positions to former party defectors. Still, almost anything can happen between now and 17 September.

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