Israelis went to the polls earlier this month for the third time in less than a year to elect a new Knesset and hopefully a new government. The unprecedented sequence of elections is a result of a combination of factors that have left Israeli politics deadlocked since last spring.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party have led Israel’s government for 11 consecutive years, but three high-profile corruption cases against Netanyahu created an impetus for a new opposition party, the center-right Blue and White, to emerge in early 2019. Its platform is constructed not around stark policy differences with Likud, but around replacing Netanyahu. Under the leadership of former military chief Benny Gantz, it established itself as the main opposition force.
After the latest election, a slim majority of 61 members of the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat legislature, recommended Gantz as the next prime minister, and on that basis, President Reuven Rivlin assigned him to form a government last week. Yet the numbers for Gantz are more complicated than they appear at first glance. If he fails to cobble together a workable coalition—an increasingly likely prospect—or does not capitulate to serving alongside Netanyahu in a unity government, Israel will head toward yet another election later this year.
It didn’t have to be this way. In the first of the three recent elections last April, Blue and White won the same 35 seats as Likud, but Netanyahu’s traditional right-wing bloc—which also includes the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, the religious settler parties, and Avigdor Lieberman’s secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu—secured a majority of 65 seats.
The widespread assumption was that this meant another term for Netanyahu, but Lieberman, who controlled 5 seats, refused to form a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties unless he was promised far-reaching reforms about religion and state, including lifting the exemption for ultra-Orthodox Israelis from mandatory military service. Netanyahu refused, and his prospective coalition fell apart before it could be formed.
In September, the results of the second election revealed the same fundamental deadlock, with 33 seats for Blue and White, 32 for Likud, and neither side able to get to the magic number of 61 without Lieberman’s support. Despite widespread calls for a unity government, Netanyahu and Gantz could not come to terms, leading to the third election in early March.
Two potentially game-changing events occurred between the second and third contests: Netanyahu was formally indicted on three counts of corruption, and U.S. President Donald Trump released his long-awaited plan for peace between Israel and Palestine, widely seen as benefiting Netanyahu. But in the end, the underlying math did not change after another election. Likud now has 36 seats to Blue and White’s 33, but Netanyahu’s bloc together only holds 58 seats and is thus still short of being able to form a government. What did change was Lieberman’s decision to firmly place himself in the Gantz camp, after behaving as an independent actor during the first two election cycles. Lieberman’s support gave Gantz the slim majority he needed to receive the mandate from Rivlin to form a government.
With Gantz holding the mandate to form a government and Netanyahu holding the reins of power during a national emergency, nearly any scenario is conceivable.
However, if Gantz wants to form a government without Netanyahu, he has to rely on the 15 seats from the Joint List, an amalgamation of four Israeli Arab parties that have never before sat in an Israeli governing coalition and which have traditionally refrained from even recommending a candidate for prime minister, so as not to legitimize Zionism. Relying on the Joint List to form a government, even if it is a minority government that does not include the Joint List but requires their votes to survive no-confidence motions in the Knesset, is extremely controversial among Israeli Jews. The Joint List’s Israeli Arab voters are also not eager for their legislators to join a government that will privilege Jewish immigration, continue to occupy the West Bank or conduct military operations against Palestinians in Gaza. Furthermore, Gantz explicitly said before the election that he would not rely on the Joint List to form a government, so reversing course could cause immediate and significant political damage to him and his party.
The other option is for Gantz and Netanyahu to form a unity government. Last weekend, Netanyahu proposed a three-year power-sharing agreement whereby Netanyahu would serve for another year and a half before stepping down—with “no shticks and tricks,” he said.
But Gantz appeared to throw cold water on the proposal, almost certainly because accepting it would mean the end of Blue and White. The party was formed on the argument that Netanyahu had been in power too long and was arguably unfit to continue to serve as prime minister. It has engaged in an increasingly nasty war of words with Likud over the past year. Two of the four Blue and White co-chiefs—Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, who served as ministers in previous Netanyahu governments—have categorically ruled out sitting in a government with Netanyahu again. So a Gantz-Netanyahu agreement would inevitably involve only a rump Blue and White, with the other half of the party in the opposition.
As a result, the chance that Gantz would sit in a government where Netanyahu remains prime minister and retain any power of his own has gone from slim to nonexistent. For a brief period of time after the second election, there was a chance of a Blue and White-Likud unity government without Netanyahu, as the prime minister faced a party leadership challenge in December from Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar. But Netanyahu won the subsequent intraparty vote with overwhelming support.
This all leaves Gantz with just two politically perilous options, making a fourth election the likeliest outcome. The one wrinkle that might change things is the coronavirus crisis that is gripping Israel, along with the rest of the world. After instituting a series of escalating emergency measures, culminating in a sweeping lockdown announced last week, Netanyahu has called on Gantz to sit with him in an emergency government. Crucially, Netanyahu has maintained the same formula he insisted upon following the second election, which is that he remain as prime minister, at least temporarily, and that the emergency government include his “natural partners” in the right-wing bloc.
Gantz might have been able to swallow those conditions, had Netanyahu not also used the emergency situation to issue a 1 a.m. order closing down Israel’s court system last week, just a day before his trial was scheduled to begin. He also subsequently had the Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, shut down the legislature in order to prevent the 61 seat anti-Netanyahu bloc from electing a new speaker and forming Knesset committees to conduct oversight of the government. This has only fueled the conviction among Blue and White members that everything Netanyahu does is in fact geared toward extricating himself from his legal troubles.
If not for the coronavirus outbreak, the smart money was that Israelis would be returning to the polls in a few months. In the current situation, where Gantz holds the mandate to form a government while Netanyahu holds the reins of power during a national emergency, nearly any scenario is conceivable. Observers of Israeli politics are all closely watching to see what comes next as the script seems to change by the hour.