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In the Valley of Indecision – Israel’s Divided Electorate

Friday Feature

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20 Sep 2019
In the Valley of Indecision – Israel’s Divided Electorate
Israelis went to the polls this week for the second time in 2019, following April’s polls which ended in a deadlock. The latest election resulted in some minor surprises, but a repeat of the deadlocked results between incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party and former IDF Chief-of-Staff Benny Gantz of the Blue & White list. Both Netanyahu and Gantz expressed this week their strong aversion to holding a third election, and their agreement with the public’s preference for a national unity government. However, the path to those common objectives holds many potential pitfalls as well as opportunities.

For starters, there are the bare numbers to consider.

Over 4,431,000 votes were cast on Tuesday, slightly more than in the April elections, despite concerns that voter turnout would be low amidst a wave of fatigue and cynicism that analysts believed voters were feeling. This misjudgment of the public mood will surely be added to a long and growing list of credibility issues that Israel’s fraternity of political analysts and pollsters have been grappling with in recent years.

The Central Elections Committee was still counting ballots on Friday morning but issued the following “almost final” numbers, while cautioning that official results would only be posted on 25 September and also pointing out that ballots from a handful of stations would take longer to sort out due to allegations of voter fraud attempts.

But with all that in mind, the results as of Friday morning that were being reported in the media were as follows:

Blue & White: 1,148,700 – 25.93% – 33 seats
Likud: 1,111,535 – 25.09% – 31 seats
The Joint (Arab) List: 470,611 – 10.62% – 13 seats
Shas: 329,834 - 7.44% – 9 seats
Yisrael Beytenu: 309.688 – 6.99% – 8 seats
UTJ: 268.688 – 6.06% – 8 seats
Yamina: 260.339 – 5.88% – 7 seats
Labor-Gesher: 212.529 – 4.80% – 6 seats
Democratic Union: 192.261 – 4.34% – 5 seats

These numbers leave neither Gantz or Netanyahu with a clear path to the needed 61-seat majority to form a governing coalition, leading to talk of a unity government. On Thursday afternoon, Netanyahu issued a public appeal to Gantz, saying: “A broad unity government is what is demanded now. I propose that we meet as soon as possible without preconditions to cooperate in establishing a broad unity government for all those who believe in Israel as Jewish and democratic state. There is no reason to go to another election. I am against it.”

Then, in a statement broadly interpreted as an offer for a rotational arrangement for the Prime Minister’s desk, Netanyahu invoked the memory of the national unity government formed between Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir and Labor leader Shimon Peres from 1984-1988, saying: “When there was no clear outcome from the Knesset elections, Shimon chose national unity. He and Yitzhak Shamir agreed to cooperate - to navigate Israel's path to safety.”

“I hear, loud and clear, the voices calling for a broad and stable national unity government and I congratulate you, Mr. Prime Minister, on joining that call this morning," responded President Reuven Rivlin. "The responsibility for making it happens falls to you elected officials, especially the leaders of the major parties.”

“It is imperative that we convene as quickly as possible, as soon as the final picture of the votes is clear, in order to work towards forming a government that can serve the State of Israel and the people of Israel again,” Rivlin said. “For my part, I will do everything I can to prevent another general election. But the responsibility for this, as well as the responsibility for forming a government that serves all the citizens of Israel with the dedication it deserves, is yours."

However, shortly after Netanyahu’s public appeal, the leaders of Blue & White issued a statement of their own which appeared to agree that a national unity government was indeed the way forward but rejecting the idea of joining with the religious parties that are the traditional, “natural” partners of Likud. Some Blue & White leaders, including Moshe Ya’alon, who served as Netanyahu’s defense minister in a previous government and used to be one of his most loyal political allies, openly declared that they were ready to form a unity government with Likud immediately if Netanyahu himself would step aside and let someone else be the party leader.

In a related development, on Thursday evening a poll was published showing that there was broad support among Israeli voters for a national unity government including both Likud and Blue & White and perhaps some of the secular parties but specifically EXCLUDING Shas, United Torah Judaism and even Yamina, the party representing Israel’s national religious/modern Orthodox community.

Further increasing the chances that a national unity government will be the ultimate result is the difficulty either Gantz or Netanyahu would have in forming a coalition without each other due to the muddled mathematics of the election results.

With Gantz holding the highest number of Knesset seats at 33, President Rivlin is likely to hand him the first mandate at trying to form a coalition government. He could start by bringing in all of the secular, socialist parties to his Left, and also the Joint (Arab) List, even though the Arab factions have never sat in an Israeli government due to concerns they may get access to sensitive security intelligence. But Gantz would still need either Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu or one of the parties in the Right bloc. Liberman will never sit with the Arabs, and Netanyahu managed this week to forge an agreement with Shas, UTJ and Yamina that they will negotiate over joining a coalition government as one bloc. The question now looming is whether Gantz could pry one of those parties out of that pact and into his government. And perhaps the biggest surprise of the last 24 hours is that the haredi parties Shas and UTJ have indicated a willingness to hear offers from Gantz. But he must also deal with the opposition to such a move from Yair Lapid, the leader of the secularist Yesh Atid faction within the Blue & White list.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, could easily form a coalition on the Right if Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu simply returns to the fold he left in April. But Liberman, who has been both a supporter and a nemesis of Netanyahu for decades, triggered this second round of elections and has to come away with some big spoils to show for it. That means his demands will be high, including a haredi draft bill, as well as less religious coercion and power for the ultra-Orthodox parties. Reports indicate that this stalemate still exists between Lieberman and the religious parties. Meantime, it is highly unlikely that Netanyahu could sway one of the parties to the Left of Gantz (Amir Peretz of the Labor-Gesher faction or Ehud Barak’s Democratic Union), into a coalition deal with the Right, especially if Netanyahu is still at the helm of Likud.

This entire logjam could be broken if Netanyahu were to agree to step down as leader of the Likud. But he and everyone else will be playing brinksmanship over the coming weeks, in a game which closely resembles three-level chess. The bottom line is that after ten straight years in the premiership (13 years in all), the political fate of Netanyahu is in the hands of others and their willingness to compromise in order for him to at least share power going forward.

Finally, there is a whale of a footnote amongst all this in the form of the possibility that Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint (Arab) List, will automatically become the leader of the Opposition in the Knesset, since his faction will be the largest one outside the government. In this case, the Minister of Defense would be legally obligated to provide Odeh with weekly security briefings that would include top secret information. Due to the history that Odeh and other Joint List MKs have of issuing statements deeply hostile to Israel, this raises serious legal and parliamentary issues which will have to be overcome.

In any event, the political future of the Jewish State is in for a turbulent ride over coming weeks as President Rivlin tries to shepherd the new Knesset factions through the always dramatic process of coalition building, beginning with his meetings with the party heads scheduled to start on Sunday.


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