Immediately after Wednesday night’s vote to dissolve the Knesset and set new elections for September 17, and just before launching into a diatribe against Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made sure to present his take on the results of the previous national poll, in April, before moving on to the next.
“The public in Israel made a clear decision. It decided that I will be prime minister, that Likud will lead the government, a right-wing government. The public voted for me to lead the State of Israel,” a visibly angry and worn-out Netanyahu insisted to reporters.
“The public made a clear statement,” he said.
It was an attempt to at once define the narrative of the last election and formulate a central campaign message ahead of the next — to cast the coming national vote as “unnecessary,” something that was forced upon him and that goes against the will of the people. Liberman left him no choice, Netanyahu seemed to be saying; he certainly didn’t call new elections for the sake of his own political survival, but rather for us, who chose him.
April 9 in hindsight
Netanyahu may be claiming victory in April’s elections, but a clear-eyed look at the full outcome — the results of all three stages of an Israeli election, from voting for parliament, through the presidential selection of a potential prime minister, and culminating in the formation of a government with a parliamentary majority — shows that this is emphatically not the case.
On election night, April 9, both Likud leader Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz delivered similarly insistent victory speeches — after three exit polls predicted three very different results for the two candidates and their parties.
The exit poll on Israel’s most-viewed news outlet, Channel 12, which was projected at the Blue and White headquarters, gave the upstart political party everything it could have hoped for — a three-seat lead over Likud (37-34) and no clear path to a coalition for the parties that had pledged to back Netanyahu, with only 60 predicted seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
Channel 13’s poll, the one screened at the Likud results event, showed the ruling party in a dead heat with Blue and White at 36 seats apiece, but gave the same right-wing ultra-Orthodox coalition a strong lead — 66 seats.
Channel 11’s exit polling, shown at neither of the two major parties’ headquarters, predicted a situation, which both had fretted over during the campaign, wherein Blue and White held more seats — in this case 37 to Likud’s 36 — but at the same time, a Likud-supporting coalition had a clear majority with 64.
Israeli governments are not composed of individual parties, but of coalitions that rarely comprise fewer than four parties. So the winners of elections are not necessarily the largest parties, but the largest blocs. When the centrist Kadima party under Tzipi Livni won 28 seats in the 2009 election, Netanyahu — though Likud only won 27 seats — became prime minister, because his party could rely on the support of enough parties to give him a majority in the Knesset.
If 61 or more of the 120 MKs recommend one candidate, the president is expected to task that candidate with building a coalition. But if they don’t, there is no clear guideline as to how the president is to decide whom to entrust with cobbling together a government, and few legal limitations.
During the election campaign, Blue and White had said that should it win by a sizable margin, President Reuven Rivlin would be forced to task Gantz with forming a government, regardless of the coalition arithmetic. Likud had initially rejected that position, claiming that the person with the most recommendations to be prime minister should be given the mandate first. In the end, both Netanyahu (in an effort to get out the vote) and Gantz openly suggested that a gap of more than two or three seats between them could play a significant role in Rivlin’s decision on who should get the first shot at cobbling together a government.
Speaking just two hours after the exit polls had been released, and when only less than five percent of votes had been counted, Gantz used the Channel 12 predictions to present the narrative of an unprecedented win for a political newcomer over a veteran, campaign-hardened prime minister.
“There are winners and there are losers, and we are the winners!” Gantz declared in his victory speech.
Netanyahu, a veteran of six election campaigns as a candidate for prime minister, waited another two hours before delivering his own speech. By then, with nearly 20% of the votes having been counted, it seemed clear that the Channel 13 poll was closest to reality and the right would retain a sizable majority — even if Likud had earned the same number of seats as Blue and White.
When he finally took the podium, Netanyahu lauded his “incredible victory” and “fantastic achievement, an enormous achievement, which is almost unfathomable.”
Looking to the future, he promised that he would succeed in putting together a government made up of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox partners that had served his previous coalition. And the Knesset arithmetic indicated that he could do so: Likud, plus the 16 MKs from the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, plus five from the Union of Right Wing Parties, five from Yisrael Beytenu, and four from Kulanu would give him 65 seats.
He had both prevented a Blue and White victory and severely cut down the bargaining power of his most likely coalition partners, with Kulanu dropping from 10 seats to four, Jewish Home’s eight seats being replaced with the Union of Right-Wing Parties’ five, and Yisrael Beytenu shrinking from six in the last election to five this time around.
(To boot, he also saw the loathed former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party, which had threatened not to recommend him as prime minister, and Naftali Bennett’s New Right, a thorn in his right flank, fail to enter the Knesset altogether.)
Given those terms, it seemed, as this reporter observed at the time, that “Netanyahu won, and everyone else lost.” Gantz’s speech became a source of ridicule for the political neophyte; Netanyahu’s speech a symbol of political wisdom and potency.
Actually, nobody won
And as such, in the second stage, Netanyahu was awarded the mandate to form a coalition by Rivlin after those exact 65 MKs recommended that he remain prime minister.
But, as Wednesday night brought to an end the third and final stage of the elections — coalition building — it became clear that not only did no one win, but that the one certain loser, at least in that last stage of the process, was Netanyahu.
After Rivlin endowed him with the responsibility of forming a government, Netanyahu was given 28 days to seal deals with his prospective coalition partners. Claiming that a busy national calendar, along with an explosive flareup with Gaza, had limited his time, he was even given a 14-day extension.
The reasons for the failure to sign even one coalition deal with any party before Wednesday’s midnight deadline will yet be assessed and blame surely apportioned, but the fact remains that it was a failure. And it was Netanyahu’s failure. He may fare better after the coming elections, but this was his coalition to lose and he lost it, and with it, the final stage of April’s vote.
Under normal circumstances, at least those described in Israel’s Basic Laws, if the person chosen by the president fails to form a coalition, another MK may be given the task instead. Gantz claimed that had he been entrusted with the job, he could have gotten it done. We will never know, now that Netanyahu has triggered the unprecedented move of calling new elections before his deadline passed, preventing Gantz from being given the opportunity to try.
Depending on the results of the first stage of the next elections, we may have to wait only three and a half months to find out. Or not.