Third Time’s a Charm? Netanyahu Could Finally Be Dislodged

For the third time in a year, the State of Israel has held inconclusive parliamentary elections in an effort to form a new government. And for the third time, the result has been practically unchanged. The split is largely down the middle between a bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies and another headed by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, while former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu Party remains in the middle. The Joint Arab List supported by the country’s Palestinians won 15 seats. But the results of this most recent election, while generally similar to those of the one before, might ultimately lead to a different outcome.

The Campaigns and the Vote

Much like previous campaigns, the most recent Israeli election revolved around the question of whether or not Israeli voters wanted to keep Netanyahu as prime minister. He has served in this position longer than any previous Israeli politician; however, he has been surrounded by legal troubles and corruption allegations throughout the latter years of his premiership. In an effort to oust Netanyahu, Gantz campaigned around the idea of restoring Israeli democratic principles and anti-corruption rules. The entire premise of the campaign led by Benjamin Gantz’s Blue and White slate was that if Israeli voters were given a choice to support or oppose Netanyahu’s corruption, they would vote against it. To make this choice apparent to Israeli voters and isolate the question of corruption, the Blue and White slate needed to present itself in a way that was as similar to Netanyahu as possible, but without the stench of corruption. This is the reason the Blue and White slate did not create a clear distinction from Netanyahu on a range of other issues, especially on the question of peace with Palestinians. They believed that the Israeli center was neither interested in nor motivated by the question of peace; instead, they presumed that this electorate was focused on what is good for Israeli society separate from the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s strategy had to adjust to this reality. He had to create distinctions between himself and Gantz by moving farther right since Blue and White was embracing the Likud’s traditional right-wing position toward the Palestinians. Netanyahu understood that a critical way he could hammer home this message to Israeli voters would be by focusing on Palestinian citizens of Israel and the political leaders who represent that constituency. By doing so, and using direct and overt anti-Arab incitement, he would be able to provide a contrast between him and Blue and White and also to complicate the strategic options of his adversaries down the line.

For Gantz to be able to dislodge Netanyahu, he would need to make two diametrically opposed forces come together: Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party and the Arab Joint List representing Palestinian citizens of Israel. Nothing could make this already difficult task more complicated than a public discourse overwhelmed with anti-Arab campaign rhetoric. This way, and even though he did not have enough votes for a majority on his own, Netanyahu knew that implementing such a defensive divide-and-conquer strategy—directed at the bloc that opposed him—would ensure his opponents’ disarray time and time again. With this strategy, it actually did not hurt Netanyahu if his racist anti-Arab incitement led to greater turnout and votes for the Joint List. Since it was all but guaranteed that the number of seats the Joint List earned would never be part of a governing coalition, the larger their seat total became, the fewer seats would accrue to other opposition parties. In other words, if Netanyahu knew that he could only get 58 or 59 seats for his bloc instead of the 61 needed for a majority to form a governing coalition, he would be in a much stronger position if his 58 or 59 seats were out of 110 total (or 53 percent)—or better yet, out of 105 total (or 56 percent) instead of out of 120 total (or a lower 49 percent). This is another reason why Netanyahu continues to argue that he has won a majority of the Zionist or Jewish vote.

When the votes initially began to come in, it looked like Netanyahu was headed to a clear victory. Exit polls showed his party and allies getting close to 60 seats, meaning he would only need one defector from the other side to have a majority to govern. Such a margin would make it very difficult for anyone to argue that it would be worth putting the country through yet another election simply to prevent a government that fell one seat short of a majority. When the actual votes were counted after several days, Netanyahu’s margin of victory was much slimmer than initially forecast. Instead of 60 seats, his bloc only gained 58 while his Likud Party alone made up 36 of those seats. In some ways, this outcome was a stunning victory for Netanyahu. After three elections during which his criminal indictment proceedings drew closer, he managed to secure his largest vote total ever and his largest margin of victory over the Blue and White Party. Evidently, when Israeli voters were confronted with choosing between anti-corruption and anti-Arabism, they chose the latter. Despite this somewhat remarkable achievement, Netanyahu still fell short of guaranteeing himself a continued stint as prime minister.

The Joint List also did significantly well, garnering a total of 15 seats, the most that they have ever been able to achieve in an Israeli election. The list received nearly 600,000 votes, which was an impressive increase over the election last September as well as that of the previous April. Turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel was up significantly and there was also a not-insignificant number of Jewish Israeli voters who defected from left-leaning parties, such as Meretz, and decided to vote for the Joint List instead.

Where to from Here?

The Joint Arab List is in an extremely interesting and powerful position with the 15 seats it has gained. It can determine who the next prime minister of Israel will be and what shape the new Israeli government will take. Doing so, however, will require navigating very treacherous terrain. For the first time in many years, Palestinian citizens of Israel voted in significant numbers, many in response to the racist incitement during the election campaign. The Joint List also has to consider how it can ensure that many of those voters who came out this time will turn out to support it again in the future. While many voters who supported the Joint List consider it a representative of the Palestinian citizens of Israel that stands up to the racism coming from the very top of the Israeli state, that does not necessarily mean that they will remain steadfast and committed in future elections. That is why the list can choose to work to join a coalition, support the formation of a coalition from the outside, or do neither and merely work as an independent opposition party—as it often and traditionally did. Today, it seems that Benjamin Gantz, head of the Blue and White Party, is being nominated to form a coalition government in Israel. Negotiations around government formation will now begin on a timed clock that would give Gantz 28 days to secure coalition agreements, with a possible 15-day extension added at the end. There are a few possible options for what could emerge when this period is concluded:

A Netanyahu-led government without Gantz. It is important to keep in mind that while there are high odds against Netanyahu at this moment, his party’s coalition is still the largest as a result of this election and his bloc, on its own, is the closest to the 61 seats needed. There are a few different pathways to a situation where Netanyahu can lead a government without Benjamin Gantz being involved. First, Avigdor Lieberman could have a change of heart and realign with Netanyahu. This is not likely. However, should Gantz prove incapable of forming a viable governing coalition by the deadline, Lieberman would face the choice of either joining Netanyahu or bringing the country to a fourth election. It is possible in such a scenario that Lieberman would choose to bring an end to the election circus rather than to keep it going. A second pathway for Netanyahu to this outcome would be if he were able to bring some defectors from the opposition bloc to join his coalition. This, too, is unlikely; but the chances of it improve as prospects of a fourth election loom. A third pathway for this outcome would be for Netanyahu to lead a minority government with 58 seats along with the support of Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset, but not as part of his coalition.

A Gantz-led government without Netanyahu. Benjamin Gantz has the first opportunity after this election to try and form a government (he failed when given the opportunity after the second election). To achieve this objective, Gantz would need at minimum the support of Lieberman and the Joint List at the outset and also beyond. But unless he could somehow convince both Lieberman and the Joint List to sit in a governing coalition with him—a political feat that would surpass anything that Netanyahu has accomplished in Israeli politics—he would not be able to form a majority governing coalition without bringing defectors from the opposing bloc. This is where going first works to his disadvantage. If Netanyahu can keep his bloc in line, it would make life difficult for Gantz; it would also then allow Netanyahu to use the specter of a fourth election as pressure to garner defectors when it becomes his turn.

A minority government led by Gantz. Gantz presumably has everything he needs to form a minority government now. His bloc already makes up a sizable minority; if he is able to keep support from Lieberman and the Joint List, he could have the votes needed in the Knesset to make such a government viable. But those are a lot of uncertainties. Another obstacle is that some members of his own slate have opposed the idea of being in a government supported by the Joint List. These are some of the initial obstacles to getting a minority government off the ground, to say nothing of the challenges of actually governing as a minority. In that case, Gantz would be in a position where his government would either have to count on the cooperation of the Likud Party and its allies, which would not likely be forthcoming, or rely heavily on the Joint List, which would put the latter in a very powerful position not simply when it comes to government formation but also in regards to a legislative agenda.

A unity government. After the last election, it seemed as though a unity government could have been a possibility as the Israeli president leaned heavily on Netanyahu and Gantz to come to an agreement that would bring their parties together in a broad national unity government. No agreement was reachable, however, because neither side could agree to a rotation order. Netanyahu wanted to be prime minister for the first two years so that he could enjoy immunity from legal charges against him during this time. Gantz wanted to be prime minister for the first two years precisely so that Netanyahu could not enjoy immunity from legal charges during this time. Such an irreconcilable difference made a unity government agreement impossible. This time, there may be a factor that makes these differences less irreconcilable: the coronavirus. The global pandemic has not spared Israel, which has taken significant measures to enforce social distancing and shut down schools and transit systems. Like much of the international community, Israel is facing a state of emergency and its citizens are looking to leaders to put politics aside and prioritize combatting this dangerous pandemic. The response to the virus has led to shutting down a number of systems including the court dockets, thus postponing Netanyahu’s initial trial appearance, set for this week, for two months. It is not clear how long the world will be dealing with this pandemic and Israel is likely to put pressure on its political leaders to find ways to come together so that the response is focused and effective.

Then there’s always another election. If the coronavirus does not end up crowning a new Israeli government, even in the short term, there are numerous obstacles to achieving any of the outcomes listed above. This is not to say that they are all impossible or even all unlikely, but it nonetheless makes clear that a fourth election is a real possibility. As this prospect becomes more possible, it is likely to create tremendous pressure on holdouts to modify their stance in one direction or the other. The outcome of the first two elections was another election; soon we will learn if the result of this election is another trip to the polls.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here