Israelis went to the polls on Tuesday to try to break the deadlock that resulted from April’s vote in which no side could form a government. As the results have come in, it appears that Israeli voters have spoken in favor of…another deadlock. Neither the right-wing bloc led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Likud, nor the alternative bloc led by Benny Gantz and Kachol Lavan have enough seats to form a 61 seat coalition. Once again, Avigdor Liberman is standing in the middle with the ability to grant one of the two sides victory, this time with nine seats, up from five in April. In other words, Israelis are staring at the same outcome that these elections were supposed to resolve.
But Tuesday’s results are actually different from April’s in a few important or unprecedented ways. While nearly everyone is expecting the end result of this process to be a unity government with the real question being whether it includes Netanyahu or not, here are four other things to reflect upon as we gear up for six weeks of constant maneuvering.
This was an unprecedented right-wing victory
Netanyahu is the clear loser of this election – more on that below – but it is a mistake to view this as a repudiation of the right, the comeback of the left, or a resounding statement in favor of liberal norms and values. This was perhaps the largest victory that the Israeli right has ever achieved. As the numbers currently stand (and if they shift, it will not be by more than a seat in either direction for any one party), there are 48 seats for Likud, Yamina, and Yisrael Beiteinu, all of which are clearly right-wing in their approach to security, separation of powers, and are culturally conservative. Shas and UTJ are at 17, and while fitting the Haredi parties into Israel’s traditional right-left spectrum is difficult given their issue focus, they literally ran ads featuring Netanyahu, promised to only recommend him for prime minister, and speak of themselves as Netanyahu’s “natural partners.” Then there is Kachol Lavan and its 32 seats, which is always put atop the left-center bloc in polls but is actually a right of center party. There are certainly some Kachol Lavan MKs who would be in Labor or the Democratic Union if they viewed those parties as the best alternative to Netanyahu, but they are the outliers rather than the norm. The party writ large attacks Netanyahu on security issues from his right, took credit last week for talking about Israeli permanent control over the Jordan Valley before Netanyahu, and has refused to rule out partial annexation of settlement blocs.
The only clear left-wing seats left in the Knesset are the 11 that are split between Democratic Union and Gesher, and the Joint List’s 13. Even if you identify six individual Kachol Lavan MKs who are more comfortable on the left, you only get to 30 overall. This is an overwhelmingly right of center Knesset, and the Jewish Israeli left at this point is even smaller than the Arab faction. If Netanyahu were not such a polarizing figure and the Haredi-secular battle clock was turned back five years, the election would have yielded a stable right-wing government of at least 70 seats with no effort.
This was an unprecedented Likud collapse
Say what you will about the fortunes of the left, but no party suffered so much damage from the April election to now as Likud. In April, Likud got 35 seats and then merged with Kulanu for a foundation of 39. The party now has 31 seats less than six months later. That is the clearest repudiation of Netanyahu and his party that we have seen, and any Likud MK who thinks it is smart to risk facing a third election with Netanyahu as the party’s head is in the wrong profession. Everything the party did, from the shameful attempt to install cameras in polling places over the objections of every relevant legal authority, to the constant incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens, to the pathetic and obsequious Netanyahu loyalty pledge that all Likud MKs signed, backfired terribly.
Neither Likud nor Kachol Lavan wants to blink first in what now becomes a showdown over which side will be the first to cave over the issue of Netanyahu staying or going. It may be that Netanyahu has the experience and intestinal fortitude to win a game of chicken with Gantz, and that his history of ruling over Likud with an iron first and cowing his fellow Likud MKs into supporting anything he says or does, no matter how absurd, will once again carry the day. But there is no way to read these results as anything but an abject disaster for Likud, and all evidence suggests that it is because of Netanyahu rather than despite him. If Netanyahu drags Likud along with him into a third election, the party will crater.
There are some crazy and not entirely implausible coalition possibilities
Most everyone expects this to eventually lead to a unity government, and that is certainly the likeliest scenario. But it’s not the only one, and because nobody trusts anyone else and Netanyahu is fighting not only for his political future but also for his future to live outside of a prison cell, every single pressure point will be tested and every opportunity explored.
Netanyahu’s most obvious gambit is to convince Liberman to sit with him and form the coalition that everyone expected last time of Likud, Yamina, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the Haredim. For this to happen, Liberman and the Haredim would have to arrive at a détente over the draft law, but they have sat together in coalitions before so it’s not out of the question. The bigger hurdle will be what Liberman requires personally from Netanyahu, and that is likely nothing short of a prime ministerial rotation. It seems an absurd scenario to have Liberman with his nine seats spend two years as prime minister, but if Netanyahu is desperate enough, he may dangle that to get Liberman on board.
If Liberman is a lost cause for Netanyahu, he will try to sway Amir Peretz and Labor to join him, or coax Benny Gantz to break up Kachol Lavan and become his defense minister. Gantz was unwilling to accept that offer last time and pull out of his partnership with Yair Lapid, and it’s unlikely that he would change his mind this time unless there is some outside intervention from the White House pressuring him to do so. All of which is to say that these are longshots for Netanyahu, but he will undoubtedly try to make one of them work.
On the other side, there is a scenario in which the Haredim throw their lot in with Gantz, and he forms a coalition that includes them along with Labor and the Democratic Union, and possibly Liberman. The Haredi parties’ biggest fear is being left out of the government, which makes them pliable, and Gantz has spent much time and energy courting them since the last election. They would need to get over the hurdle of sitting with Lapid, which may actually be a larger hurdle than the one represented by Liberman, and the secular Israeli left would have to make their own peace with some Haredi priorities. In some ways, it would be easier for Gantz to form a government with the Haredim and the Joint List, since both the Haredim and the Arabs have specific sectoral concerns that do not necessarily conflict, but that coalition would be such a departure from anything ever seen in Israel that it’s hard to contemplate.
Perhaps the most tantalizing scenario is also the least plausible of all, and that is a secular minority government of Kachol Lavan, Liberman, Labor, and the Democratic Union, supported from the outside by the Joint List. A government of that composition would be able to enact a series of reforms concerning religion and state that would be broadly popular with Israelis, while taking tangible steps toward separation from the Palestinians in the West Bank and an eventual resumption of a viable peace process. Establishing a minority government with Joint List support when Israelis seem to be strongly signaling that they want a unity government would be controversial, to put it mildly, and having the Joint List support any government that includes Liberman might be the sole impossibility in the universe of Israeli politics, but it is still fun to think about.
Time to root for Opposition Leader Ayman Odeh
If Likud and Kachol Lavan form a unity government, the Joint List will be the Knesset’s largest opposition party. While it does not ensure that Odeh will be opposition leader automatically, as Yamina and the Haredi parties may band together and vote for someone else, he will have the inside track. This means that Odeh will have a formal position in the Israeli system, along with regular security briefings from the government, and an unprecedented public platform to raise attention to issues that have been neglected for decades. It would be a huge step forward not only for Arab parties, but for normalizing Arabs’ roles in Israeli politics and society. It would hopefully make the incitement and delegitimization of Arabs that has become so routine become beyond the pale of what is acceptable. If Odeh is head of the opposition, it may end up as the most consequential outcome of this election, and would be a fitting repudiation of the ugly and racist tactics that marked this last round of campaigning up through election day itself.