The Road to 61
As Israeli citizens set out to the polls for the second time in just five months, the election resulted in another deadlock, leaving many frustrated and confused constituents. There is a general sense of unease as the national leadership in Israel is — as of the foreseeable future — undetermined.
After the first election in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud was tasked by President Reuven Rivlin to form a governing coalition for the twenty-first Knesset — a task which he had been able to accomplish in the past with ease. However this time, his efforts were thwarted by long-time friend turned rival, and former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, who disagreed with Netanyahu’s policy which exempts yeshiva students from conscription.
After Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition within the allotted 28 days granted to him by the President, he requested a 14-day extension in which he would make one last appeal to Lieberman to join his right-wing bloc of ministers. Remaining steadfast in his imposition of the draft law for all yeshiva students, Lieberman prevented a right-wing coalition from being formed, rendering Netanyahu powerless. As is customary, the President would grant the mandate to form a coalition to the leader of the party which had garnered the second greatest amount of votes, which in this case was Blue and White’s Benny Gantz. However, a disheartened Netanyahu was reluctant to allow such a scenario and consequently pressured parliament into dissolving itself, thus triggering a second election.
As 98% of the current election results have been tallied, Blue and White seems to have the upper hand with 33 seats, while Likud trails with 31. Consequently, it seems that Netanyahu’s chances of forming a right-wing coalition have been further diminished. The centrist-left parties including Blue and White, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp would be able to achieve 44 seats while the right-wing parties including Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism would only be able to garner 55 seats in the upcoming Knesset - leaving neither side with the requisite 61 seats or more majority to form a government. The only two parties as of now not committed to either side is Yisrael Beiteinu with its 8 seats and The Joint List of Arab parties with 13 seats. Historically, the Arab parties have not recommended a Prime Minister to the President and do not join “Zionist” coalitions. This trend would be hard to buck with leaders from the Arab parties stating that they do not have a great incentive to join Blue and White. This would leave Gantz’s left wing block at only 52 seats even if Yisrael Beiteinu joined the coalition, still nine seats short of a governing majority, potentially rendering The Joint List the “kingmaker.” However, due to the unlikely nature of putting such a deal together, it seems more likely that Lieberman will be “kingmaker” in convincing the parties to work together and form a coalition. Lieberman has vowed to join a unity government made up of Blue and White and Likud, notably excluding Shas and UTJ.
Representatives from the nine parties who have won seats in the Knesset will visit President Rivlin on Sunday to recommend the candidate who should be given the mandate to form a coalition. While it is customary for the President to grant this task to the leader of the party which has garnered the most mandates — which would be Gantz — the President may freely choose to grant it to the leader of the party who he believes will be the most successful in forming the government. In 2008, for example, when Tzipi Livni was the leader of the Kadima party, which had attained the most votes, she was unable to form a coalition. The task was then transferred to Netanyahu, whose Likud party had attained the second greatest number of votes.
Consequently, there are a few directions in which the negotiations could result.
1 - A National Unity Government with Netanyahu
While Netanyahu had been opposed to the possibility of a national unity government during the election cycle, he recently changed his position as a result of Gantz’s further lead in the vote results. In a video released on Thursday, Netanyahu expressed his initial desire to form a right-wing government. He mentioned that the election results have made such a possibility unattainable, and he, therefore, called upon Gantz to meet and to form a broad unity government with him at the helm.
Such a government existed in 1984 when Shimon Peres’ Alignment party was unable to form a coalition and, consequently, entered into a unity government with Yitzchak Shamir, then leader of Likud. In that government, Peres served as the Prime Minister while Shamir was the foreign minister, swapping positions halfway through the term. How this rotating government along with its power structure would operate in the current political situation, remains unclear.
Gantz dismissed Netanyahu’s call for a unity government saying that “Blue and White, headed by me, has won the election” and “we will not be dictated to.” He further stated, “I am interested in and intend to form a broad and liberal unity government, under my leadership. A government that will convey the will of the people”.
2 - A National Unity Government without Netanyahu
Due to Gantz’s unwillingness to form a government with Netanyahu, Rivlin may opt to select another member of Likud to form a coalition such as No. 2 Yuli-Yoel Edesltein Speaker of the Knesset or No. 3 Yisrael Katz, Minister of Foreign Affairs. Neither Edelstein nor Katz has expressed their desire to assume the role of Prime Minister. This has been due to fear of openly challenging Netanyahu’s position. This could change if Rivlin deems a unity government the most viable option which could give other Likud members the confidence to pursue such an endeavor if Netanyahu is unable to do so.
3 - A Right-wing Coalition
While Lieberman has emphatically stated that he would not be part of a government that provides an exemption to the Haredim from serving in the army, it remains possible — albeit unlikely — that Netanyahu will be able to reward Lieberman with a governmental position and convince him to return to the right-wing bloc. This is much more tenable than the alternative whereby Lieberman would join the left-wing bloc which includes the Joint List of Arab parties, as this would be counterintuitive given his support for policies such as required loyalty tests for citizenship and the swapping of territories that would cut off Palestinian citizens of Israel.
However, while a right-wing coalition might have been plausible in April, it seems that it has become more unlikely as Lieberman, in response to the results of the second election, has called for a unity government between Likud and Blue and White without the Haredi parties of Shas and UTJ.
4 - A Third Election
In the video released this past Thursday, Netanyahu emphatically stated that there is no reason for a third election and that Gantz should, therefore, join in a broad national unity government. Furthermore, President Rivlin’s office has said that his choice in the nomination of a candidate will be motivated by the “need to prevent a third general election.” However, if no coalition is formed the Knesset will be forced to dissolve itself yet again which would result in another election. Besides the economic expense of a third election — this second one had a direct cost 800 Million NIS ($220 million) — the very existence and viability of Israel’s parliamentary democracy will be called into question.
While the outcome of the negotiations is uncertain, what is clear is that the path to 61 will not be reached without compromise. The power of a state lies in its ability to resolve internal conflict and in that lies the potential for it to emerge stronger than before.
Photo Caption: The road to the Knesset
Photo Credit: Pixabay