The ballots have been cast and there is no clear winner in the Israeli elections. Neither major party—Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud or the Blue and White party led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz—has a clear majority in the 120-member Knesset (Israeli Parliament). The final makeup of the next government is unclear even as the sides start the coalition negotiations to try and create a majority government. Despite that, there are losers and winners in the latest elections, including some surprises.
Ironically, a deeply divided electorate in which the center-right led by Netanyahu parties won just 55 seats and the center-left and Arab parliamentarians who nominated Gantz account for just 54 seats, a powerful unity government formed by Likud and Blue and White is the most likely next government. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, whose job is to grant the mantle to try and build a government to a prime minister candidate—likely either Gantz or Netanyahu—believes it’s the only option. “A stable government cannot be formed without the two big parties and this, I believe, is the will of the people,” said Rivlin in an Israeli press release on Monday. “We are a stable country, flourishing economically and able to defend our borders, and we must ensure that a government is formed that brings stability, dialog and healing of the divisions in our country.”
- Opponents of Benjamin Netanyahu
The Prime Minister for the last 10 years, Netanyahu looked to have an ironclad path to re-election thanks to the center-right bent of the electorate. And again, Netanyahu’s Likud party and right-leaning political parties won the most seats. However, thanks to the refusal of Avigdor Lieberman and his right-wing secular Yisrael Beiteinu party to name Netanyahu the premier again, there is no clear path to Netanyahu taking the leadership mantel. Instead, the best he can hope for is probably a rotation of leadership with Gantz as part of that unity government. Someone else will likely be prime minister again—either now or in two years.
Surprise! Netanyahu has long been a thorn in the side of Iran, exposing their nuclear program’s secrets and campaigning repeatedly against the Iran nuclear deal. Not that another Israeli leader can’t express those concerns with the same conviction, but Netanyahu’s command of English as a second language and years of speaking to world leaders and governments make him a powerful voice. Furthermore, while no Israeli leader will likely be friends with Iran, it has felt as though Netanyahu has made Iran his number one concern. If he’s no longer Prime Minister, that may dull Israel’s PR war with Iran.
- The Arab Parties
Another surprise, since the Arab parties have never been part of an Israeli ruling coalition and don’t plan to do so this time either, according to The Times of Israel. However, the Arab bloc won the third-most seats in the Knesset, meaning they could be the largest party outside a unity government—giving them the potential to be the leader of the opposition. That’s more than just a title. The Jerusalem Post notes that as leader of the opposition, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh would not only be the first ever Arab opposition leader, but he would also be granted regular security briefings from the Israeli leadership. It’s not a given, as the Post report notes that opposition leader is voted upon by the other parties outside the government. Odeh is therefore unlikely to be named if most of the smaller parties stay out of a unity government. Still, they hold a place of power and prestige.
- The Religious Right in Israel
Aside from Netanyahu being the most obvious loser, the hardest hit participants are the religious rightwing. The reason? If Netanyahu forms a unity government with the centrist Blue and White party, that is more than enough votes to control the Knesset—making all the smaller parties unnecessary. In coalition negotiations, smaller parties can demand key government positions or policy plans in exchange for their support of a narrow government that needs their seats to hold power. In a unity government scenario, the rightwing parties may not even be part of the government—sidelining them politically.
- US President Donald Trump
Another surprise player in the Israeli elections, Trump apparently delayed publishing his “Deal of the Century” peace plan until after these Israeli elections. But now, with the result so uncertain, there is a possibility that another round of elections will be called—potentially creating another delay. What’s more, Trump and Netanyahu appeared to have a good relationship. Netanyahu was effusive in his praise of Trump, who for his part repeatedly made pro-Israel foreign policy decisions that boosted the political power of the Israeli leader. Furthermore, Netanyahu was an effective voice against the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump also opposes. The two leaders may not see eye-to-eye on opening negotiations with Iran now—Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying now was not the time for talks, while Trump has repeatedly expressed openness to it. And perhaps Trump and Gantz will be fine together. But that’s an unknown.
The Palestinian terror group leading the Gaza Strip has toyed with fire—literally—with arson attacks, riots at the Gaza-Israel border and rocket attacks. So far, Israel has refrained from a harsh response. Despite protestations to the contrary by Netanyahu, one can only imagine that the uncertain political climate reduced the government’s willingness to go to war. But in a unity government situation, the ruling parties would represent the will of most of Israel, creating a stability that can allow for conflict without burning too much political capital too quickly. Furthermore, Gantz is the former leader of the IDF—and not surprisingly Al-Monitor notes that Gantz backs an even stronger military approach to Gaza terrorism. Hamas benefits from instability and the subsequent “lack of will” to fight in Israel’s government. If a unity government is formed, that will go away quickly.
As for who will actually “win” the elections and be the new prime minister, we may not know for weeks or months. In the meantime, many players—both inside and outside Israel—will be watching closely.
(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, September 23, 2019)