Israeli Elections: Back to Where It Started, Or Something New?

Can Netanyahu form a government this time? Illustrative. Photo courtesy of Amos Ben-Gershom (GPO)

It has been 11 months since the first Israeli election in this current cycle, and despite the third election in a year concluding on Monday, not much has changed from the first. The April 2019 election saw the Center-Right Bloc led by Likud win with 60 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Parliament—known as the Knesset—just shy of the 61 needed for a majority. Based on initial results so far, it appears that the Center-Right Bloc will win 58 seats, just shy of a majority again, according to unofficial results published by Haaretz.

And once again, the “Kingmaker”—or should we say “spoiler”—is Avigdor Liberman of the rightist secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, who despite having less than 10 seats in each election is the linchpin preventing a center-right government. Liberman has repeatedly called for a unity government, although Israeli media isn’t expecting that to happen—again.

Yet despite all the deja vu in this election, this vote also feels different. In fact, for the first time in almost a year, Israel could end up with a full-fledged government. Here’s why:

Lessons Learned

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won just 60 seats in April 2019, he sent the country back to elections, no doubt believing it was an outlier and his normally robust right-wing partners would power him to larger majority later. That didn’t happen—instead, the rightist bloc dropped five seats to 55 in total in the September vote. That’s likely stuck in Netanyahu’s mind. A report in The Times of Israel that Netanyahu is already meeting with right-wing partner parties—before all the votes have even been counted—show he sees the urgency. A report in The Jerusalem Post indicating that three members of the rival Blue and White party have already had to deny rumors they could be targeted to switch parties and join Netanyahu’s government further emphasizes this point. Netanyahu learned his lesson from last time—an election victory bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

Left Shattered

While the center-left Blue and White party may have finished just three seats behind Netanyahu’s Likud party, according to Haaretz’ reporting of unofficial results that were still being counted, the overall left-wing Jewish bloc looks to be hurting badly. After netting 45 seats in the April 2019 election and then 44 seats in September, the latest projection for the leftist parties by The Jerusalem Post was 40 seats, with Blue and White’s 33-seats matching the same result as September.

Skewing the numbers in most media counting of the seats are the Arab parties, which ran together as the “Joint List” bloc. They appear to have won 15 seats, but typically refuse to support any Jewish party to lead the Knesset. If that holds again, there could effectively be four blocs in the Israeli parliament: The center-right bloc with 58 seats, the center-left bloc with 40 seats, the Arab parties with 15 seats, and Yisrael Beiteinu holding 7 seats, per those Jerusalem Post vote tallies. That looks very bad for the left-leaning Jewish parties and its unclear if the right-wing could do even better in a fourth election. Again, Netanyahu is likely to try and work with what he has.

Timing Is Everything

Netanyahu’s trial for corruption is scheduled to begin on March 17, just one week after political party deliberations are set to begin on recommending to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on who he should name as prime minister to form a coalition. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Rivlin’s office announced he could name a new prime minister as late as… March 17. The timing is awkward at best for Netanyahu, but more importantly it means another election would likely be run during Netanyahu’s trial. Unless Netanyahu is unexpectedly not named the new prime minister this time, it’s hard to see how he could expect to perform even better in another election while fighting for his legal life.

And yet…

Despite all the above reasons why Israel won’t need to go to a fourth election in a row, it’s still possible. If Lieberman continues to insist on a unity government as his only path forward, and if Blue and White leader Benny Gantz continues to refuse to sit in a unity government with Netanyahu, then the only option is for the center-right bloc to piece together a majority by stealing other Knesset members, or somehow convince enough outsiders to at least not topple a minority center-right government.

Maybe Lieberman will be willing to do that—so far, his gambit of trying to play kingmaker hasn’t netted him many extra Knesset seats versus April. He had five then, and the latest results show seven now. It’s just one more way the Israeli political scene looks the same as it did after the elections 11 months ago. But maybe this time, the final result will be something different.

What do you think?