For two years, anyone who pays attention to Israeli politics has been bombarded with election news and political analysis about Israel’s political blocs. The first two elections were structured by analysts and pollsters into a right-wing bloc and a left-wing bloc, which never made any sense given that the left-wing bloc included Kachol Lavan–a centrist party that leans to the right–and eventually came to include Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which cannot be described as left in any meaningful sense of the word. At some point before the third election and then in earnest prior to this week’s fourth election, people started describing the blocs as pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu. This seemed to better comport with the landscape, as you had a decidedly right-wing party in Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope in the anti-Netanyahu bloc and another one in Naftali Bennett’s Yamina not making any ironclad promises in either direction. Yet if there is anything to be learned from the preliminary results of Tuesday’s election–and full results will not be known until Friday–it is that talking about any type of coherent bloc in Israeli politics is silly.
A political bloc is a grouping of political parties all committed to working together, and what makes a bloc is a tie that binds them that also outstrips the wedges that push them apart. You are never going to have complete agreement among every party in a bloc on every issue, since if you did those parties would have no cause to exist as separate entities. But having a similar overarching worldview, or a principle that connects all of the parties together, is enough to ensure cooperation.
Looking at the deadlocked results of the fourth election, which come on the heels of the deadlocked results of the first two elections and the wholly predictable collapse of the unwieldy compromise following the third election, demonstrates that there are no sustainable Israeli political blocs. Assuming that the preliminary results hold, Netanyahu is going to be a seat or two short of 61, and he is going to go looking for those additional seats in different places. One place will be the core of the anti-Netanyahu bloc in trying to peel off defectors from New Hope’s sinking ship or convince Benny Gantz to once again betray his anti-Netanyahu pledge. This in itself betrays the fallacy of looking at Israeli politics right now as a struggle between two definable entities. The fact that it is conceivable that Likud defectors who left solely because they want to see Netanyahu ousted may return to the fold if it means retaining some measure of political power, or the fact that it is even more conceivable that an appeal to Gantz’s ego to once again “save Israel” by joining with Netanyahu and thereby keep Kahanists out of a coalition will be successful, shows why everything is so fluid. There are no black boundary lines in Israeli politics in the current era, only a muddled haze where any combination is theoretically conceivable.
But conceivable combinations are not the same as likely combinations, and that is where the Netanyahu factor does insert itself. Because Netanyahu is so polarizing, he effectively acts as a dam that blocks the natural flow of Israeli politics in a couple of ways. Without him, the outcome of the election would not have been in doubt; everyone would have predicted a large right-wing coalition of 70-75 seats and the actual results bear that out. His presence drives Sa’ar away from that theoretical right-wing coalition, and it partially drives Liberman–who also has to contend with the Haredi parties in that grouping–out as well. The other way in which Netanyahu creates a jam is that in addition to being the obstacle to a right-wing government, he removes the possibility of a center-right coalition too. If you knew nothing about Israeli politics beyond where parties stand on actual issues and had none of the background context, you would think that the most logical government is Likud, Yesh Atid, Kachol Lavan, New Hope, and Yisrael Beiteinu. That is a 70 seat coalition that is hawkish on security but short of being fully annexationist, centrist on social issues, and secular but respectful of religious observance. Netanyahu’s presence makes a coalition like this, and coalitions similar to ones that he himself constructed in the past, impossible today.
Netanyahu is not the only variable turning conceivable coalitions into fantasy ones. The past weeks were filled with anointing Bennett as a potential kingmaker, and the past days have been filled with anointing Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas as the new fulcrum who will determine which side gets to form a government. I’m not sure that either of them will get to play this designated role, since blithe predictions about critical deciders allegedly sitting in between two otherwise fully formed blocs ignore the interparty and interpersonal dynamics that have caused Israeli politicians to hem themselves in. The group of Likud, Shas, UTJ, and Religious Zionism that needs both Bennett and Abbas in order to form a government means the two most hawkish parties in Israel sitting with Israel’s only Islamist party, and a party whose platform and identity rest on anti-Arab racism sitting with an Arab party. It also means Netanyahu throwing out his repeated pledge from the past few weeks that he would not form a coalition with the support of Ra’am and multiple Likud MKs definitively ruling it out as well, let alone the awkward Yair Netanyahu tweet from a few months ago calling Abbas and Ra’am the Israeli branch of Hamas. Even if you somehow subtract Ra’am and are able to get to 61, Bennett still has to sit in a coalition with Smotrich, whom he broke away from before the first election in forming the now-defunct New Right party and then split with again before the current election.
These problems do not exist only for Netanyahu and his side. The theoretical anti-Netanyahu coalition is even more unwieldy. It would require Bennett joining a government under Lapid after signing a pledge on live television this past weekend not to do so. It would require Liberman joining with Arab parties, whether the Joint List or Ra’am. It would require the Joint List and Abbas to reconcile after splitting before this election. It would require Lapid and Gantz to reconcile after splitting when Gantz entered negotiations with Netanyahu last spring and after Gantz spent months publicly disparaging Lapid, including alleging that Lapid “hates people.” While none of these can be definitively ruled out, particularly not after some of the head spinning reversals we have seen in recent years, they do make everything far more complicated than would be otherwise necessary.
Finally, there are two more complicating factors that create different incentives for Netanyahu and what he does next and that will jumble things even further. On the one hand, there is Netanyahu’s trial and his never-ending quest for immunity, which points to him trying to construct a coalition that will pass the legislation he wants in this sphere. That means including Religious Zionism, which not only voiced support for prime ministerial immunity but went so far as to demand it during the campaign as a condition for joining the government. Going down this path may get Netanyahu what he wants, but also makes his life much harder since it makes it harder to actually form a government, and if he succeeds it means being hostage to the whims of the most odious party in the Knesset and dealing with the domestic and international fallout of allying with Meir Kahane’s political heirs.
On the other hand, if Netanyahu goes down this road and fails and no new coalition agreement is signed, the government that was just dissolved remains in place and with it the ticking timebomb of Gantz automatically becoming prime minister in November. The question is what Netanyahu fears more: a government that does not give him immunity, or a government that will make his life even more miserable by dint of whom it must include?
I suspect what we will see over the next few weeks is an effort by Netanyahu to sideline Itamar Ben Gvir and Otzma Yehudit by trying to get Smotrich to join without his more infamous partner, putting the pressure on Gantz to be the person who prevents the awful precedent of Kahanists sitting in a coalition, trying to pick off Sa’ar’s acolytes who know that they have to return to Likud in order to remain in the Knesset beyond this one, and laying the groundwork to fend off criticism should he form a coalition with Ra’am’s votes. And if none of this works, he will bite the bullet and turn to Religious Zionism if that is what ultimately puts him over the top. Whatever happens though, let’s finally put to rest this notion that Israel has two established camps with only two parties sitting in the middle that are undecided about their allegiances.