Israel has had two general elections since April, but still there is no clarity on who will be the country’s next prime minister. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, is in the post in caretaker capacity, and has made two failed attempts to form a government. On Monday, also his 70th birthday, he gave up trying — and stood aside for his centrist rival, the former general Benny Gantz, to take a shot.
On Wednesday, Gantz was likely to receive a formal invitation to try to build a governing coalition. However, no one was betting that Gantz, a political novice, would succeed where Netanyahu, with all his charisma and political experience, failed. A third election may well be on the way.
What is happening in Israel, and why can’t the country get out of this situation? The answer lies in the peculiar current political alignment in the country, the uncompromising positions that nearly all players have adopted, and the personality of Netanyahu — the tallest leader in Israel, but also its most divisive.
What happened in the elections of September 17?
Official results released by Israel’s Central Election Committee on September 25 gave Netanyahu’s Likud 32 seats, one behind the 33 won by Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (or Blue and White). The third largest block (13) in the 120-seat national legislature, Knesset, was the so-called Joint List, an alliance of the main Arab-majority parties — Balad, Hadash, Ta’al and the United Arab List — headed by the Israeli Arab Ayman Odeh of the Hadash party. Six other alliances representing different strands of Israeli politics won between 5 and 9 seats.
The hung House was not in itself a hindrance to government-formation — in fact, no single party has ever won a majority in the Knesset in all the decades of Israel’s existence, and some ten factions are routinely represented in Parliament. Coalition governments are the norm, with the larger parties getting support from smaller parties in return for specific concessions that serve the interests of their particular constituencies.
How have the last two elections been different?
After the results are declared, Israel’s President decides which candidate has the best chance of putting together a coalition, and gives this candidate 28 days — with a possible extension of 14 days — to form a government.
The leader of the largest party usually gets the first shot at government formation, and after the elections in April, President Reuven Rivlin asked Netanyahu to make an attempt. Likud had won 38 seats, more than Blue and White’s 35.
Netanyahu failed because he could not come to a deal with an old ally turned bitter rival, a former Defence Minister of Israel named Avigdor Lieberman. Given the way the Knesset was divided, the only feasible way in which Netanyahu could have reached a majority was by having a coalition with the Yisrael Beiteinu, the far-right ultranationalist party led by Lieberman.
But Lieberman, with his five MPs, refused to back Netanyahu — and on May 29, with Likud stranded just one seat short of the 61 needed for a majority, the Knesset voted to dissolve itself and hold fresh elections on September 17.
After the September 17 election, Rivlin again gave Netanyahu the mandated 28 days to put together a governing coalition. Likud wasn’t the biggest party this time, but after a meeting between Netanyahu and Gantz, Rivlin stopped trying to mediate. The initial options had included a possible rotating prime ministership, but Gantz refused to join a government headed by Netanyahu who faces indictiment for corruption.
Netanyahu, who had the backing of 55 MPs (Likud’s 32 lawmakers plus another 23 MPs belonging to other parties) appeared to be a little closer to the magic figure of 61 in the Knesset than Gantz, who had the support of 54 MPs in all.
By October 21, however, Netanyahu had succeeded in persuading only 55 of the Knesset’s 120 members, including his traditional far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, to join Likud in government. Six seats short, the PM “returned” his mandate to the President.
What will happen now?
Gantz will have his 28 days. He will start with the endorsement of 54 MPs, seven short of a majority.
However, these 54 include 10 of the 13 MPs of the Joint List, the four-party Arab alliance. Israel has a 21 per cent Arab minority, but no Israeli Arab party has ever been invited to join the government; no Israeli Arab party has sought to do so either.
This implies that unless Gantz secures a deal with Netanyahu (which did not happen when Netanyahu was trying), or unless Likud sees a rebellion that results in a change of leadership, he would have to form a minority government with outside backing from the Arab MPs. That would be an inherently unstable situation given Israel’s history and politics and the Jewish-Arab conflict.
Indeed, the Arab lawmakers would probably be attacked by their own voters for propping up a government that has policies that are often seen to be fundamentally hostile towards the West Bank and Gaza.
Should Gantz too, fail, a group comprising at least 61 MPs (a majority in Parliament) will have a three-week window in which to request Rivlin to give a chance to anyone else — this could include Netanyahu and Gantz as well.
But if no such request is made, the Knesset will dissolve itself, and fresh elections will follow.
Already there is speculation among analysts that such an election could be held on March 17, 2020.