After two inconclusive elections this year, Israel is heading for a third one to end the political deadlock in the country. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main centrist opponent, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party announced that he had failed to form a liberal unity government due to the rightwing and religious bloc which prioritised one man’s (Netanyahu’s) welfare over the welfare of Israel’s citizens. Even so, Gantz told President Reuven Rivlin that he will continue his efforts to build a coalition within the 21-day deadline, during which any member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) can attempt to form a government. If a government is not formed within this deadline, elections will be held for the third time in a year and for the fifth time since 2013.
Before this, Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition government within a month of the September elections, after which Rivlin passed the mandate to Gantz. If they happen, the third elections are expected to be held in mid-March next year and are estimated to cost over $750 million. In Israel’s election history, no single party has won an outright majority. To form the government, a parliament member has to gather the support of at least 61 members of the 120-member Knesset.
There is greater uncertainty now, with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announcing Netanyahu’s indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust on Thursday.
Elections in Israel
Netanyahu’s Likud party is the main right-wing party in Israeli politics that opposes the formation of a Palestinian state and encourages privatisation. The newly-formed Blue and White party, a centrist coalition, has emerged as Likud’s main rival. These two parties are the front-runners in Israeli politics right now.
Israel does not have a constitution and as per its Basic Laws elections are held every four years. In the 2015 elections, Netanyahu’s party won 30 seats and formed a coalition government with smaller right-wing and religious parties including the Jewish Home, United Torah Judaism, Kulanu and Shas. In November 2018, Israeli government’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman quit protesting a Gaza ceasefire. This meant the loss of five seats of Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu faction, leaving Netanyahu’s government with 61 seats in the parliament, a very thin majority. This raised suspicions that the legislative elections that were originally scheduled for November 2019 (four years after the last legislative elections), would be preponed. This was followed by the decision of the Jewish Home party to leave the coalition government after Netanyahu refused to appoint the party’s leader Naftali Bennett as the Defense Minister.
In the elections that followed in April 2019, and the Likud party led with 35 seats. After the results, it was anticipated that Likud along with its allies would be able to get over 65 seats, and hence Netanyahu would succeed in forming a coalition government. However, over 1.5 months after the results, due to divisions between the religious and secular factions, Netanyahu was not unable to cobble up the coalition.
A national unity government?
Since the April elections, Netanyahu has failed to form a government because Lieberman’s Party, an important coalition partner for Netanyahu, wants him to pass a bill that mandates Ultra Orthodox Jews to serve in the military. However, this demand did not go down well with Likud’s right-wing religious allies. This ended the possibility for him to form a government.
After the September elections, Lieberman’s party has won greater number of seats, making his support critical for government formation for any of the sides. A national unity government would mean Gantz and Netanyahu coming together, but these negotiations reached a stalemate after Gantz refused to rotate the prime ministerial position with Netanyahu because of the corruption charges on him and Netanyahu’s party members too refused to drop him as the leader.
The sentiment in Israel
An editorial in The Jerusalem Post said, “Now is the time for MKs (Members of Knesset) to do what it takes to turn the situation around. Many parties will have to make compromises for a new government to be formed. We get it, you stood your ground for the past seven months. Keeping promises to voters is commendable, but not at the expense of keeping the whole country in limbo for four more months until another election.” It further urged at least 61 Members of Knesset to sign the paper supporting one candidate and take it to President Rivlin, “so we can have some stability and normalcy here in Israel. Your country needs you to do better than you have been doing since April. Form a government and prevent a third election.”
Another editorial published in Haaretz, titled, “Netanyahu, Go Home Now” said, “The statements Netanyahu made about former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during the time the latter was under investigation should now be said about Netanyahu: “A prime minister who is up to his neck in investigations does not have a moral and public mandate to decide such fateful things for the State of Israel.”
Furthermore, since Netanyahu’s indictment, the Labor Party and the Movement for Quality Government said that they’ll appeal to the High Court of Justice to force the prime minister to step down. In a statement, the Labor Party said it was time for Netanyahu to resign to avoid a third election. Since the indictment, Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and maintains that he will continue in his position as prime minister.
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