On March 2, 2020, Israeli citizens voted in national elections for the third time in a year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most seats (36), followed by Blue and White (33 seats). The smaller Israeli right-wing parties managed to expand their seat totals, giving Likud enough like-minded Knesset members to form a government. But Israeli politics are never boring, nor are outcomes all that easy to predict. To discuss the election, Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, spoke with Ms. Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud, a special assistant at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the election’s outcome.
Aaron Stein: Yael, thank you again for agreeing to talk to me. So, lets start at the beginning: What is your read on the latest turn in Israeli politics? Is Bibi in the driver’s seat, or are things still up in the air?
Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud: Thanks, Aaron. As you said, Israeli politics is never boring, but it has also never been in such disarray. The political gridlock means that there has been no functioning government since December 2018, and the politicians have since been in a perpetual state of electioneering. Three rounds of consecutive elections was inconceivable a year ago; no one foresaw that the system could be upended this way. The underlying fear is that recurring elections have become the new norm, and gone is the time when elected officials were expected to make compromises to serve the public good.
Though it’s good we waited before making any assessments because the picture on the ground today looks drastically different than it did after election night one week ago.
The reason we’re here is because Netanyahu’s grip on power has proven unrelenting. In that sense, Bibi is indeed in the driver’s seat, going 120 mph, insisting that he is the only one fit to lead the country and that the people gave him a mandate to do so. In that sense he’s not wrong—the Likud won 36 seats this round, compared to the Blue and White’s 33 seats, headed by his rival Benny Gantz. Netanyahu’s lead came at the expense of other right-wing parties; Likud took two seats from the far-right party Yamina, headed by the Defense Minister Naftali Bennet, (going from 8 in the September round, down to 6); and one seat from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, which dropped from 8 to 7 seats.
Stein: How has he fared since the election? What is the status of his efforts to form a coalition?
Mizrahi-Arnaud: What appeared as a Likud landslide on election night, and was hailed by Netanyahu as a “huge victory,” has now become a road plagued with potholes, and the path forward for Netanyahu to secure the necessary 61 -seat majority is looking increasingly unlikely.
The right-wing bloc, made up of the two ultra-orthodox parties, Yamina and the Likud, have a total of 58 seats, three short of the 61 needed to form a coalition. The idea was that Likud would be able to poach three members from the center-left by promising ministerial positions, but in recent days, many of the potential defectors have come out saying they’ve rejected Likud’s offers. While some members of the Blue and White party ideologically fit in the right-wing camp, Netanyahu has made more enemies than friends over his ten consecutive years as Prime Minister. He has little political capital left, and savvy politicians know better than to trust him to keep his word.
Stein: So has anything changed since the last round of elections in September, or is this a repeat of what has happened in recent history?
Mizrahi-Arnaud: While seemingly little has changed since the last round in September—neither bloc has the needed seats to reach a majority—the opposition, or as some call it the “anyone but Netanyahu” camp, made up of Blue and White, the Arab Joint List, Labor-Meretz, and Yisrael Beitenu, have joined forces in a deft political maneuver, which, if they succeed in pulling it off, could remove Netanyahu from the political scene, for good. The scheme was launched, inadvertently, by Ahmed Tibi, a Member of Knesset (MK) from the Joint List’s Ta’al party, who Likud vilified throughout the last three rounds of elections with a chauvinist slur-cum-political slogan “Bibi or Tibi,” referring to the fact that the center-left coalition relies on the Arab parties support in order to form a coalition. Tibi took his revenge by floating the possibility of advancing a bill that would bar an MK charged with criminal offenses from being appointed to form the government. The idea quickly caught on and a majority of 62 votes was cobbled together. While the High Court was petitioned on this question in January and refused to provide a ruling on a hypothetical case, now, they may be forced to take a stand.
The plan would see Lieberman and the Arab parties lending their votes to President Reuven Rivlin to provide Gantz the first stab at forming the next government. Upon being given the mandate, through a quasi-legal maneuver, Blue and White would sack the current speaker of the Knesset, Likud MK Yuli Edeshtein, and replace him with a member of their own party. This would free the path towards assembling and chairing the Arrangements and House committees, two Knesset bodies that are required to bring the bill to the Knesset plenary for a vote. If the bill passes, the logic goes, Netanyahu would be demoted from Prime Minister and would revert to being a Member of Knesset. In Israel, Members of Knesset with pending indictments are forced to resign.
In Gantz’s best-case scenario, following this move, Labor’s seven seats will join a coalition with Blue and White, and Yisrael Beitenu and the Joint List will lend their support from the outside, crowning Gantz as the next Prime Minister. The hope is that as Netanyahu’s reign looks like it’s coming to an end, some of his erstwhile coalition partners will defect and join the coalition, to bolster Gantz’s position.
This choreography rests on shaky ground; to pass, it requires 62 votes, but nothing implies someone won’t pull out at the last minute, or President Rivlin can decide to give the mandate to the party who has fewer recommendations, but a better chance of forming a coalition. The formation of a minority government with the Arabs and Lieberman lending their support means that Lieberman and the Joint List have to agree to a certain level of cooperation, or at least joint coordination—a reality that is anathema to both sides. Lieberman is notoriously anti-Arab, and has advanced both racist rhetoric and policies in the past.
Stein: This is “high jingo” type politics here. Where is this headed, and what should readers be looking out for?
Mizrahi-Arnaud: It will all come to a head on March 16, when the next Knesset will be sworn in, and, on the following day, March 17, after consulting with the heads of the parties, President Rivlin will assign the task of forming a government to either Gantz or Netanyahu. In the lead-up to this decision, Gantz will hold negotiations with the Joint List, whose demands include reneging support for the unilateral moves in Trump’s “deal of the century,” which includes annexation of parts of the West Bank and a population transfer of Israeli Arabs from the Galilee, as well as preventing “extreme settlers” from entering and praying in the Haram Al Sharif or the temple mount in Jerusalem. From Gantz’s statements, it’s clear that he is in favor of having the Joint List support the government, despite his party’s campaign promises throughout the last three election seasons and condemnation from two right-wing members of the party, Yoaz Hendel and Tzvi Hauser, who have come out in opposition to such a move.
March 17 is also the date of the first hearing in Netanyahu’s corruption trial, where he is accused of breach of trust and fraud in two cases, and bribery, breach of trust, and fraud in a third.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the possibility of the Joint List supporting Gantz’s coalition from the outside is seen as a historic moment, with only one precedent in Israeli history when in 1992, the Arabs supported Yitchak Rabin’s coalition. Israeli Jews and Arabs wonder if they are waking up the posisiblity that the Zionist mainstream will look to the Arab parties as a real political force. The vitriolic outpouring of racism that Netanyahu launched against the Arab parties in the last five years has only increased with each consecutive election—last week, he openly called to discount Arab votes—which has seemingly helped increase Arab voter turnout to its 20-year peak of 65%.
Labor shrunk to its weakest position since the establishment of the state, with only 7 seats on its joint slate, and the Joint List rose to its strongest position of 15 seats. Yet, many see the only formula for the left’s reincarnation in the creation of a joint democratic Arab and Jewish bloc. Of the close to 600,000 votes the Joint List received, 20,000 were from Israeli Jews. Treating Arabs as a legitimate partner in power remains a distant reality, albeit one that Israeli Jews can no longer disregard.
Stein: Thank you, guess we all just have to buckle up and see where this takes us.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.