The Search for a Political Consensus in Israel: Pre-Election Scenarios

August 10, 2019

If predictions are true, Netanyahu who has now surpassed David Ben Gurion's record, becoming Israel's longest serving prime minister, may find himself facing an uncertain future outside of office.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) listens to his advisors prior to the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on March 10, 2019. Getty Images

Israeli legislative elections held on April 9 ended with a new political alliance called ‘Blue and White’ becoming the most important alternative to the Likud government. Blue and White won 35 seats, the same number as the governing Likud party under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While it is not possible to claim that any party ended up being victorious by number. Netanyahu was expected to reclaim the position of prime minister by forming a majority government with a right-wing coalition.

The total number of seats won by six right wing and conservative parties surpassed the electoral threshold of 3.25% being 65 seats. This was enough to form an absolute majority in the 120-seat Knesset. It was expected that a government would be formed and approved with ease. But an event that has never occurred before in the political history of Israel took place. The meetings and negotiations Netanyahu held with right wing parties during the 45-day span within which he was tasked to form a government failed to yield results, and a government failed to be formed.

Following this, Netanyahu called for a repeat election. This was accepted by parties in the Knesset and the decision was made to repeat the elections in September 2019, after which the Knesset dissolved itself. Thus, Israel found itself in a position for the first time where it had to hold elections twice in a year.

In recent years, elections in Israel have consistently failed to be held at their appointed time due to failure in reaching a political consensus. Coalitions formed by political parties of similar views can fall apart due to personal interests and due to differences in principles. The recent failure of Netanyahu to form a coalition government stemmed from both of these reasons. It is useful to examine the conditions that led to the early legislative elections held on April 9 and the reasons why subsequent negotiations to form a government failed.

Ceasefire agreement with Hamas in Gaza

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (meaning Israel Our Home) party, was the minister of defense in the previous Netanyahu government. He resigned in November 2018 over the cabinet’s decision to accept a ceasefire agreement with Hamas in Gaza.

Following this resignation, tensions arose over the empty position of the minister of defense between Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, leader of the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party another partner of the coalition government. This showed that there was no harmony or trust between the parties of the coalition. Bennett’s statements to the effect of “I’m silent for now, but my eyes on you” demonstrated this distrust towards Netanyahu.

Conflicts over military service exemptions for ultra-orthodox Jewish men

Lieberman was also opposed to a law that granted military service exemption to Haredi Jews. Lieberman saw this issue primarily as one of equality. He said that he did not understand and could not explain to his voters why Haredi Jews should be exempt while all other Israeli citizens have to carry out mandatory military service. Netanyahu promised leaders of Haredi political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) who opposed any move to subject Haredi Jews to conscription requirements that he would resolve this issue as soon as possible.

Corruption investigations against Netanyahu

Another problem between Lieberman and Netanyahu was the corruption investigations against Netanyahu. Lieberman opposed the draft presented by Likud members of the Knesset that suggested granting the prime minister and cabinet members in office immunity from prosecution on grounds that he found it to be unethical. Even before the prosecutor’s office had announced that a case would be opened against Netanyahu, Lieberman made statements that in such a case the prime minister should resign to ensure a fair trial process. But the existence of some potential investigations against himself prevented Lieberman from adopting a more aggressive tone.

Failure to meet the expectations of conservative parties

Conservative parties Shas and UTJ frequently threatened Netanyahu with withdrawing from the coalition to gain leverage on issues such as: banning work on Shabbat, introducing restrictions to worship in the Wailing Wall (Buraq Wall) and exempting Haredi Jews from military service. This has shown that the coalition between these parties with Netanyahu is not one of ideological unity but one of benefit.

Election polls conducted around earlier predicted that while Likud under Netanyahu’s leadership, would not reach an absolute majority, it would win around 30 to 35 seats in the Knesset and would easily form a government with support from conservative parties and other right wing parties. Thus, trust in Netanyahu, who was being criticized and called to resign by members of the opposition due to the corruption investigations against him would be restored. There were also reports that in the case that his party received a high percentage of votes, he would use this to exert pressure on judicial authorities by claiming that Israelis do not believe in the accusations against him and continue to support him, and that the judiciary should stop interfering with politicians. While these reports initially did not seem convincing, the revelation that certain members of the Knesset from Likud were preparing a draft that would grant immunity to Netanyahu from the ongoing corruption investigations showed that this was not a distant possibility.

Reasons for the failure to form government

According to the results of the early elections results, Netanyahu was seen as the candidate most likely to form a new government. Right wing parties had gained 65 seats in total and the opposition, excluding the 10 seats gained by Arab parties, could only reach 45 seats in the Knesset in total. While the 35 seats won by the Blue and White alliance seems like a great success, compared to the prior elections their votes have greatly eroded and even with the support of the Labor party, which had 6 seats, and Meretz, another left wing party, their total numbers were not sufficient to remove Netanyahu from the position of prime minister. Moreover, prior to the elections, almost all parties had announced that they would not cooperate in any way with Arab parties. Thus, an obvious difference of 65 to 45 was observed in the Knesset.

Although the present situation is still in favor of Netanyahu and the opposing wing is mathematically unable to form a government, a factor that was not included in the calculations until was Lieberman who was a part of the right-wing bloc with only five members of Knesset. Lieberman actually had previously communicated to President Rivlin the conditions under which he would support Netanyahu for prime minister, but these conditions had not received much interest initially due to the turbulent nature of the process.

Lieberman’s impossible conditions

Lieberman, thinking that Netanyahu would be unable to form a government without the support of his party, did not compromise in his demands to get as many concessions as possible. Along with the demand to resume the position of the minister of defense, he also demanded that another member of his party be appointed to a position of a minister or a deputy minister. He also stipulated the review of the draft that was presented to the Knesset in December about granting Haredi Jews exemption from military service, and demanded limitations based on certain conditions and in certain numbers to be introduced to this law rather than allowing a blanket exemption.

Seeing that the question of military service was a source of great pressure on Netanyahu. The best option would be to not include Shas and UTJ in the coalition. In his meeting with Netanyahu, he suggested that the formation of a government of national unity together with the Blue and White alliance would be more appropriate, and stated that he would support such a government. This suggestion does not seem as unlikely when remembering that in previous periods Likud participated in coalition governments that also included left wing parties. However, this was rejected by Netanyahu as the exemption of Haredi Jews from military service was one of the biggest reasons keeping Shas and UTJ in his coalition. He was also aware that if he could not implement a regulation exempting Haredi Jews from military service then these two parties would no longer be part of the coalition. Without the 16 votes from them the government would fail to receive a vote of confidence in any case.

Moreover, by stating that he is opposed to any regulations that would grant Netanyahu immunity, Lieberman blocked Netanyahu from demanding concessions from him. Lieberman, wishing for the judicial process to proceed on its own course, has openly expressed that he is opposed to any legislative actions that would constitute interference with the judiciary. Alongside this, Netanyahu knew that Lieberman was a potential candidate for Likud leadership in the case of a potential dismissal and conviction concerning him, thus Lieberman’s demands would mean political suicide for Netanyahu and it was not possible for him to accept them.

If he were to accede to Lieberman’s wish for cabinet positions in the government, Netanyahu would also not be able to hold his promise of giving a ministerial position to the United Right alliance composed of the parties Jewish Home and Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit). Parties which he managed to unite and get into the Knesset at the last moment.

In such a case, it would not be possible to expect Netanyahu leave his fate in the hands of Lieberman. As he had already secured promises of support from other right wing parties in the event that the removal of his immunity became a possibility, Netanyahu felt that he would not have sufficient guarantee on this subject if a national unity government was formed. So, for him, accepting Lieberman’s offers in this context was not acceptable.

Therefore, Netanyahu threatened Lieberman that in the case that a government failed to be formed under his leadership, there would have to be reelections, and that it would not be possible for Lieberman to retain his five seats in the Knesset. However, Lieberman called him bluff and accepted the threat of reelections. As a result of Netanyahu’s miscalculation, and although no parties really wanted new elections, a second election race will have to take place in September.

New developments in the process

A new and intense period has now begun in Israeli politics. New parties are taking to the stage and parties that failed in the April elections are trying to join other alliances to gain seats in the Knesset for the next election. Some parties are engaging in self-criticism and undergoing changes in leadership after holding party leaders accountable for their electoral failures.

Despite this, it can be seen that in Likud, Blue and White, Israel Our Home, Shas and UTJ there are no significant changes in positions. According to polls conducted at the end of July, these parties are expected to face election results similar to their results in April. But Ehud Barak’s return to politics starting a new movement in the left with his new Democratic Union party, alongside leadership changes in the Labor Party and Meretz indicate important shifts. Due to this, it is predicted that the 35 seats gained by both Likud and Blue and White in the April elections will no longer be possible.

Similarly, the New Right party of Bennett and Shaked, which failed to surpass the electoral threshold in April, has changed strategy to avoid being left out of the Knesset by rejoining the United Right parties’ alliance. The United Arab List, which split in two prior to the April elections, also decided to reunify for the September elections due to loss of votes it has experienced.

The only party that is expected to perform better in September than it did in April is Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Lieberman raised his popularity especially among left and center voters by being the person who blocked Netanyahu from forming a government, and with this wind behind him his party is expected to win between eight to ten seats in the Knesset in September. Such a result would obviously place Lieberman at the center of the future negotiations for the formation of the next coalition government.

According to the results of the last polls, the parties that have announced that they will support Netanyahu, excluding Yisrael Beiteinu, are expected to gain 54 seats in the Knesset in total. Against this, the bloc opposing Netanyahu composed of Blue and White and left wing parties is expected to reach 58 seats in total when seats expected to be gained by Arab parties are also included.

In this case, the question of who Lieberman will support becomes highly critical. If Lieberman protects his current seats, it will again be mathematically unlikely for Netanyahu to form a government following the September elections. For the first time in a long-time discussion of scenarios in which a government is formed without Netanyahu are being voiced. If predictions are true, Netanyahu who has now surpassed David Ben Gurion’s record, becoming Israel’s longest serving prime minister, may find himself facing an uncertain future outside of office.

Researcher, Middle East Institute, Sakarya University, [email protected]