These are early days indeed to try to make sense of what government may emerge from the migraine-inducing complexity of Israel’s elections. We haven’t even gotten the final results yet. But the outcome everybody professes to want to avoid is already starting to loom in the distance.
Neither of the rival camp leaders, incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz, has attracted the support of the majority of the 120 incoming Knesset members. Likud leader Netanyahu has now locked in the backing of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the Orthodox-nationalist Yamina. Blue and White head Gantz can assume that the two left-wing parties, Democratic Camp and Labor-Gesher, will side with him, and that the Arab Joint List will also work to try to prevent another Netanyahu term. Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman — a settlement-residing hawk from Netanyahu’s part of the spectrum when it comes to issues of security, but a secular Jew of a Blue and White mindset in his determination to confront ultra-Orthodox coercion — holds the balance of power between the blocs.
Having moved to strengthen his hand by uniting Likud’s three natural allies behind him, Netanyahu on Thursday disingenuously invited Gantz to meet him “without preconditions” for talks on a “unity” coalition. Unsurprisingly, Gantz said no. The Blue and White chairman does want to bring Likud into a “unity” coalition — but under his leadership, and only after Likud has freed Netanyahu to grapple with his legal difficulties.
Netanyahu, needless to say, knew full well that Gantz would reject his offer. His goal is to appear to be seeking a unity government, to probe for any weaknesses in the ranks of the Knesset members siding with Gantz, to somehow will those election results into his favor… and, if all else fails, to blame the ostensibly intransigent Gantz for spurning his overtures, and allow Israel to slide into yet a third round of elections, the scenario that all of our newly elected leaders assure us they will do their utmost to prevent.
Gantz, for his part — asserting that Netanyahu has lost, though hesitant to claim victory — will also be probing for weakness among Netanyahu’s backers. He may have fewer overt supporters in his bloc — depending on whether the buoyant Arab Joint List recommends him as its choice of prime minister, and whether Liberman takes a side when he goes in to see President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday evening. But Gantz’s bet is that, over the coming weeks or even months of deadlocked coalition negotiations, Likud will start to crack.
As the prospect of a third election — the mandatory last resort if nobody can form a coalition — looms larger, he hopes, Likud’s legislators will start to calculate that their party will do less well next time. It seems to have dropped about four seats from its 35 in April, but really shed more, given that on Tuesday it included Kulanu in its ranks, a party that won four seats on its own last time. The ultra-Orthodox parties gained some ground, but the rise of the Joint List, and the significant rise in support for Liberman — whose voters knew on Tuesday, unlike in April, that a vote for Yisrael Beytenu was no longer an automatic vote for a Netanyahu-led government — will not have been lost on Likud legislators.
By the time a third election comes around, moreover, Netanyahu could well have been indicted in the corruption cases against him. And while he may then seek to portray himself still more desperately as the victim of a political witch hunt, that gambit manifestly did not play to his advantage on Tuesday. Indeed, several of his familiar gambits backfired — including the cameras in the Arab polling stations “voter fraud” ploy, the demonizing of the Arab electorate campaign, and the “gevalt… we’re losing” interviews and social media blitz.
While Gantz is hoping Likud will start to crack, Netanyahu is scouring for options — playing for time, with the advantage of being prime minister. And this is the Middle East, where external affairs can intrude at any moment on the plots and schemes of politicians; where external affairs can also be encouraged to intrude
Netanyahu is on the defensive, compelled to cancel his trip to the UN in New York next week, and thus forced, ignominiously, to cancel a planned meeting with US President Donald Trump, who responded Wednesday with the devastating revelation that he hadn’t spoken with Netanyahu since the elections and, anyhow, “our relationship is with Israel.” But, for now, his party is standing by him.
While Gantz is hoping Likud will start to crack, Netanyahu is scouring for options — playing for time, with the advantage of being prime minister. And this is the Middle East, where external affairs can intrude at any moment on the plots and schemes of politicians; where external affairs can also be encouraged to intrude.
The Israeli electorate has had its say. The one man who could single-handedly break the deadlock we produced, Liberman, is insisting on the unity partnership both of the big party leaders claim to want but not really with each other.
And so our president will on Sunday begin the sensitive task of trying to convert the will of the people, the diverse will of the people, into a viable leadership for Israel — to cajole our elected representatives into some kind of stable government. Otherwise, if Netanyahu sees it as his last hope, and Gantz thinks he’ll emerge from it stronger, we may yet have to go through this all again.