Likud has beaten Blue and White, but Netanyahu’s options hinge on final count

In Israel’s multi-party system, there’s a world of difference between the prime minister winning the backing of 61, 60 or 59 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prominent Israeli politicians, in a composite photograph for the March 2, 2020 elections (Flash 90)
Prominent Israeli politicians, in a composite photograph for the March 2, 2020 elections (Flash 90)

As the vote count in Israel’s election fluctuated from late Monday and long into Tuesday, the narrow arithmetic of Israel’s multi-party political system took center stage.

With the final votes still being counted, it was clear that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud had won more seats than Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, but a great deal was still hanging on the exact final tally.

Even as the count proceeded on Tuesday, the balance between the Netanyahu-led right-wing-Orthodox bloc and the opposition center-left-Arab bloc shifted, sometimes fairly wildly. Within the space of a few minutes mid-morning, for instance, Blue and White was shown to be closing the gap on Likud (with 72 percent of votes counted), then the Netanyahu-led bloc was back up to 60 seats (with 81% counted), and then it slipped back to 59 seats (with 90% of votes counted) — with further shifts emphatically still possible as soldiers’ and other votes are tallied in a process unlikely to be completed before Wednesday.

The difference between 61 or more seats for the Netanyahu-led bloc, a 60-60 split, and a tally that leaves Netanyahu with 59 or less is immensely significant.

61 seats or more

With 61 or more seats from those he calls his “natural” allies — the right-wing Yamina and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties — Netanyahu would have the smooth path to an immensely convenient Knesset majority that he failed to win in the elections last April and September. Not only would he be reconfirmed as prime minister, with no need to “rotate” the premiership with Blue and White leader Gantz — as President Reuven Rivlin proposed after September’s deadlocked election — but he might also be tempted to contemplate seeking parliamentary immunity from prosecution or backing other legislative action that could avert his trial on three graft charges, which is due to start on March 17.

Israeli singer Maor Edri (R) speaks in the microphone as he stands next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), his wife Sara (L), and Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz (C-L) at the Likud party campaign headquarters in the coastal city of Tel Aviv early on March 3, 2020, after polls officially closed (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

Netanyahu insisted last week he would not seek to avoid going on trial, declaring that he trusted Israel’s judges to weigh the merits of the cases against him and recognize that they were unfounded. And it is not clear that all his “natural” allies would back an effort by him to escape his prosecution. But 61 or more seats for his bloc would at least potentially revive that avenue.

Some Likud MKs and party spokesman Jonatan Urich were already talking Tuesday about winning over defectors “from the other side” to reach the magic 61 figure if the bloc falls short in the final count. But while the prospect of wooing disappointed MKs from the center-left camp may well be realistic, a coalition that relied on them for a majority would likely not give him the votes for immunity.

A 60-60 split

Were the final tally to be a 60-60 split, Netanyahu would either need one or more of the MKs formally arrayed against him to change sides, or he would have to entertain some kind of unity arrangement with Gantz’s Blue and White. Urich claimed on Tuesday morning that Likud was in contact with “four to six” potential defectors and that Netanyahu would have a majority coalition sewn up in “a few days” even if the bloc winds up short of 61, but he certainly wasn’t naming names, and any potential recruits are keeping silent for now.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at the party headquarters in Modi’in, on elections night, March 2, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/ Flash90)

Avigdor Liberman, the Yisrael Beytenu chief whose refusal to join a Netanyahu coalition in April set Israel on the course to these repeated elections, is again insisting that he won’t join the right-wing-Orthodox bloc, but also promising that there won’t be fourth elections. Gantz is facing the challenge of holding his disparate, disappointed alliance together, having already seen one MK, Gadi Yevarkan, jump ship to Likud just before the slates were closed for these elections. Orly Levy-Abekasis, part of the similarly disappointed Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, and regarded by many as a potential defector, is insisting that she won’t change sides. And the high-flying Joint List’s Ayman Odeh on Tuesday morning ridiculed the notion that any of his members would remotely consider aiding Netanyahu.

59 seats or fewer

Were the Netanyahu-led bloc to end up with 59 seats, his Likud would still have performed well, he would still be in the coalition-building driver’s seat, but his success would not be the “gigantic victory” that he described in a speech early on Tuesday morning, and the challenge of winning over defectors would mount.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks after exit polls for the Knesset elections at party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 3, 2020. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Thus, with almost all of the actual votes counted as of Tuesday afternoon, Netanyahu and his Likud could definitely claim to have defeated Gantz and his Blue and White, but the dimensions of victory were not yet final.

And Netanyahu’s room for maneuver — both in building his coalition, and battling his legal difficulties — was not yet defined.

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