Last April, Israelis went to vote in what they logically assumed would be the only election for another three or four years. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud won 35 seats from 1.14 million votes, Benny Gantz and Kachol Lavan won 35 seats from 1.13 million votes, the Haredi parties won 16 seats, Labor and Meretz won a combined 10 seats, the far right parties won five seats, Kulanu (remember them?) won four seats, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu won five seats, and the parties of the former Joint List (the Joint List had split before the election) won 10 seats. As the previous government had included Likud, the far right, the Haredi parties, and Liberman, everyone assumed that this was a decisive victory for Netanyahu and that a 65 seat right-wing government was inevitable. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, Liberman decided to take a hard stand on religion and state issues, and by the time Netanyahu realized that Liberman was not bluffing or trying to leverage his position for something else, it was too late, and Israel went to a second election.
In September, Gantz and Kachol Lavan won 33 seats from 1.15 million votes, Netanyahu and Likud won 32 seats from 1.11 million votes, the Haredi parties won 16 seats, Labor (after combining with Gesher) and Meretz (after combining with Ehud Barak’s new party and Stav Shaffir and running as the Democratic Union) won a combined 11 seats, the far right parties won seven seats, Liberman won eight seats, and the Joint List won 13 seats. The result was largely viewed as a stinging blow to Netanyahu, since not only did Kachol Lavan increase its votes following a campaign that was seen entirely as a referendum on Netanyahu himself, but Likud actually decreased by 300,000 votes after factoring in its merger with Kulanu and its endorsement by Zehut (a right-wing party that ran in the April election and received 118,000 votes). As a result, the right-wing bloc dropped to 55 seats, leaving Gantz in what appeared to be the stronger position and with more possible paths to a government. There was talk of a prime ministerial rotation between Gantz and Netanyahu, talk of a minority Gantz-led government with outside support from the Joint List, and talk of a Likud revolt to remove Netanyahu from the party leadership. Gideon Sa’ar did challenge the prime minister for leadership of the Likud, but ended up only strengthening Netanyahu further when Bibi won the contest in a landslide. Ultimately, neither side budged, the deadlock continued, and Israel went to a third election. In the interim, Netanyahu was formally indicted, with a trial date set for March 17, and President Trump released his peace plan, widely viewed as playing into Netanyahu’s strengths.
The results from that third election this past Monday leave Likud with 36 seats from 1.34 million votes, Kachol Lavan with 33 seats from 1.21 million votes, the Haredi parties with 16 seats, the combined Labor-Gesher-Meretz list with seven seats, the far right parties with six seats, Liberman with seven seats, and the Joint List with 15 seats. This gives the right-wing bloc 58 seats due to a strengthened Likud, Kachol Lavan and Labor-Gesher-Meretz collectively hold 39 seats, and Liberman still sits between the two blocs, with an even larger Joint List as another potential wild card.
Depending on your perspective, you can choose your favored interpretation of Monday’s vote.
Option 1: This was an undeniable victory for Netanyahu and the right, and the scenario that makes the most sense is for those who previously thought that they could unseat Netanyahu to give up on a repeatedly failed quest and join with him to prevent yet another needless election. There have now been three elections that have all been fought on a single issue: whether Netanyahu is the best and most suitable leader for Israel. Not only have Israelis not abandoned him through the process of police investigations and recommendations for indictment, the actual indictments themselves had no impact. On the contrary, Likud is up four seats and over two hundred thousand votes from last time and received the most votes of any party across all three elections, so the chances of unseating Netanyahu going forward are only getting slimmer, not better. Kachol Lavan is destined to crack under the pressure of sustaining an anti-Netanyahu campaign that has failed, and will inevitably have to choose to join with Netanyahu or collapse under the weight of its failed expectations. Liberman is in the same boat, unless he wants voters to blame him for taking Israel to a fourth election not over policy, but over his personal hatred for a prime minister whom Israelis continue to support.
Option 2: Once again, Netanyahu was unable to muster a majority to form a government. Instead, Israelis demonstrated for the second consecutive time that there is a majority that prefers someone other than Netanyahu as prime minister. Netanyahu has no ostensible case for claiming that he won or that anyone should join with him; in an election that was all about Netanyahu rather than any discernible policy issue, there are 62 anti-Netanyahu seats in the Knesset and he is about to go on trial in less than two weeks. Kachol Lavan got more votes this time than it did in the first election, which was deemed an historic achievement, and than it did in the second election, which was deemed a victory for the party. There is no reason for Kachol Lavan to drop its reason for being and pave the way for the continuation of the Netanyahu premiership, and Liberman’s sustained strength also means that he risks losing the anti-Netanyahu voters who have propelled him back to relevance if he joins with Netanyahu now. If anything, Kachol Lavan has more options than Netanyahu does. There is nobody for him to win over outside of his proscribed bloc of 58, whereas Gantz may finally be able to convince the Haredim to sit with him, and also retains the option – even if it is a far-fetched one – that is closed to Netanyahu of forming a minority government with the outside support of the Joint List.
Whichever of these analyses you find more persuasive likely depends on your politics and general outlook, but either is plausible. Leaving them aside, however, there are some observations worth pointing out that go beyond the choose-your-own-adventure elections post-mortem.
The battle in the coming weeks will be over Netanyahu’s attempt to attract some defectors and Gantz’s attempt to hold the line. While Orly Levy and her single Gesher seat may be relatively low-hanging fruit for Netanyahu – she comes from a right-wing background and political history, she was uncomfortable with the Meretz merger before this election, has no plausible room for growth within Labor, and Netanyahu will make her health minister on day one – it does not solve the problem of where two more seats will come from. Right-wing Kachol Lavan MKs were never in the party over ideological or policy considerations, but rather because they do not ever want to sit with Netanyahu in a government, and that will not change. And Netanyahu only has so many ministries and plum positions that he can promise to potential defectors before he risks igniting a revolt in his natural bloc of MKs, all of whom want to reap their own personal political benefits.
The ostensible kingmaker – Liberman – is the one person that in my view bears almost no watching. Contrary to some predictions, Liberman was not punished by voters for the third election, and his continued retention of the voters who have pushed him up to 7-8 seats depends on his continued reflection of their concerns. Liberman himself may be anti-Netanyahu, but he has made his public stand one that centers not on the man himself, but on his enabling of Haredi political power. So long as Netanyahu continues to insist on an unwavering 58 seat bloc that includes Shas and UTJ, it’s hard for me to see a scenario in which Liberman caves. He has only benefited from staying the course, and nothing about Monday’s results changes that calculus.
Nothing is ever assured; conventional wisdom was that there would never be a second election, and I myself was certain that there would not be a third. But looking at the current scenario, it seems that absent something earth-shattering – a war, a coronavirus plague, Netanyahu negotiating a plea deal and stepping down – a fourth election is the likeliest outcome. Let the fingerpointing, increasingly overblown rhetoric, and recriminations commence.