Next week, the heads of the thirteen parties that will comprise the twenty-fourth Knesset will trudge the well-worn path to Israel’s presidential residence and make their recommendations to President Ruvi Ruvlin as to who should lead Israel’s next government. On Wednesday, Rivlin will assign the mandate to form a government to one of the 120 MKs, and coalition negotiations will begin in earnest. There are three dilemmas hanging over this process, and how different actors answer those dilemmas will go a long way toward determining whether a government can be formed and who might form it.
The first dilemma concerns the group of parties seeking to oust Prime Minister Netanyahu, or as they have dubbed themselves, the bloc for change. The dilemma they face is as follows: is it legitimate to have a prime minister from a party that is tied for the third-most seats in your coalition and that does not represent the majority on ideology or policy? Despite the fact that the largest party in this group, Yesh Atid, is more than twice the size of the second largest party in this group, there is a tussle playing out in public over whether Yair Lapid is going to be this group’s candidate for prime minister. Lapid with his seventeen seats is being pressured to cede his presumptive prime ministerial candidacy to Yamina’s Naftali Bennett with his seven in order to make the larger coalition math work.
In order to replace Netanyahu, Lapid has to hold on to the two right-wing parties not committed to Netanyahu, which are Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. While Sa’ar is firmly in the anti-Netanyahu camp, Bennett is decidedly not. Given a choice between sitting with Netanyahu or deposing him but sitting with a constellation of centrist and left-wing parties, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that Bennett will choose the former, from his own hard right ideological bent to the fact that he publicly pledged not to serve under Lapid as prime minister but would not make the same pledge about Netanyahu. The only way to entice him to take the plunge is to let him be prime minister, despite the fact that you’d have a prime minister from Israel’s most right-wing non-Kahanist party who is most famous for his championing annexation above Lapid and Benny Gantz with more Knesset seats and in a coalition with left-wing Labor and Meretz. For Lapid in particular, it is not only a question of ego and political fairness, but one of whether it is legitimate to orchestrate a coalition bound together only by a desire to replace Netanyahu and have it led by the one person who is not actually committed to that sole organizing principle.
The second dilemma follows from the first, and it is for Bennett: is it more important to be prime minister or to uphold right-wing principles? Bennett is on the cusp of pulling off the most unlikely political triumph in Israeli political history, going from not making the Knesset threshold in the first election to potentially being offered the role of prime minister two years later despite leading a party that represents only six percent of the Knesset and is less than half as large as the biggest party in his would-be government. If Lapid ends up providing Bennett with this opening, it would seemingly be a no-brainer for Bennett to run through it.
But there are mitigating circumstances that should give Bennett some pause. Putting his attempt to portray himself as Israel’s COVID expert aside, Bennett’s political support comes from his positions on annexation and settlements, reining in the judicial system, and a more hawkish line toward Gaza and Hamas. It is hard, if not impossible, to see how he advances any of those items in a meaningful way as the prime minister in a coalition where he will be in the distinct minority on those issues. It is equally hard to see his supporters stomaching many of the compromises he will have to make as prime minister and without the benefit of being able to argue that he’s not in charge and it’s not up to him. Should he become prime minister of the most unwieldy coalition in Israel’s history and lead a government that is paralyzed and wracked by infighting and inevitably collapses after a year, and not fulfill any of his campaign promises in the process, he will have reached the pinnacle of his career in a wholly unsatisfying way. Furthermore, it comes on the heels of Gantz’s cautionary tale, where he garnered over thirty seats three elections in a row by posing as the man who would replace Netanyahu, made all sorts of justifications for caving and creating a unity government with Netanyahu, and immediately cratered in the polls. Bennett may face a similar fate trading his actual agenda for temporal political power, and thus deciding between serving as prime minister in a non-ideal government versus serving as defense minister under Netanyahu is not so clear cut.
The third dilemma lies with Mansour Abbas and Ra’am, and it is whether fully integrating Israeli Arabs into Israeli politics is worth any cost. Despite the assumption that the Joint List’s previous recommendations of Gantz for prime minister and the more left and centrist leaning orientation of the bloc for change make it easier for any Arab party to join the anti-Netanyahu group, supporting Netanyahu may actually be Abbas’s only option. Sa’ar has ruled out forming a government with Arab parties and with their outside support, and the fourth MK on his list, Yoaz Hendel, was one of the two Kachol Lavan MKs who prevented such a scenario after the third election. The notion that Liberman will suddenly be amenable to including Islamists in a coalition that includes him is far-fetched. On the other side, in contrast, Likud does whatever Netanyahu demands, and he may have an easier time convincing Bezalel Smotrich to relent after some horse-trading than anyone would have with Sa’ar or Hendel.
Should a government be formed that relies on Ra’am’s four MKs, it would be earth shattering in paving the way for Arab parties to be included in coalitions going forward. Israeli Arab voters are very clearly frustrated with protest parties that have no political influence, and public opinion polling shows that a wide majority of them want to vote for parties who will join Israeli governments. Abbas has been astute enough to seize on this, and to his credit he has consistently held the line that he wants to help form a government and will not rule anyone out. In this he is following the path that the Haredi parties adopted decades ago, understanding that working from inside the system will only benefit them and their voters, even if their ideological objections to Zionism remain. Abbas now faces that same option, but in his case the hurdles are higher, because they go well beyond ideological objections to Zionism. Is he willing to work with a party that includes Kahanists, that wants to subject Arab citizens to loyalty tests and expulsions? Is he willing to give a seal of approval to Netanyahu himself, whose most famous instance of Arab race baiting on Election Day in 2015 was not as bad as his more recent effort only one year ago to posit that the Joint List’s Knesset seats were not legitimate and should not be considered in determining which bloc has the most prime ministerial recommendations? If the implicit ban against including Arab parties in governing Israel is broken and Arab municipalities get more funding and equal treatment, these tradeoffs may be worth it, but there are certainly countervailing considerations.
None of these dilemmas will be easy to resolve for those who have to face them, but they will be some of the variables that dictate what happens next. Examining them helps explain why a new government may be formed, but that the bet with the highest odds remains a fifth election later this year.