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Analysis

Is a fifth election now a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Israel’s leaders can form a government and end the deadlock. All they need is a bit of trust and a willingness to compromise. Or: Why another snap election is inevitable

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

An Israeli cast his vote in the general election, in Kafr Manda, northern Israel, on March 23, 2021. (Jamal Awad/FLASH90)
An Israeli cast his vote in the general election, in Kafr Manda, northern Israel, on March 23, 2021. (Jamal Awad/FLASH90)

March 2020, just one year ago, seems an eon away. A pandemic separates that time from ours, with its social distancing and shuttered schools and waves of contagion and lockdown. A strategic realignment and four peace treaties took place over this year, as did a dramatic changing of the guard in Washington. A mental chasm formed by the tribulations of these strange times seems to place that period far in the past.

In Israeli politics, too, everything seemed to have changed. The 33-seat behemoth called “Blue and White” that once challenged Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has shattered into its constituent parts.

As a new election drew close over the past month, Netanyahu seemed to hold all the cards. He was headed into election day with a well-oiled campaign (four elections in two years is good practice) and an extraordinary vaccination campaign and four peace treaties under his belt.

Election day itself seemed to suggest a dramatic shift. Benny Gantz of Blue and White now leads a list of just eight MKs. The Arab parties were divided and Arab turnout was down. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, the largest opposition faction, grew by just one seat while Netanyahu’s right-wing challengers Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett crashed from polling in the low twenties and high teens down to six and seven Knesset seats respectively.

Everything had changed. And nothing.

A large election campaign billboard for the Likud party showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hangs from a building and a bus is adorned with a poster for the Blue and White party showing its leader Benny Gantz, right, and Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Blocs

Step back from the individual parties and consider the numbers based on their overlapping electorates, and all that Brownian motion averages out to very nearly zero.

Consider: Likud and Yamina together won 42 seats last year. Likud, Yamina and its offshoot Religious Zionism won 43 this time.

Blue and White won 33 seats last time. Yesh Atid and Gantz’s shrunken Blue and White, together with Sa’ar’s New Hope party whose voters mostly identified as centrists, now drew 31.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during an election campaign tour in Hod Hasharon, March 19, 2021, four days before the election. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism won 16 seats between them in 2020; they won the same 16 on Tuesday.

The Arab parties and the left won 22 seats between them last time, 24 this time.

Avigdor Liberman’s Russian-speaking hawkish-but-secularist party won seven then and seven now.

It’s as if someone had thrown half the parliament into the air in exasperation, only to watch it land in the exact same pattern. The parties may have changed, but the fundamental contours of the standoff did not. Voters seem unmoved by the passage of time and intervening events. Fresh out of a fourth election, the country seems to be plunging headlong into a fifth.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

Based on the near-final results announced Thursday, it’s fair to say that no candidate has a clear path to a coalition. Or, more accurately, no one has a clear path to a coalition they’d want to be seen joining just before yet another election.

Central Election Committee members count ballots in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That’s the terrible secret of Tuesday’s election: There are many paths out of the deadlock and toward stability and good governance. But no one can take them.

As the anti-Netanyahu camp keeps noting, Netanyahu could resign. That would free Sa’ar to join the right-wing camp and help establish a stable and coherent government large enough to be free of the extremist wing of the Religious Zionism slate.

Alternatively, as the pro-Netanyahu camp keeps insisting, Gideon Sa’ar could swallow his pride — and his central promise to his voters — and join the Netanyahu government in order to avert the fresh pain and continued instability of yet another election.

There are also those in the pro-Netanyahu camp, including some of Netanyahu’s most ardent supporters over the years, like right-wing pundit Shimon Riklin and pollster Shlomo Filber, who are urging that Likud accept the support of the Islamist Ra’am party, pushing the Netanyahu coalition above the 61-seat mark and ushering in a narrow but, they hope, viable coalition — whose mere founding, they add, will convince other members of the opposition to defect, quickly swelling its ranks and releasing it from its reliance on Ra’am.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem the day before the general election, on March 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

There are many such paths for those seeking stability, but all are beset by the same thorny problem: No politician can afford such compromises without a guarantee that it won’t avert a new election.

Sa’ar’s dilemma

Assume for a moment that Sa’ar is open to Likud’s demand that he return to the Likud fold. He might hypothetically be willing to consider the move if it promised to grant him a few quiet years in the cabinet to rehabilitate his position in the ruling party and try his luck in the succession contest that will follow Netanyahu’s retirement.

But even if he were willing to contemplate that path in theory, at the moment he can’t even afford to hear out a Likud offer. A fifth election is imminent. Negotiating with a Netanyahu-led Likud after promising not to do so simply hands Likud the ammunition it needs to bury him in the next round.

The fear of a fifth election drives the distrust that in turn is pushing the country toward a fifth election.

Head of the New Hope party, Gideon Sa’ar, greets his supporters during the election campaign in Haifa, on March 16, 2021, ahead of the March 23 general elections. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Bennett’s predicament

The same holds true for every other player in this drama.

Media outlets have taken to counting Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party as part of the automatic Netanyahu bloc. But should they? Netanyahu has no viable path to a coalition without fellow right-winger Bennett, but Bennett has refused to say that he will join Netanyahu’s government.

Bennett is undoubtedly seeking to maximize his negotiating position vis-a-vis Netanyahu. In any negotiation, it never hurts to let the other side sweat.

Naftali Bennett, head of Yamina party, arrives a polling station to cast his ballots during the Israeli legislative elections in Raanana on March 23, 2021. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

But Bennett’s reluctance goes deeper. He ran in Tuesday’s election as a critic of Netanyahu, his campaign message focused on Netanyahu’s management failures during the pandemic. While he never ruled out sitting in a Netanyahu government, he won his seven seats for his criticism of the prime minister.

As long as a fifth election appears imminent, Bennett cannot seem to suddenly transform into a Netanyahu cheerleader like Shas or Religious Zionism. He cannot allow himself to be seen as the political actor who paved the way for business to continue as usual. The campaign is still underway. He must distinguish himself, prove to his voters that his political demands from Netanyahu are significant and connected to the issues he campaigned on — and all the while, he must assume the negotiations will ultimately fail, so he cannot appear to compromise on his principles and demands. His room for compromise is narrow.

The Ra’am conundrum

Betzalel Smotrich, head of Religious Zionism, publicly nixed any right-wing coalition that relies on Ra’am, even if Ra’am doesn’t actually join but merely abstains from voting against the coalition, thereby denying the opposition the ability to topple the government in a budget or no-confidence vote.

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party at an election campaign tour at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 19, 2021, four days before the general election. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Smotrich’s refusal to consider cooperation, like Sa’ar’s to contemplate sitting under Netanyahu, is surely rooted in principle. But Smotrich is no political fledgling. He understands the need for political compromise and knows how desperate Netanyahu is for a government — which once established will likely have an easier time pulling in defectors.

But, again, the next election looms. Smotrich won’t win far-right votes if he is seen to compromise over Ra’am. If the next election were a long way off, if the compromise with Ra’am was a momentary thing, a single vote followed by four years of stable governance, it’s reasonable to think he might have risked it. But right before an election?

And while Smotrich can’t embrace Ra’am, Netanyahu can’t rebuff its overtures.

Consider the dilemma from Netanyahu’s perspective. Ra’am isn’t just the potential deciding vote that could form his next coalition. It holds the deciding vote on the bill set to be proposed in the new Knesset that would forbid an MK under indictment from standing for prime minister — a bill demanded by Avigdor Liberman and other Netanyahu adversaries that would summarily remove him from the running in the next election.

To embrace Ra’am is to hurt Likud at the ballot box or undermine the alliance with Religious Zionism and other right-wing forces. But to decisively rebuff Ra’am’s calls for a constructive relationship is to run the risk that the Muslim party will head across the aisle to more compliant partners, who will happily pay a political dividend in exchange for the votes to legislate Netanyahu out of politics.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas casts his vote at a voting station in Maghar, during the Knesset elections, on March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Here again, the threat of another election becomes the cause of another election. An anti-Netanyahu bill would only enter into force in the 25th Knesset; it wouldn’t apply retroactively to the current one. If Netanyahu believed he had three or four years before he’d need to worry about the next Knesset, he could risk Smotrich’s ire to obtain the momentary help he needs to found his coalition and prevent the bill that would disqualify him. But he doesn’t have that luxury, and so he finds himself suspended in a strange limbo, neither hammering out a historic political deal with the Muslim party nor decisively refusing to do so.

It’s the same story everywhere.

Lapid must piece together a coalition with Bennett after the latter promised his voters not to sit under him. One doesn’t backtrack on an election promise in the run-up to a new vote. Or Lapid could try to pull Bennett and Sa’ar into a coalition with Meretz and Labor — a not impossible task in ordinary times, an extremely difficult one on the eve of an election.

It must be said: The point stands even if a government is somehow formed from the impossible arithmetic handed down by the voters. The fifth election problem won’t go away. No government formed out of this parliament is likely to have a stable, broad coalition propping it up. It would try to hobble along under the polarizing pressure of an ever-looming snap election; it would almost certainly fail.

After Tuesday’s election, Israelis are asking themselves if there’s any path forward to a viable and stable government. The answer, at least for now, appears to be no. Not because it’s hard to see what compromises are required to produce such a government, but because none of the relevant leaders trust each other enough to risk those compromises.

And, indeed, if the extraordinary shifts of the past year have failed to move the needle, why should we assume that a fifth election would do the trick? It may be time to contemplate the strange possibility that Benny Gantz, with the enthusiastic backing of his party’s seven other lawmakers, and almost no one else, may yet find himself replacing Netanyahu as prime minister when the outgoing government’s rotation deal comes due in November.

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