On Tuesday, the 17th of September, Israel went to the polls. And today, 10 days later, we still do not know who the prime minister will be and what our next government will look like. Normally, I would have written something just after the elections but I was waiting for clarity, some understanding or basis for prediction as to who would lead our country and on what political and ideological foundation. We still don’t have that answer. But I wanted to at least bring you up to date and explain what is happening, why, and what the options are.
Israel’s is a parliamentary system but unlike other similar systems, Israeli voters don’t vote for an individual member of Knesset but rather cast their votes for an entire party list. The number of Knesset seats of each party is determined based on the percentages of the total vote that each party receives, provided that the party passes the threshold of a minimum of votes that translates into four Knesset seats. Therefore, no one has actually voted for Netanyahu or Gantz, the two leading contenders for prime minister. They have voted for the Likud or the Blue and White parties, respectively.
In addition to those larger parties, there are many smaller parties, generally more ideologically committed to a given political direction than the larger parties. On the right of the political spectrum, the Yemina party represents the Religious Zionist population of Israel and the settlement movement more specifically than the Likud party. And on the far left of the political spectrum is the Joint List, a coalition of three Arab parties who are anti-Zionist and do not accept the State of Israel as a Jewish state.
In recent years, Israel has become a decidedly right-wing country, with the overwhelming majority of its Jewish population identifying with center to right -wing political values and identifying themselves as religious or traditional. Even most of those who define themselves as secular, would actually more accurately be defined as traditional.
With those words of introduction, let us take a look at the election results. The largest party was Blue and White with 33 Knesset seats, followed by Likud with 32 seats. However, the block of right-wing parties is larger than the left. Those parties who support Netanyahu’s bid for prime minister and who will join a coalition government headed by him, comprise 55 Knesset seats, whereas those who would join a Gantz-led government comprise only 44. That is a total of 99 out of 120 MK’s.
There are 13 Arab party MK’s who refuse to enter into any “Zionist” coalition and 8 MK’s in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party which, despite being a clear right-wing party, refuses to support either candidate for prime minister. Leiberman has developed an antipathy for Netanyahu that stands in the way of his supporting him as prime minister.
The result of this is chaos. Both Gantz and Netanyahu recognize that their only chance at forming a government is to join forces in some constellation. However, Gantz ran a campaign that pledged not to enter a government headed by Netanyahu. “Anything but Bibi” was his most popular campaign slogan. He is having trouble retracting that approach. In the meantime, on Wednesday night, the President of Israel selected Netanyahu as the preferred candidate to try and form a government because he does bring a larger number of MK’s to the table. But at this point, no one candidate can command 61 MK’s to back his bid for prime minster. Stalemate.
There has been talk about a third round of elections which would be a colossal waste of money and time. If nothing changes, there is no question that this stalemate would remain.
Netanyahu is a talented leader with an ideological position that represents the majority of the country. But Netanyahu has become very problematic. He has driven many talented leaders away from the Likud or from leadership positions because he saw them as political rivals. He is mired in corruption scandals and will probably stand trial for some of his actions. Clearly, his left-wing political rivals have manipulated this to their advantage. But the most telling result of this is the Blue and White party. At least one-third of their Knesset members are actually right-wing people who were once in the Likud or affiliated with Netanyahu in one way or another. Their ideology has not changed. They are right-wing, pro-settlement and some of them are religious. But they have developed an antipathy for Netanyahu, the blame for which lies squarely on Netanyahu’s shoulders. It is tragic but Netanyahu has squandered his enormous political talent and has fallen into petty political scandal and probably some level of corruption.
There is one way out of this mess. Netanyahu must resign. There is no question but any other leader of the Likud would succeed in creating a government. Blue and White would join this government and it is even possible that Blue and White would split and it’s more right-wing members rejoin the Likud or at least create their own party that is more closely aligned with the right. And Lieberman would join as well.
Netanyahu has done so much for Israel and we owe him a great deal. But power has damaged him. He can still lead, advise, assist the country in so many important ways. But his days as prime minister are numbered. I hope he does the right thing. For the sake of the country.