by Mitchell Plitnick
The second Israeli national election of 2019 has led to a lot of confusion. It has not resolved the question of who will fill the prime minister’s office on a permanent basis, nor has it cleared up the political logjam the country has been dealing with all year. Contrary to what many believe, the decision by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to give incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the first try at forming a governing majority coalition is not at all the same thing as Netanyahu having successfully held on to the job.
Here are a few key points to help untangle this mess.
The Race To Second Place
Netanyahu’s Likud party ended up with 32 seats in the new Knesset, while Benny Gantz’s Blue and White coalition nabbed 33. But it was clear from the results that neither was going to be able to assemble 61 Knesset seats, the minimum required to form a majority government. Gantz actually stated publicly that he preferred not to have the first try at forming a government. Though he endured criticism, there was a clear logic to his decision.
Gantz has no clear path to 61 seats. Indeed, Rivlin justified his decision to give first crack to Netanyahu by pointing out that both Gantz and Ayman Odeh, the leader of the mostly Arab Joint List, stated that his faction would not be part of a governing coalition. That means Gantz only has 44 seats, even though ten of the thirteen Knesset members (MKs) in the Joint List did recommend Gantz be tasked with forming the government. Rivlin tried to broker an agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz for a “government of national unity” where the leaders of the two biggest parties would share the prime minister’s office, but Gantz rejected that idea.
Netanyahu also has no path to 61. He has 55 MKs, and to reach 61 he would probably need to convince right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Liberman—who loathes Netanyahu—to join him. While this possibility cannot be entirely discounted, Liberman forced the second election because he insists on a national unity government between Blue and White, Likud, and his own party, and one where Netanyahu is not present. That stance significantly increased his support in the second round of elections, so he’s not likely to back off it.
Gantz believes that the prospect of yet another round of elections, something dreaded by Israelis all across the political spectrum, might give him some leverage in talks with other parties, and perhaps convince some of them to join with him. It’s an extreme long shot, but it’s all he has.
Gantz’s Gloomy Prospects
With only 44 seats in his coalition right now, Gantz needs 17 more MKs. He could get 13 of them if he offered the Joint List full membership in his government, but a coalition including the so-called “Arab parties” remains taboo in Israel. Even if he tried, it’s not certain he could hold his own party—which is a coalition between Gantz’s Israeli Resilience Party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party—together. Either or both of Ya’alon and Lapid could bolt. But assuming they did all stay together, where would the remaining four seats come from?
Gantz could try to bring in the ultra-orthodox parties, but Lapid, a rigid secularist, has a long-standing feud with them. And even if that can be worked out, it’s hard to see those parties sitting with the Joint List. Similarly, Gantz could try to woo Liberman and some of the other right-wing parties, but this would be extremely difficult, and jettisoning the Joint List would be a prerequisite for such a move.
Ultimately, the only way Gantz is ever going to see any time in the prime minister’s office is through a unity government with Likud. But if he reneges on his pledge not to sit with Netanyahu, his political career will last only until the next election. His party has no real ideology or platform; his greatest appeal is that he is a former military chief of staff who killed a lot of Palestinians and whose name is not Netanyahu. He has little in the way of devoted followers and agreeing with Netanyahu may cost him his coalition with Lapid and Ya’alon. So, he must try to find a path to a government with Likud and without Netanyahu.
A third round of elections will anger most Israelis, and a lot of that anger will fly toward Netanyahu. That’s what Gantz is counting on. The problem is, while there is no shortage of Likud leaders eager to plunge a dagger into Netanyahu’s back, he remains popular among Likud voters, and the bulk of Israelis blaming Netanyahu for the farce that Israeli politics has become are not in Likud. But this is probably Gantz’s only path to outright victory.
Racism Wins For the Right
As the election campaign heated up over the summer, one pundit or activist after another kept talking about Gantz’s 57 seats, or 55 seats, or whatever number they projected, always including the Joint List. This continued unabated, no matter how many times Ayman Odeh said the Joint List would not join Gantz’s government, or how many times Gantz said he would never have them. Sometimes, when pressed, people would say they were only referring to how many MKs would recommend Gantz to form a government, though they would never follow that up with an explanation of how he was going to then make up for those 13 seats in creating a government.
Rivlin understood that the ten recommendations he got from Joint List MKs (the Balad party, which has 3 MKs, refused to recommend him) were irrelevant in evaluating Gantz’s chances to form a government, and treated them as such. It remains an important reminder for Israeli centrists—and, certainly, for the left—that there is no future for their views in Israeli politics without the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise some 20% of the citizenry. Hopefully the Joint List will continue to make it clear, as well, that they will settle for nothing less than full partnership and equality if Jewish moderates and liberals ever want their help in regaining power.
Some have contended that the reason the Joint List is shunned is not because they are Arab, but because their constituent parties are not Zionist. If you should hear this apologia for the de facto segregation system at work here, please feel free to dismiss it out of hand. If proof is required, one need only look at how ultra-orthodox parties are treated. Like the Joint List, they represent a significant minority in Israel, and like the Joint List, they are not Zionist. (This does not apply to all religious parties. Some parties, like HaBayit HaYehudi, are specifically religious-Zionist parties. Also, the Shas party moderated its stances and joined the World Zionist Organization in 2010, setting it apart from other ultra-orthodox parties). Yet despite this, these parties have been invited to join many Israeli governments.
The issue is that the Joint List is almost exclusively Arab. Netanyahu had good reason to treat the Joint List’s half-hearted support for Gantz as a scare tactic, warning Israelis that Blue and White wanted to form a government “with Arabs.” The explicit racism is effective. Gantz, for his part, couldn’t insist loudly enough that he would never invite the Joint List into the government. Until this ostracism ends, and until Palestinian parties are treated as equal to Jewish ones, how can anyone expect racism in the rest of Israel to recede, let alone find a just resolution to the ongoing conflict?
Who Looks After Those Who Cannot Vote?
As it became apparent that Netanyahu was not heading toward a clear victory in this election, we heard an odd sentiment coming from U.S. President Donald Trump. “We’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “Look, our relationship is with Israel.” Trump, who has based virtually all his foreign policy on his personal interactions with other world leaders, especially right-wing authoritarians like Netanyahu, had shifted gears abruptly. Far from the giant banners with Trump shaking hands with Netanyahu and proclaiming the Israeli premier to be in “a different league,” now it was a relationship with Israel.
But Trump’s attitude reflects reality. Should Gantz find his way into the prime minister’s chair, little will change in the relationship with the United States. Gantz has had little to say about policy beyond some very broad statements on corruption and the economy and brandishing his record of killing Palestinians and sending parts of Gaza “back to the Stone Age.” Yair Lapid did lay out four conditions for peace with the Palestinians early in 2019:
- The Israel Defense Forces could enter Palestinian territory at any time to thwart an attack on Israelis
- Israel keeps the Jordan Valley
- The absolute denial of the Palestinian right of return
- Jerusalem remains the undivided capital of Israel
One can easily see why Netanyahu felt he needed to up the ante by promising to annex major parts of the West Bank, as these conditions are no different in effect than those he has stood by for years.
It is possible, in fact, that Gantz would be even worse for the Palestinians than Netanyahu. Gantz would be the relative moderate. He would not only be given much greater leeway in his military strategy by the international community, he will also be less arrogant and irritating than Netanyahu to both conservatives and liberals in the United States and Europe.
Once More With Feeling
Netanyahu and Gantz are set to meet on Wednesday, after the Rosh Hashanah holiday. If that meeting fails to result in an agreement, Netanyahu is indicating that he will return the mandate to the president, declaring his failure to form a government. If he waits longer, it is in the hope that Gantz and Liberman will crack and join his coalition, which seems unlikely. It is possible that the Labor-Gesher union might join him, as there is some pressure on party chief Amir Peretz to do so. But there is also opposition, and some of their members could refuse the prospect of being part of a Netanyahu government. Moreover, Labor-Gesher would only give Netanyahu exactly 61 seats, an extremely fragile majority with an unstable coalition.
But none of those scenarios is particularly likely. More likely, Netanyahu will return the mandate to Rivlin, and do so soon, to put additional pressure on Gantz to form a unity government. Gantz knows he can’t form a coalition without Likud, and if it becomes clear that Netanyahu is not going anywhere, Gantz will feel pressure to give in to Netanyahu’s demands. But given that such an act will be highly unpopular among his base, the greatest likelihood, as much as Israelis dread it, is a third round of elections. That could be interesting, as a frustrated voter pool might look to smaller parties as alternatives to the two big parties that would have twice been unable to resolve the elections. Netanyahu seems to think he can use some lessons from this round and do better next time, but it seems more likely that he will, once again, find more voters deserting him as they tire of him putting Israeli politics in limbo to protect himself from looming indictments.