After Israel’s second national election this year, there is no more clarity about the country’s political future.
Perhaps even less.
And for the first time in a decade, there is a very real possibility that Benjamin Netanyahu will not be Israel’s Prime Minister.
Since 2009, Netanyahu has played Israeli politics like a fiddle, tuning it to his advantage. Only now the fiddle is broken.
After he failed to secure a governing coalition in April’s elections, Netanyahu triggered a do-over ballot instead of risking a different Prime Minister.
Following a divisive three-month campaign in which he accused Arab citizens of Israel of stealing the vote, suggested his opponent was a weak leftist who may be mentally unstable, and complained of widespread election fraud, Netanyahu is now even further from forming a government than he was five months ago.
To secure a coalition government, Netanyahu needs to ally his Likud Party with enough smaller parties to reach a total of at least 61 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats. In April, he had 60. Hoping to pick up one more, Netanyahu legislated new elections. But his move has likely backfired – he now has only 55 seats.
“On the face of it, [Netanyahu] has gone from being the factor which has kept the right, and Likud, in power, to the single obstacle to them retaining power,” says Jason Pearlman, former spokesman for Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin. “That said, [Benny] Gantz’s situation is no better.”
Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White Party leads Likud by two seats, may have a slightly larger bloc behind him, but even he has no clear path to a coalition. Combined with the Democratic Union, Labor and the Arab parties, Gantz would have just 57 seats, though it is not clear at the moment whether the Arab parties would definitely agree to join him.
The kingmaker in these elections – former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and his eight-seat Yisrael Beiteinu Party – refuses to sit with the Arab parties or the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, meaning Gantz and Netanyahu are stuck. And so is Israel.
Ostensibly, both leaders want a unity government between Likud and Blue and White, but Gantz has said he will not sit with Netanyahu while the Prime Minister is facing possible indictment in ongoing corruption probes.
And Netanyahu, who called for negotiations to a unity government with no preconditions, was also quick to declare he had unified the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist parties behind him, which inherently imposes preconditions on any potential coalition negotiations.
“Everything that has taken place in the Israeli political system over the past year has been unprecedented,” says Yohanan Plesner, the President of the Israel Democracy Institute. “We’ve never had a prime minister continue to serve once the attorney general decided to indict him (pending a hearing). We never had the head of a party lead his party to ‘victory’ in an election, receive the mandate from the president to form a government and then fail. And of course, we never had the Knesset disperse itself before a government was even formed.”
“We can only hope that our political leaders act responsibly and ensure that we don’t head towards an unprecedented third election,” Plesner added.
Memes mocking the idea of a third election have become significantly less funny.
President Rivlin, whose job it is to appoint the next political leader to form a government, promised he would do everything in his power to avoid another ballot, but there is little he can do to stop it if the Knesset votes to legislate a third election within one year – or if that election happens automatically.
What happens next?
There are now three political clocks ticking in Israel.
The first – and loudest – is Netanyahu’s legal clock. The Prime Minister faces potential indictment on corruption charges in three separate criminal investigations. His preliminary hearing is in less than two weeks, after which the Attorney General will make his final decision on indictment sometime later this year.
Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. His best defense against those charges may be that he is premier, so he will do everything he can to hold onto the position – a role he has held longer than any other Israeli leader.
The second is the mechanism within the Knesset to trigger new elections. If neither Netanyahu, nor Gantz can form a government, the President can appoint another member of Knesset to try. If that fails, new elections are automatically triggered. Those elections would be sometime in late-March or early-April – one year after the first failed elections led to the mess in which Israel is currently mired.
The third and final countdown is one within Netanyahu’s own Likud party. As it becomes clearer that Netanyahu does not have a clear path to a government, pressure will grow in Likud to replace him. But this is not a decision taken lightly. In fact, it’s not a decision that has ever been taken. Netanyahu is only the fourth leader in the history of the party, following Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon. All three left on their own terms, and Netanyahu intends to do the same.
“The situation is unprecedented, but moreover it is unpredictable,” says Pearlman. “Netanyahu is still in the driving seat, but others are holding the car keys.”
Who will give ground?
Ever since new elections were called on Christmas Eve, Israel has faced political uncertainty, amplified by the reality of back-to-back elections. As a country, Israel has endured because its economy is strong and its military hierarchy functions largely independently from its politics. But uncertainty is inching towards chaos, which eventually will affect the nation.
“For nearly a year now Israel has been a country frozen in time,” says Plesner. “New programs cannot be approved, serious processes cannot be conducted and long-term plans cannot be adopted. To say nothing of a growing deficit that is not being taken care of. The appointments of senior officials – judges, the police chief – are also frozen. We are not yet a country in chaos, but it is time for our leaders to form a broad government that can tackle the serious challenges facing Israel.”
Progress requires someone to give ground.
Either Gantz needs to be willing to sit with Netanyahu, or Likud needs to part ways with Netanyahu. Liberman needs to sit in a government with the Arab parties or ultra-Orthodox parties. Or parties within Netanyahu’s religious, right-wing bloc need to abandon him and sit with center-left parties.
Otherwise, Israel faces the possibility of a third election, which may be unable to solve the exact same impasse.
Right now, there are no fiddle fixers in Israel.