Elections, the day after

Where do we go from here? All the options for a ruling coalition

Unity government? Liberman plus the religious right? Gantz getting Arab support? With inconclusive results, someone will have to compromise to avoid 3rd elections in a year

Michael Bachner

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Montage of prominent Israeli politicians, ahead of September 17 elections. (Flash90)
Montage of prominent Israeli politicians, ahead of September 17 elections. (Flash90)

Although the final results of Tuesday’s elections have yet to come in, enough has been published to establish that no candidate or party has a straightforward path to forming a governing coalition with at least 61 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset.

According to the official results on Wednersday afternoon, counting some 90 percent of the votes, the next Knesset will look like this: The Blue and White centrist alliance has 32 seats, just ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud with 31. Next is the Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties with 13 seats. Then come the ultra-Orthodox Shas and secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu with nine seats each, followed by United Torah Judaism with eight. Bringing up the rear are Yamina with seven, Labor-Gesher with six and the Democratic Camp with five.

The right-wing religious bloc has a total of 55 seats, the center-left has 56, putting Avigdor Liberman in kingmaker position with his Yisrael Beytenu party’s nine seats.

Assuming the final tally won’t be wildly different, what could the next coalition look like? Here are the options.

Unity government

A coalition comprising both Likud and Blue and White was urged by Liberman and Blue and White on the campaign trail, and remains the most likely outcome of the election.

However, there are many shapes such a government could take, and it leaves open the most significant question of who would be prime minister. That is subject to coalition negotiations that will take weeks, if not longer.

A unity government could see Netanyahu continue as premier or Gantz take over that role, but the most likely outcome would be some sort of rotation whereby one of them would serve as prime minister for the first couple of years, then hand over to the other. In that case, the question remains as to who will be first.

Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

A unity government could also include Likud without Netanyahu, as Blue and White has insisted. The premier is facing corruption charges in three cases, including a bribery charge in one, pending a hearing, which is to be held on October 2-3, leading the centrist party to declare it won’t join a coalition with him. Likud, however, has thus far stood firmly behind its longtime chairman, and Blue and White might have to compromise on that.

However, if Likud ends up deposing Netanyahu, a whole new question opens up: Who will take the reins of the party, whose leadership has been monopolized by one man for a decade and a half? It could be its No. 2, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Netanyahu’s internal rival Gideon Sa’ar, or someone else.

Another question is whether the unity government will include Yisrael Beytenu. Between them, Likud and Blue and White have enough Knesset seats to form a coalition, rendering Liberman’s party unnecessary, although politicians usually prefer to make their coalition as broad as possible. Liberman has said he would be okay with a unity government even if he is excluded.

Other parties could also potentially join a unity government, although that could raise objections within either Likud or Blue and White. The ultra-Orthodox parties could join despite the presence of their nemesis Yair Lapid, Blue and White’s No. 2, with whom United Torah Judaism has vowed not to sit in government.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked attend a press conference in Ramat Gan, July 21, 2019. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

With the Yamina alliance immediately splitting into three separate factions after the polls closed on Tuesday night, Ayelet Shaked’s and Naftali Bennett’s New Right could potentially join without putting off Blue and White, which has vowed a coalition without “extremists and messianists” — a likely reference not to New Right but to the more hardline Yamina components  National Union, led by Bezalel Smotrich, and Rafi Peretz’s Jewish Home.

Likud, for its part, would likely not be happy with efforts to have the left-wing Democratic Camp party join a unity government.

Right-wing government with Liberman

The coalition that ruled Israel until Yisrael Beytenu bolted in November 2018 included all the right-wing and religious parties. However, after Liberman turned down all of Netanyahu’s offers to form such a government again in the aftermath of the April elections, triggering Tuesday’s vote, it is extremely unlikely that he will now agree to renew those partnerships.

There is a small chance, however, that the ultra-Orthodox parties will balk at going to the opposition and instead opt to compromise with Liberman over the latter’s demand to pass unaltered a bill regulating the military draft of Haredi seminary students, which thus far has been a nonstarter for them.

Whether even that concession would now satisfy Liberman is far from certain. On Wednesday, he was again adamant that a unity government is the only conceivable option.

Right-wing religious government plus Labor

Labor-Gesher chair Amir Peretz casts his ballot accompanied by his wife, September 17, 2019. (Courtesy Labor-Gesher)

During the campaign, there have been stubborn rumors that Amir Peretz, chairman of the alliance between Labor and Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher, could lead the party into a right-wing Netanyahu government. Labor previously entered such a government in 2009, but it may be electoral suicide this time around after Peretz repeatedly insisted that under no circumstances would that happen, going so far as to shave off his mustache after 47 years to get his point across.

Indeed, while Likud reached out to Peretz after the results of Tuesday’s elections began to emerge, the latter made it clear that he was not interested in joining a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Such a government would also have a razor-thin Knesset majority and would therefore be very unstable.

Center-left government

Likud warned in its campaign that both Liberman and Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh had spoken about recommending Gantz as prime minister. However, a government that includes both those parties, which despise each other, seems impossible. Liberman has said he won’t join a coalition with the Arab parties, and most factions within the Joint List reacted with outrage to Odeh’s comment about possible political cooperation with Blue and White.

Gantz has the option of forming a minority government with outside support from the Arab parties — a course advocated by Democratic Camp’s Ehud Barak on Wednesday — but neither side would be thrilled with that arrangement and the resulting government would be on extremely shaky ground.

Leader of the ‘Shas’ party Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, right, with leader of the United Torah Judaism party Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman during a joint party meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Another option could be for the ultra-Orthodox parties to join Blue and White, Labor-Gesher and Democratic Camp. Similar center-left governments with the Haredi parties existed in Israel decades ago, but Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) have in recent decades become automatic supporters of Likud. And UTJ already declared Wednesday it stands by Likud “all the way.”

Another problem is that as it stands, those parties seem to add up to a very narrow majority — not a recipe for a stable coalition.

(Yet) another election

In the unlikely scenario that the deadlock will continue and produce a third national vote in less than a year — an option nobody wants — it will extend the period of time in which national leadership is pretty much on hold, cost additional billions of shekels, and further erode public interest in a process that is likely to again produce an indecisive result.

Many parties, as well as President Reuven Rivlin, have promised to do everything to avoid another election, and Liberman has vowed to deny any such proposal the parliamentary majority it would need to pass.

Which brings us back to where we started: The only way to achieve a stable majority government would be for at least some party or parties to compromise on at least some of their campaign promises and imperatives.

The question is who is going to be the first to blink.

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