In limbo for days as it awaited the results of Monday’s elections, Israel is likely to remain in limbo even now the figures are finally confirmed — with the essential character of the country potentially at stake.
Exit polls on Monday night indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud had outscored his main rival, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, and that Netanyahu’s bloc — Likud, right-wing Yamina, and the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism — was heading for 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Had they been confirmed, those figures would have put Netanyahu firmly in the driver’s seat to build a coalition — needing just one defector from the opposition side, or, failing that, able to pressure opposition parties to join him in a unity government or risk being blamed for sending the country to yet a fourth round of elections.
With all votes counted though not officially certified Thursday, however, Likud has indeed remained the biggest party (with 36 seats to Blue and White’s 33), but Netanyahu’s bloc of natural allies totals only 58 seats, three short of a Knesset majority, massively complicating the coalition-building process.
Simple arithmetic might suggest that if Netanyahu commands the support of 58 MKs, Gantz must have the backing of the other 62, and that Blue and White should thus be able to build a majority. But simple arithmetic does not account for all the complexities of Israel’s political reality. While Blue and White indeed leads a bloc of 62 MKs who all appear united in seeking to prevent a new Netanyahu coalition, those 62 MKs are not all united behind a potential prime minister Benny Gantz.
Gantz himself made explicit in the final days of the campaign that he would not helm a coalition dependent in any way, shape or form on the support of the Joint List of mainly Arab parties, which rose to a historic high of 15 seats. In a Channel 12 television interview on Saturday night, Gantz said he would not only exclude the Joint List from any coalition he heads, but also that he would not build a minority coalition that depended on the outside support or even the abstention of the Joint List.
Avigdor Liberman, head of the hawkish but anti-Netanyahu Yisrael Beytenu party (seven seats), meanwhile, has reiterated endlessly that he, too, will not be part of any coalition dependent on the Joint List. And the Joint List, for its part, has said it won’t sit in a coalition with Gantz unless he walks back his insistence on a “Jewish majority” coalition and opposes the annexation of West Bank territory. Oh, and the Joint List is also unwilling to join a coalition in which Liberman holds a ministerial role.
What all that means, in short, is that while there are 62 MKs apparently determined to block a Netanyahu coalition, there are nowhere near 62 MKs with the common ground to form a coalition under Gantz.
Despite the slide back from 60 seats to 58 for his bloc as the actual count replaced the projections, Netanyahu as of Wednesday night was still insisting he had won a great victory.
He was also striving to delegitimize the representatives of the Arab electorate — convening a televised meeting of the MKs in his bloc at which he used a whiteboard to try to bend the Knesset arithmetic to his needs.
“The people’s decision is clear. The right-wing Zionist camp consists of 58 seats. The left-wing Zionist camp, including Liberman who has joined it, consists of 47 seats,” Netanyahu said and wrote, including Yisrael Beytenu as part of the left. “The Joint List, which denigrates our soldiers and opposes the very existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, as the national state of the Jewish people… is of course not part of this equation,” he continued, and thus had no place at all in his calculations. “And that was the will of the people,” he declared.
Netanyahu’s strategy is designed to offset two challenges to his continued prime ministership: a bid by Blue and White to initiate legislation barring a politician under indictment, like him, from serving as prime minister — which would require Joint List support to pass; and the possibility that Gantz, Liberman and the Arab MKs will abandon their stated commitments and nonetheless form a viable coalition.
The position Netanyahu espoused on Wednesday evening was more radical than those he has taken in the past
The prime minister has previously sought to demonize the Arab electorate — including with a notorious 2015 campaign cry that Arab voters were streaming to the polls, as though this were somehow illicit, and the deployment of Likud activists with cameras to deter voters at Arab polling stations last April. And he has worked intermittently in the past year, when it matched his interests, to bring into the political mainstream the Kahanist disciples of Otzma Yehudit — who advocate for Israel as a “Jewish democracy” from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
But the position Netanyahu espoused on Wednesday evening was more dramatic, and more radical, than those he has taken in the past — tantamount to indeed re-designating Israel as a “Jewish democracy” in which “the people’s will” equates to the will of the Jews or the Zionists, excluding the Arabs or at least the non-Zionists. Thus he had won, Gantz had lost, and the Joint List was irrelevant.
In light of this, Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah accused Netanyahu on Thursday of issuing “a declaration of war on Jewish-democratic Israel.” Shelach preferred not to note, however, that it was his party leader, Gantz, who had repeatedly drawn a distinction before the elections between the Zionist parties — apparently including the ultra-Orthodox, all of whom he said could theoretically be part of his coalition — and the non-Zionist Joint List, with whom he would have no truck.
The issue of the rights and legitimacy of the Arab electorate and its MKs is ultra-sensitive, foundational territory. The modern state was revived to protect the Jewish people in its historic homeland. By extension, its Jewish citizens must determine its future. Hence the huge controversy surrounding any reliance on Arab votes to advance legislation relating to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Hence the exclusion of Arab MKs from ultra-sensitive Knesset committees relating to the challenge posed by Iran. Hence the fact that no Israeli government has ever included a mainly Arab party in its ranks.
And hence the friction — ratcheted up by Netanyahu in his comments Wednesday — with that other core principle: Israel as both a Jewish majority state and a democracy with equal rights for its non-Jewish minority.
How any of this will now play out is anybody’s guess.
Netanyahu rebounded from the brink of oblivion in September’s elections to restore Likud as the country’s biggest party, but nonetheless failed for the third time to win an election outright, and lacks the votes he’d need to try to avert a corruption trial that is less than two weeks away.
Gantz also failed for the third time to win an election outright, proving incapable of capitalizing on the fact that Netanyahu, since September, had been formally indicted and had broken a pledge not to seek Knesset immunity from prosecution.
Liberman, the architect of a year’s political chaos and legislative paralysis — who prevented a Netanyahu coalition after last April’s vote, and has tortured the electorate ever since — could still capriciously choose to rescue Netanyahu or help empower Gantz, but currently seems disinclined to do either while simultaneously insisting that he won’t condemn us to a fourth election.
For now, Netanyahu seems under no threat from within Likud, even though his defeated internal challenger from December, Gideon Saar, has been proven correct in predicting that Netanyahu would not be able to muster the votes to win this election outright.
For now, Gantz seems to be holding his disparate Blue and White alliance together, even though its sole unifying purpose was to defeat Netanyahu, and even as Likud probes relentlessly for weak links who might defect.
And for now, President Reuven Rivlin’s plaintive pleas for some kind of national unity remain largely unheeded. Indeed, with the coalition battleground shifted in part to a struggle over the legitimacy and relevance of MKs chosen by the Arab electorate, the very notion of Israel as any kind of unified entity, always a fragile construct, is now under the microscope. Placed there by a prime minister who, as of this writing, in a political reality both fluid and deadlocked, didn’t quite lose the elections but didn’t quite win them either.