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Situation Assessment 11 March, 2020

Knesset Elections: The Dilemma Continues

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


For the third time in less than a year, Israeli voters headed to polling stations for a new round of elections. The final results suggest that while the extreme right camp led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud have managed to make gains and increase their number of seats from 55 to 58, they have yet again failed to win the majority needed to form a government. This can be attributed to the ongoing refusal of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – another far-right party – to join any Netanyahu-led coalition. This refusal may bring down Netanyahu. But this will depend on the ability of Blue and White’s Benny Gantz to overcome the obstacles in his path and form his own government.

Features of This Round

The elections held on 2 March had several distinctive features:

  • Increasing polarisation in Israeli society, a particularly sharp competition between the two camps – especially between the Likud and Blue and White – and unprecedented mudslinging and personal attacks between the two.
  • The basic competition in these elections is between the extreme right camp (secularist and religious), which includes Fascist groups, and the secular right led by Gantz, which also includes extreme right groups. The bringing of official charges against Netanyahu in three separate cases during the election campaign has had no effect on his electoral base, which is made up of the most right-wing, religious and conservative groups in Israeli society, settlers, and many Mizrahim.
  • Netanyahu has been able to impose his own agenda in most cases. He has continued his systematic racist incitement against Palestinian citizens in order to delegitimise their representation in the Knesset.
  • These elections have shown the final extinction and disappearance of the Zionist left from the Israeli political scene.
  • US President Donald Trump presented his ‘Deal of the Century’ during the campaign, as requested by and coordinated with Netanyahu, with the aim of helping him win the elections.
  • Participation in these elections rose to 71.51% from 69.83% in the September elections and 67.9% in the April elections.
  • Arab participation also rose notably to 65% from 59.3% in September and 49.2% in April. This increase led to the Joint Arab List, which took about 95% of Arab votes (excluding Druze villages which continue to vote for Zionist parties), gaining 15 seats.

Electoral Alliances and Their Results

Most Israeli parties approached these elections in much the same way as they approached the September elections, with the exception of Labour and Meretz, which formed a joint list for fear that one or both would fail to make it across the electoral threshold.

As in the previous elections, Likud’s list included Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, who has declared his intention to retire from political life as soon as a new government is formed. This list gained an extra four seats over the previous elections. Blue and White, meanwhile, retained the same number of seats (33). The ‘Haredi’ religious parties Shas and Yahadut HaTorah likewise performed similarly, retaining 9 and 7 seats respectively. Avigor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the Rightward List both lost one seat, ending up with 7 and 6; the latter list is made up of three fascist parties and was led in these elections by Naftali Bennet rather than its former leader Ayelet Shaked. The Joint Arab List, made up of four Arab parties, won an unprecedented 15 seats.

All this means that the extreme right camp, Lieberman included, has some 65 seats, and the only thing preventing it from forming a government with a comfortable majority is the disagreement between Lieberman and Netanyahu. The centre-right and the Zionist left together have only 40 seats; if Yisrael Beiteinu joined them in coalition they would still have only 47 seats to the extreme right’s 58.

Netanyahu’s Power Increases

Despite being officially charged during campaigning and a date being set for his trial on three separate corruption cases, and despite most Israelis blaming him for forcing the country into a third election, Netanyahu has been able to raise the number of Likud voters by some 239,000 since the last elections. In these elections Likud took some 1,352,000 votes[1] compared to 1,113,000 last time.[2] Likud’s gains can be attributed to several factors. The first is that during the electoral campaign Netanyahu was able to win over Likud’s traditional base, particularly in its old strongholds in urban Mizrahi areas. The results of the elections show that the number of voters in these areas rose notably. Secondly, it seems that Netanyahu was able to convince most of those who normally vote for the Fascist Otzma Yehudit party to vote for the Likud rather than throwing their votes away; Otzma Yehudit looked unlikely to cross the threshold. The party lost some 64,000 voters, winning only 19,000 compared to 83,000 in the last set of elections. Most of these votes likely went to the Likud. Thirdly, the number of Yisrael Beiteinu and Rightward voters fell by 47,000 and 20,000 respectively compared to the last set of elections; most of these votes also likely went to the Likud. Fourthly, Netanyahu managed to win over tens of thousands of middle-class Kulleinu voters who in the last elections voted for Blue and White.

Nonetheless, Blue and White also managed to increase its number of voters by some 69,000, winning 1,220,000 votes as opposed to 151,000 last time. This was thanks to tens of thousands of Labour and Meretz voters switching their votes. The Labour-Gesher-Meretz alliance took only 267,000 votes in these elections, while in the previous elections their two separate lists took a total of 405,000 – meaning that they lost 183,000 voters, some of which will have gone to Blue and White. In practical terms, most votes moved around within the two camps; very few votes moved between them.

Reasons for the Deadlock

After three elections in less than a year the two camps are still both unable to form a new government. There are several reasons for this deadlock. Firstly, Gantz’s Blue and White refuses to join a coalition with Netanyahu because of the corruption charges he is facing. Secondly, Avigor Lieberman also refuses to join the extreme right coalition, largely because of his own personal opposition to Netanyahu and because he has adopted a secularist platform that does not meet the preconditions of Netanyahu’s religious coalition; Lieberman’s base is made up of secularist Russian Jews as well as extreme non-Russian secularists. Thirdly, Lieberman refuses to join any coalition formed by Gantz that relies on support from the Joint Arab List – even if the JAL does not officially join the coalition. Fourthly, the Likud has doubled down on Netanyahu as its candidate despite the corruption charges. And the extreme right camp has retained its cohesion, with no parties likely to cross the floor to join a coalition with Gantz.

Since the final results of the elections were released – which showed Netanyahu winning 58 seats – Blue and White, the Labour-Gesher-Meretz alliance and Lieberman have insisted that Netanyahu will fall and there will be no fourth set of elections.

Given that Likud and the ‘nationalist camp’ refuse to drop Netanyahu and there seems to be no chance of any of the camp’s parties joining Gantz, some have called for Gantz to form a minority government with Labour-Gesher-Moretz and Yisrael Beiteinu, with the JAL supporting it from outside the coalition. Moshe Yaalon, leader of Blue and White’s right wing, has said that he supports the formation of a minority government with the support of 12 JAL members (excluding the three members belonging to Balad).[3] Gantz has likewise said that he has decided to ‘form a powerful and stable government that cures Israel of hatred and division’, affirming that ‘in the state of Israel every vote is equal’ – alluding to JAL voters.[4] After the last set of elections Gantz had rejected the idea of depending on Arab deputies, even outside the coalition, but remained secretly in contact with list members.

Blue and White, Yisrael Beiteinu and Labour-Gesher-Meretz have also agreed to table a law forbidding any Knesset member facing official charges from becoming Prime Minister.[5] Assuming all the lists outside the extreme right vote for it, along with Yisrael Beiteinu, this law will enjoy a clear majority – 62 deputies.

Likely Scenarios

The Israeli parties are still facing difficulties in forming a new government. All of the options face serious obstacles that will be difficult to overcome.

  • The formation of a national unity government between Likud and Blue and White along with other parties. This is very unlikely given Likud’s refusal to get rid of Netanyahu and Blue and White/Yisrael Beiteinu’s refusal to join any government headed or joined by Netanyahu.
  • The formation of a government by Netanyahu’s nationalist camp, with at least three defectors from other parties. Likud has been trying to seduce, pressure or even blackmail several deputies from the other camp ever since the election results came out, but so far these efforts have all failed.
  • The formation of a minority government led by Gantz with support from the Joint Arab List (who will remain outside the coalition). Several obstacles face this possibility. Firstly, although Lieberman has not openly opposed this option, he also refuses to openly support it or clarify whether he would want to be part of the coalition or support it from outside. Gantz’s ability to form a minority government will depend on his ability to come to an understanding with Lieberman. Secondly, the Blue and White leadership will face a challenge in forcing all of their Knesset members to support a minority government, particularly Boaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, for ideological or racist reasons. Thirdly, Gantz would have to win the support of the JAL, meaning his position on the JAL and that of his party would have to change and he would have to make a number of confessions to them. Fourthly, this minority government would only be stable in the short term, since it would lose legitimacy in the eyes of many Jewish voters: most commentators and experts on Israeli party politics believe that its sole purpose is to oust Netanyahu before forming a government of national unity with the Likud.
  • A fourth round of elections. This seems very unlikely as things stand, but will be inevitable if all other scenarios fail.

Conclusion

The Israeli right consolidated a thumping majority in the most recent elections. The Zionist left has almost disappeared. But the extreme right will struggle to form a government thanks to a general antipathy for its candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu.

At this stage it seems that an attempt by Gantz to form a minority government relying on JAL votes from outside the coalition is more likely than other options. But there are significant obstacles facing even this option, rooted particularly in the racism of the majority of Israeli society and its political elite and their hostility to Palestinian Arabs. Even if Gantz and Lieberman come to an understanding on a minority government and Blue and White’s Knesset members can be forced to support it, including Hendel and Hauser – a fairly unlikely scenario – this government will not rule for long. Either it will expand to include other parties or move to new elections.

[1] All of the data on the last 23 Knesset elections can be found on the official website of the Israeli Central Electoral Commission: http://bit.ly/2VZcRqV.

[2] All information on the 22nd Knesset elections is based on the official website of the Israeli Central Elections Commission: http://bit.ly/3cPSfYc.

[3] Yossi Freiter, “Yaalon supports minority government with JAL support and without Balad”, Haaretz, 05/03/2020 accessed 11/3/2020 at: https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/elections/.premium.highlight-1.8632992.

[4] Yehonatan Leis, “Gantz: I will form a government and prevent a fourth set of elections, the majority of the people have decided that the Netanyahu era is over”, Haaretz, 07/03/2020, accessed 11/3/2020 at: https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/elections/1.8637139.

[5] Yehonatan Leis “Gantz: I will form a government and prevent a fourth election, the majority of the people have decided the Netanyahu stage has ended,” Haaretz, 07/03/2020, accessed 11/3/2020 at: http://bit.ly/2IC4BoT.