By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
The fog of elections in Israel does not disperse once the ballots are counted; instead, it often thickens. The results of last week’s vote have made the jigsaw puzzle of forming a government as puzzling as ever. Nine parties will be represented in the Knesset, each with between 5 and 33 members, and no obvious coalition has emerged.
Nevertheless, following one of most toxic election campaigns in history, there are some clear insights. For instance, there is a real possibility, for the first time in a decade, that Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership will be brought to a close.
It is not certain, but the odds are on it. His Likud party’s new tally of 32 seats is a net loss of at least 11 from April’s election. For a desperate Netanyahu this could be the hammer blow that brings his long period in office to an end. The silver lining for him is that this would allow him to concentrate on clearing his name in face of serious corruption allegations. However, it would be foolish to write off Netanyahu’s chances of pulling a rabbit out of the hat, as he will almost certainly promise almost anything to anyone agreeing to form a coalition with him.
The question is whether the wizard of Israeli politics has any rabbits left in his hat. To be sure, it remains to be seen if parties and politicians keep their pre-election promises. If they do, Netanyahu won’t have the necessary minimum support of at least 61 members to form the next administration. The right-wing bloc now has at best 55, and without the support of his sworn political enemy Avigdor Lieberman he will find it difficult to form a government.
And Lieberman is one of the big stories of this election. Even though Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, gained more seats than any other party and now has 33, it is Lieberman who is best positioned as king maker and can most strongly influence the composition of the next government. Lieberman and his Israel Beitenu party must surely feel vindicated by their decision after the last elections not to join the government in a coalition, with the leader fashioning himself as the champion of secularism, holding the fort against the ultra-orthodox parties’ attempts to increasingly impose religious law on the rest of the country until it becomes a Halachic state.
This approach seems to have paid off at the ballot box and Lieberman, once a disciple of Netanyahu, has outmaneuvered his former master, increased his party’s power from five to eight seats, and is now the key figure in most possible coalition scenarios.
Another party whose shares have risen is the Arab Joint List, an alliance of four parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Traditionally, due to low turnout and apathy on account of their deep distrust of the political system, the Arab minority has been under-represented in the Knesset. However, maybe as the result of the vile racist attacks by the right and especially by Netanyahu himself, which have sought to delegitimize an entire group of people just for being Arabs, the turnout increased from 50 percent to 60 percent and the party increased its number of seats from 10 to 13. It is now a force to reckon with, especially in a political environment where the margins are fine.
There are several coalition scenarios. If Blue and White sticks to its promise not to participate in any government that includes Netanyahu, and if Lieberman continues to refuse to be part of a government that includes the ultra-orthodox parties, then the question is whether Likud would sacrifice Netanyahu and join such a government. Netanyahu, who has demonstrated in two elections in five months that he is a liability rather than an asset, in both electoral and moral terms, surely won’t be allowed to stand between the party and power. But in that case the big question becomes: Will any member of Likud be courageous enough to deliver this message to Netanyahu, even at the cost of their political future?
Other scenarios of a narrow coalition in which either Likud or Blue and White rely on small parties are complicated in terms of sharing out the ministries and setting a national agenda; they are still possible, but would probably be unstable and short-lived. Once again, if Lieberman rejects a right–religious, narrow-based coalition, would he consider a more center-left leaning one? Not likely. Another possible outcome is of one or two ultra-orthodox parties joining a government led by Gantz to ensure that their supporters receive the financial aid from the state that they rely on.
And there is always the possibility of a third election next year, in the hope more than the conviction that voters would deliver a more conclusive result, especially if by then Netanyahu has been indicted and removed from the political scene. But it is doubtful whether anyone has the appetite for a third election in less than a year, or believes that it would be third time lucky for Israel to produce elections that resulted in direction and stability.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg