Analysis: Unprecedented stalemate leads to new Israeli poll

Image: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Israel will go to the polls on 17 September – less than six months after Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to win April’s general election – following an unprecedented political stalemate.

As the midnight deadline to negotiate a new coalition approached last Wednesday, the Knesset voted by 74 to 45 to dissolve itself. The manoeuvre was designed by the ruling Likud party to prevent President Reuven Rivlin from inviting opposition leader Benny Gantz to attempt to form a government.
Although Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance fought Likud to a virtual draw in April – with each party winning 35 seats and 26 percent of the vote – the Knesset arithmetic suggested that the former IDF general would have been unable to cobble together a majority coalition. The right-wing parties, and their ultra-Orthodox allies, won 65 of 120 seats in April, while the centre-left and Arab parties secured 55 seats.

Netanyahu was invited by Rivlin to form a government in the wake of the elections after the leaders of parties with a majority of seats in the Israeli parliament recommended he should become prime minister. He had already been granted one extension to the original 28-day deadline.

The prime minister’s inability to negotiate a coalition deal is the first time in Israeli history that an election has not resulted in the formation of a government. In the wake of April’s elections, Netanyahu had declared a “great victory” which set him up form an historic fifth term in office and a place in the history books as Israel’s longest-serving leader.

Netanyahu’s failure stemmed from a dispute between three of the parties he needed to secure a Knesset majority: on the one hand, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, and, on the other, former defence minister Avigdor Liberman’s right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party. The dispute centred around a bill which would tighten the exemption ultra-Orthodox young men have from performing national service. The law would raise over the next decade the proportion of Haredi youth conscripted into the military from 10 to 20 percent. Shas and UTJ, who together hold 16 seats in the Knesset, demanded that Netanyahu water down the bill, which received its first reading last year.

However, Liberman insisted that the measure proceed unamended. The former defence minister’s party, whose political base is formed by Russian immigrants to Israel, is fiercely secular.

Without the support of both Liberman, whose party won five seats in April’s elections, and the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu didn’t have the numbers to form a government.

Following the Knesset vote and the triggering of new elections, Netanyahu and Liberman have engaged in a war of words. Liberman accused Likud of “a complete surrender … to the ultra-Orthodox. We will not be partners in a government of Jewish law”. The prime minister said that Liberman had “dragged the country to unnecessary elections due to his own political ego”. He later accused his hawkish former defence minister of being “a part of the left” who had “prevented the forming of a right-wing government”.

The leftist charge – a frequent election-time insult deployed by Netanyahu – will be a hard one to stick on Liberman. Contrasting the prime minister’s weekend home among Israel’s wealthy elite with his own in a West Bank settlement, the Yisrael Beitenu leader mockingly responded: “The man from Caesarea accuses the man from Nokdim of being a leftist.”

Sometime allies and frequent rivals, Liberman and Netanyahu have a long and complicated history. As a member of Likud, the former once served as the latter’s political aide and director-general of the prime minister’s office. Although Liberman later split from his former patron to form Yisrael Beitenu, he has served in Netanyahu’s governments as both foreign and defence minister but the two have often had a fractious relationship. Late last year, Liberman quit as defence minister, accusing Netanyahu of weakness in tackling the threat of Hamas terrorism. His resignation, and the withdrawal of his party from the government, helped to destabilise the coalition, eventually leading to elections being called for April (they were not originally scheduled until the autumn). While they have previously fallen out and then gone on to patch up their differences, the break between the two men now appears irreparable. Both have indicated they will never be partners in government again, with Netanyahu branding Liberman “a serial saboteur of right-wing governments”.

Liberman claims that his refusal to back down over the conscription bill was a “matter of principle”. It’s certainly true that Yisrael Beitenu has campaigned for more than a decade to ensure that more ultra-Orthodox young men serve in the military. The position is a popular one in Israel, but a bigger political motive is almost certainly at play. Liberman has rightly sensed that, despite his apparent win in April, Netanyahu may be politically vulnerable. The prime minister is due in court in October for a pre-indictment hearing on corruption charges. Since the elections, Netanyahu and his allies have engaged in various attempts as a part of the coalition negotiations to provide him with immunity and restrict the power of the courts to stop them from doing so. The dissolution of the Knesset will now leave Netanyahu without the means to give himself the protection from state prosecutors he’s been desperate to achieve. Liberman, who has long coveted the role of leader of the right in the post-Netanyahu era, will be looking to seize and exploit this potential opportunity.

Netanyahu’s apparent desperation to avoid elections was evident in last-ditch efforts ahead of the Knesset dissolution vote to substitute a deal with Liberman for one with Labor. The proposed offer, overwhelmingly rejected by Labor MKs, would have seen the party receive three top ministerial posts, including the Finance Ministry. Labour chair Avi Gabbay said it was also promised a veto on “any anti-democratic legislation”. Gabbay, who was already under intense pressure to quit following the party’s poor performance in April’s elections, has announced that it will hold a primary to pick its leader before September’s poll. However, more fundamental changes may be on the horizon for Labor, with Gabbay suggesting that it should merge with either Blue and White or the left-wing Meretz party.

Gabbay’s talk of such a merger reflects the fact that early surveys suggest that the new elections may produce the same deadlock which resulted from April’s poll. These indicate that right-wing parties (including the ultra-Orthodox) would win between 57-58 seats, with the centre, left and Arab parties on 54. Liberman, whose party has jumped from five to nine seats, would thus hold the balance of power. However, he’s ruled out going into government with either Netanyahu or Gantz.

But it is not just Labor’s future that may shake-up the political landscape. Already, the centre-right Kulanu party of finance minister Moshe Kahlon has merged with Likud. Netanyahu will hope to bolster Likud’s position, but some commentators believe that this strategy may backfire. “If Kahlon’s soft-right voters … desert Likud – after all, they refused to vote for Netanyahu in April – and defect to the chief Israeli opposition Blue and White party, which spent much of its campaign trying to woo them, it could tip the balance in the Knesset away from Netanyahu. But if these voters stick with Kahlon under Bibi, they could ensure the latter’s return to power,” argues Yair Rosenberg.

Other mergers may also affect the numbers. Will, for instance, the Arab-Israeli vote be split between two rival blocs – the left-nationalist Hadash-Ta’al and Islamist Ra’am-Balad – once again or, as in 2015, will a Joint List be formed? The collapse of the Joint List earlier this year appears to have depressed the turnout among Arab-Israeli voters. It also saw the Joint List’s 13 Knesset seats drop to a combined 10 seats for the two alliances.

Finally, former ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett bolted the right-wing pro-settler Jewish Home party to form the New Right ahead of April’s elections. Their gamble failed spectacularly and the pair lost their Knesset seats as the New Right narrowly fell below the 3.25 popular vote threshold required for parties to enter the Israeli parliament. Bennett has said he will stand again for the New Right, while there have been reports that Likud was wooing Shaked (an effort rumoured to have been scuppered by the influential Sara Netanyahu). Either way, it appears possible the New Right may, in fact, end up running on a joint slate with the Union of Right-wing parties (an alliance formed between the Jewish Home and the far-right Otzma Yehudit) which managed to win five seats in April.

Less than six months will have passed between the two elections of 2019, but the choices before the Israeli electorate – though familiar in many regards – will inevitably have a multitude of new elements which may yet dramatically affect the eventual outcome.