Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, vote on March 23. While the prime minister’s party won the most number of seats in the Knesset, he will still struggle to form a government. (photo from IGPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu makes a stunning deal with lawmakers to abandon his post and replace Reuven Rivlin as president of the country when the president’s term expires later this year. An agreement to pardon Netanyahu around corruption charges he currently faces is part of a deal that leads to Netanyahu ending his run as the country’s longest-serving leader. With “King Bibi” finally in a sinecure of symbolic eminence, the polarized Knesset manages to cobble together a coalition and stave off the fifth round of elections in two years.
This was one of the most fantastical possibilities mooted in a webinar presented by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) March 25, just two days after Israelis voted in the fourth of a series of elections during a two-year period of instability.
The panelists were CIJA’s chief executive officer Shimon Koffler Fogel and Adir Krafman, the agency’s associate director for communications and analytics. They sifted the entrails of the convoluted election outcome.
While ideological schisms divide Israeli politics, as does the secular-religious divide and other fractures, Fogel and Krafman concurred that the elephant in any discussion of the next Knesset is Netanyahu. CIJA is a nonpartisan organization and Fogel emphasized that the panelists, and moderator Tamara Fathi, were not advocating any outcomes, merely commenting on possibilities.
And the possibilities are almost endless. The vote sent 13 parties into the 120-seat Knesset. Some of these are not even parties, so much as umbrellas under which different factions coalesced for electoral purposes, so the mosaic of the chaotic chamber could refract in countless ways. But, while there are myriad permutations of possible coalitions and strange bedfellowships, Fogel, Krafman and most commentators in Israel and abroad think the most likely outcome is a fifth election. That is how difficult it would be for either side to patch together 61 members of the Knesset to govern.
Krafman presented graphic evidence of the challenges the pro- and anti-Netanyahu factions face in reaching that magic number. The pro-Bibi side likely has 52 dependable seats; his opponents probably have 57. That means an anti-Netanyahu coalition could form with the support of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, which holds seven seats. For Netanyahu to eke out 61 seats would require the backing not only of Bennett but also of the four seats won by the Arab party Ra’am. Such a partnership would be historic and would have been almost unthinkable in the recent past. But Netanyahu of late has been making amenable noises toward Arab Israelis in general and to the Arab parties in particular. However, even if the prime minister and his unlikely allies in the Arab sector made a deal, it could upend the consensus on the other side, as some on the right would probably balk at joining a coalition that includes Ra’am.
Ra’am is one of the big stories of the election. Exit polls indicated the party would not make it over the 3.25% threshold to win any Knesset seats. That created a scenario where Netanyahu and his probable allies were seen as almost certain to form a government.
But, as actual counting took place through the night and into the morning, it became clear that Ra’am would cross the minimum support for representation. Instantly, the calculations shifted.
If Ra’am were to enter a coalition government, or even if it merely supported a government from the sidelines, it would be a turning point in the role Arab parties play in Israeli politics. Ra’am has already upended conventional Arab approaches to politics. The umbrella of Arab parties, recently running under the banner of the Joint List, has always played a spoiler role. They are oppositionist and anti-Zionist groups that are as much protest movements as conventional political parties.
Perhaps learning a lesson from the outsized power of small, right-wing and Jewish religious parties, Ra’am adopted a more pragmatic and transactional position than their former allies in the Arab bloc. The leader, Mansour Abbas, has not ruled out supporting a coalition or playing a role in government. Like smaller Jewish parties, he would be expected to come to coalition discussions with a shopping list of demands, such as more funding for projects and programs that benefit his constituents.
Ra’am’s success makes it an unqualified winner in the election sweepstakes. Fogel and Krafman discussed other winners and losers.
“The first loser, I think, is Netanyahu,” said Fogel. “Despite his party winning the most number of seats, 30 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, [he] is still not able to form a government.”
That might have been survivable if other parties that are Netanyahu’s likely backers did not also come up short.
“The other two losers are other right-wing parties,” Fogel added. Naftali Bennett, whose Yamina took seven seats, and Gideon Sa’ar, whose New Hope party took six, had hoped to siphon off a larger chunk of Likud’s votes.
“Both of them really failed to do that, winning only a handful of seats,” said Fogel.
It is a profound statement about tectonic changes in Israel’s ideological fault lines that the Labour party, which took seven seats, and another left-wing party, Meretz, which took six, are viewed as having had a good night. In the days leading up to the vote, there were questions whether either party would overcome the minimum threshold. The Labour party was the indomitable establishment political party for the first three decades of Israel’s existence.
Another loser, Fogel said, was Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman is a right-wing but avowedly secularist politician. He ran a campaign promoting separation of religion and state and against Charedi privileges. His message may have backfired: while turnout was down overall from the last election, Charedi voters turned out in greater numbers, possibly in reaction to Lieberman’s message.
The discussion turned again to what may be the most likely path for a right-wing government, which could be the exit of Netanyahu. There are centrist parties, Fogel said, that do not have issues with Likud policies so much as they do with the prime minister personally. With him gone, a bloc of anti-Bibi members might engage with Likud under a new leader and form a centre-right coalition.
As unlikely as this scenario might be, it would stave off another unsavoury development.
Any hope of forming a Netanyahu-led coalition probably depends on support from the extremist grouping called Religious Zionism. This new umbrella of racist, misogynistic and homophobic extremists, which holds six seats, would taint any coalition as the most far-right government in Israel’s history. (Click here to read this week’s editorial.)
Whatever happens – whether someone can manage to hammer together a government, or whether exhausted Israelis will trudge to the polls for a fifth time – there are serious issues facing the country.
“There are some pretty daunting challenges out there,” Fogel said. “Most especially on the economic side. We see that some other countries have already begun to emerge [from the pandemic] with a fairly robust recovery. Israel isn’t there yet…. There is a sense of urgency that they do have to get an Israeli government in place that is going to be able to effectively address these issues and it’s not clear that the election result will offer that to Israelis, so I think it makes a situation, if anything, more desperate.”