Israel held elections in April, after the parliament had voted to dissolve the government the preceding fall. That was not long after then Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman left the ruling coalition that was led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The results of the Spring election did not provide very much clarity. Although it was the strongest showing ever for a Netanyahu-led Likud Party, no party or group of parties was capable of pulling together a coalition government. After nearly a month of trying to form a government, new elections were called. Now, ballots have been cast again and ironically, the results are very similar.
Jockeying for Seats to Form a Coalition
Neither Likud nor the Blue and White Party led by Netanyahu’s main opponent, Benny Gantz, has enough mandates to form a government on its own. And neither party appears to be able to reach the magic number of 61 seats to form a coalition government. One key difference this time is how the horse race ended at the top. Gantz’s party edged out Netanyahu’s Likud by 33 to 32 seats. Gantz and his allies, however, only have 44 mandates while Netanyahu and his allies have 55 out of the 120 seats in the parliament. The remaining 21 seats are currently held by two factions: the Yisrael Beiteinu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman (8) and the Joint List slate of Arab parties (13).
Now, neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has enough support to form a government; therefore, the president will have to determine which of the two will have a chance to go first.
In the Israeli system, if no party wins enough mandates to govern outright, which is usually the case, then the president of Israel—normally in a ceremonial role—conducts consultations with the parties to determine which faction should have the first chance to form a government. If parties representing the most mandates nominate one party head as the next prime minister, they usually get the opportunity to form a government. In April, Netanyahu had that chance but was unable to form a government. Now, neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has enough support to form a government; therefore, the president will have to determine which of the two will have a chance to go first, or he could attempt to achieve an agreement between the two for a unity government with a rotational premiership.
Going into the president’s decision, Gantz had 54 mandates backing him for the premiership. This was made possible because the Joint List, which had 13 mandates, supported Gantz for the premiership with 10 out of their 13 mandates. But Netanyahu currently has 55 mandates willing to support him.
Lieberman can be kingmaker or election maker. By backing neither Gantz or Netanyahu, would almost certainly ensure yet another election, and this would anger many voters.
Avigdor Lieberman is in a pivotal position now: he can be a kingmaker or an election maker. If he decides to support Gantz, then Gantz could lead with a minority government; however, this would mean that Lieberman would have to make common cause with the members of the Joint List, whom he has described as enemies and not mere political opponents. Conversely, if Lieberman decides to support Netanyahu, he would have to make common cause with the religious nationalist parties whom he also dislikes greatly; indeed, he had identified them as one of the main reasons he left Netanyahu’s government to begin with, which brought on these multiple elections in the first place. Neither of these options is good for Lieberman, who seems to have backed himself into a corner. If he chooses Gantz and cooperates with the Joint List, he would send shockwaves through his constituency, whom he has fed a steady diet of extreme anti-Arab vitriol throughout his career. If he goes with Netanyahu and the religious parties, he would be seen as betraying his secular principles and dragging the country through two elections only to end up right back where he was in the first place. By backing neither Gantz or Netanyahu, Lieberman would almost certainly ensure yet another election, and this would anger many voters.
Today, Netanyahu finds himself as prime minister at the head of a caretaker government until there is a new prime minister. He will have significant leverage over Lieberman this time around since the country will not want to return to a third election. Netanyahu’s most likely path to a government would be to force a compromise between Lieberman and the religious parties. This would be difficult but it would offer Lieberman a ladder. The religious parties might not be happy with this scenario, but unless Gantz can offer them a better alternative—which is hard to see given the make-up of his party and potential coalition allies—they are unlikely to have better options.
What Changed from April?
The biggest change from one election to the next over five months’ time can be summed up in one word: consolidation. There was a consolidation of main parties running in the election as well as a consolidation in votes among the parties. In April there were 11 parties above the threshold with three more just below it, but there are only nine above the threshold in this election. Despite this fact, the top two parties did not get a larger share of the mandates even though there were fewer parties in the competition and nearly identical vote numbers. What seems to have transpired was a shift in votes in the bloc of Netanyahu’s allies as well as in that of his opponents.
The biggest change from one election to the next over five months’ time can be summed up in one word: consolidation.
Among his allies, Netanyahu made the argument in the April election that right-wing voters needed to vote for Likud—and not for smaller right-wing parties—if they wanted a right-wing government. Essentially, he was arguing that right-wing votes for smaller right-wing parties were wasted because without Likud—as the biggest faction—they would be unable to form a coalition that encompasses all right-wing parties. It seems the right-wing voters in April bought into this argument and gave their votes to Likud. In this most recent election, however, that was not the case. For example, the religious parties, both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Haredi, received more votes this time; these likely are voters who backed other parties, including Likud, during the last election.
Among Netanyahu’s opponents there was also consolidation. In April, for example, the Arab parties received 336,000 votes, as opposed to about 470,000 this time. Part of the reason is likely due to a slightly higher turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel; but another part, and perhaps a significant one, is that voters in this constituency switched from backing Meretz in the last election to the Joint List in this one. Meretz ended up combining in a list with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Labor party politician Stav Shaffir. Alone in April, they received 156,000 votes while this time they only received about 40,000 more, despite combining forces with several others.
This is the impossible task facing political leaders attempting to represent their marginalized communities in a system that is fundamentally discriminatory against the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The Joint List ultimately announced that they would be backing Gantz for prime minister in the coalition formation process, even though they would not be joining a coalition. But there was also dissension within the Joint List as the Balad Party disagreed and decided not to endorse Gantz for prime minister, with their three mandates. Backing Gantz also comes at great risk for the Joint List. On the one hand, should Gantz become prime minister, many Joint List constituents may look at this list as complicit in Gantz’s inevitably racist government. On the other hand, if they do not back Gantz and Netanyahu returns as prime minister, many Israelis who did not support Netanyahu would scapegoat them as the reason Netanyahu prevailed. This is the impossible task facing political leaders attempting to represent their marginalized communities in a system that is fundamentally discriminatory against the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Now that the Joint List has made this possibly fateful decision, will it be enough to bring an end to Netanyahu’s record-setting era at the head of Israel’s government? It will all depend on how coalition negotiations go. There are several precedents for different outcomes.
More Like 1984, 1992, or 2009?
In 1984 two main parties, the Alignment and the Likud, received 44 and 41 mandates, respectively. Neither could form a government on their own or cobble together a coalition government. The agreement that was formed was to have a unity government with a rotational premiership allowing then Alignment head, Shimon Peres, and Likud leader, Yitzhak Shamir, each to lead the government for two years.
Short of Netanyahu being officially charged, it is hard to see how a unity government would be achievable.
Could such an agreement be reached between Netanyahu and Gantz? Doing so would allow them to form a government without other parties. But Gantz, who has kept the door open to partnering with Likud, says he would not sit in a government led by Netanyahu. Would the Likud Party get rid of its own leader? It is unlikely, but this might change depending on what happens with Netanyahu’s legal proceedings, which are scheduled to move ahead in early October. Should Netanyahu be officially charged, it could create an opening for a Likud mutiny. Short of that, however, it is hard to see how a unity government would be achievable.
In 1992, there were different circumstances. The largest party was Labor, led by Yitzhak Rabin and received 44 mandates. His main rival, Yitzhak Shamir of Likud, received only 32. While Rabin’s victory was decisive, he did not have enough to reach 61 mandates alone. He partnered with Meretz, which had 12 seats, and Shas, which had six. Importantly, he also received the support of two primarily Arab parties which together had five mandates. Their support put him in a position to be prime minister and form a coalition.
Could we see a replay of 1992 today where the Joint List enables yet another Israeli military chief of staff to become prime minister, forming a government with Likud’s opponents? The problem with this scenario is that unlike Rabin in 1992, Gantz only has 33 mandates on his own, meaning he needs more help to form a coalition. Additionally, the gap between him and Netanyahu’s 32 today is only 1 mandate, so his opponents have a more plausible pathway to governance that Rabin’s Likud opponents did in 1992.
By keeping the Joint List untouchable, even with its good showing of 13 mandates, Netanyahu essentially made this a race to 61 mandates out of 107 instead of 120.
Much like 1992, however, the support of the Joint List for Gantz is being used as an instrument of incitement among right-wing religious nationalists. Historically, Palestinian citizens of Israel have been treated as outsiders in the Israeli society’s polity. While they vote and garner mandates, Palestinian citizens of Israel and their representatives have long and often been considered untouchable as political partners by the vast majority of the spectrum of Zionist political parties. Knowing this, and understanding precisely how the numbers were likely to break down, Netanyahu made anti-Arab racism a centerpiece of his campaign. He argued in his campaign that if Israelis did not vote for Likud, the outcome would be having Palestinian citizens of Israel as part of the coming government. Of course this was an exaggeration since it was very unlikely that the Joint List would agree to be a partner in a governing coalition. However, the Joint List’s support for Gantz may well appear to legitimize Netanyahu’s argument to many voters. By making such an argument a focal point of his campaign, Netanyahu essentially used the anti-Arab racism of his political opponents against them, forcing them to refute the idea of ever partnering with non-Zionist parties. At the same time, his incitement against this constituency actually led the Palestinian citizens of Israel to consolidate behind the Joint List and turn out in higher numbers. This incitement by Netanyahu—the idea that Palestinian citizens of Israel would dictate the direction of Israel’s government and bring down his right-wing government—was precisely the sort of incitement that motivated Yigal Amir to assassinate Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
By keeping the Joint List untouchable, however, even with its good showing of 13 mandates, Netanyahu essentially made this a race to 61 mandates out of 107 instead of 120. With his 55-mandate block of right-wing religious nationalist mandates, he would have a much stronger hand at getting to 61 than his opponent. This brings us to yet another scenario.
The biggest variable this time is Netanyahu’s legal situation, which might change everything if he is indicted during the first week of October in the midst of the coalition negotiation process.
In 2009, Netanyahu’s Likud party came up short and received the second most mandates to Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party, but it was Netanyahu who ultimately was able to form a government. Between Kadima, Labor, and Meretz, Livni only had 44 total mandates for building a coalition, just as Gantz does today. One difference is that the parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel at that time did not back Livni in the consultation stage after the elections. Together those three parties—Hadash, Balad, and the United Arab List—only had 11 mandates anyway. Netanyahu was able to bring Labor into his coalition, which is not likely a possibility today.
Of all the scenarios, something closest to 2009 is what Netanyahu is angling for. The biggest variable this time, however, is his legal situation, which might change everything if he is indicted during the first week of October in the midst of the coalition negotiation process. Barring that outcome, which might make a unity government without Netanyahu plausible, Netanyahu will walk a tightrope to push for a repeat of 2009. Since he has the possibility of indictment hanging over his head, all the players know that in a few weeks’ time, Netanyahu might be considerably weaker, so there is interest in waiting and holding out. At present, Netanyahu and Gantz are likely arguing over who will get the first chance to form a government—a prospect neither of them wants. If Gantz goes first, it will become clear very quickly that he does not have the support to get to 61 seats, thus strengthening Netanyahu’s leverage over Lieberman in the second attempt. If Netanyahu goes first, he will likely be met with delays and stalling until after the first week of October, when his legal situation becomes clearer. This could make it harder for him to form a government and might strengthen Gantz’s leverage over Lieberman and others when he takes his turn to attempt to form a government. In some ways, Balad’s reluctance to join with the rest of their list in backing Gantz might actually be just the help that Gantz needed. Right now, he can claim the backing of 54 mandates (it would have been 57 with Balad) and Netanyahu can claim 55. Based on this, the Israeli president might determine that Netanyahu should have the first try at forming a coalition, which is precisely what he does not want at this stage.
At present, Netanyahu and Gantz are likely arguing over who will get the first chance to form a government—a prospect neither of them wants.
The Bigger Picture
This election, like the one before it, has been about one man: Benjamin Netanyahu. While many Israelis support him, many also have grown tired of him and want to see him gone. But the challengers to Netanyahu are confronting his personality and not his policies, especially as these relate to Palestinians. Gantz’s party backs keeping the largest settlements, exercising perpetual control over the Jordan Valley, and retaining occupied Jerusalem. The difference between this platform and Netanyahu’s official positions on the Palestinian issue is little more than semantic. Further, and perhaps more importantly, Netanyahu’s dominance in Israeli politics has allowed him to create a kind of hegemony for his political views in Israeli society. Even if he leaves the political scene, Netanyahuism and its effects are likely to shape Israeli politics for years to come. Any future Israeli leaders who might challenge Netanyahu’s legacy and entrenched views would have to rise from a political field that is precisely shaped by them.