Israel Goes to Elections (Again)

Over the past week I have been asked by quite a few people if I thought the new elections in Israel will change anything. Of course they will!. The question is what are the changes going to be.

To more clearly understand what might happen, we need to understand what happened during the first election...

When all the votes were counted, the Likkud (Netanyahu's party) and Kahol V'Laban (Left-of-center party headed by Benny Gantz) ended up with almost the same number of seats in the new Knesset (Parliament). In Israel, the meaning of this is very relative. Any government needs to be presented to the Knesset for approval, and this means that unless one party commands 61 seats out of the 120 seats of the knesset (something that never happened in Israeli history), governments involve political coalitions with all the horse-trading normally associated with it.

Netanyahu commanded in his last government a commanding coalition of right-wing parties. Gantz, while commanding the most seats in the Knesset from any other party, could not form a center-of-left coalition to command a majority. Netanyahu, therefore, was given the task of forming a government by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu took for granted he would be able to form the coalition, but Avigdor Lieberman, head of the right-wing party Israel Beiteinu refused to join the coalition.

Why did Lieberman refused to join? Lieberman represents a largely secular right-wing constituency, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. During the last government, Netanyahu mediated a negotiation between Lieberman, Likkud, and the religious parties to come up with an appropriate bill to promote Haredi (Religious) recruitment and participation in the IDF. This time around, the religious parties demanded changes to the bill (yet to be submitted to the Knesset) as the price of their participation in the new coalition. Lieberman, believing that too much has been compromised already in that bill, refuse to "change even a comma". Netanyahu offered several alternatives, but Lieberman stood firm in his refusal. As a result, the new coalition did not count with the required 61 votes, and the time for Netanyahu to form a government was running out.

Netanyahu had two choices: 1) Bring up a vote to dissolve the newly elected knesset and force new elections, in which case he would remain as caretaker Prime Minister until a new government can take over, or 2) Admit he was unable to form a government, thus opening the door for President Rivlin to call upon Benny Gantz to try. Netanyahu chose the former.

So what will happen in these new elections? Chances are that the balance of power between right and left will remain the same. What might change is the internal distribution of power in each bloc. A number of small right-wing parties aligned with Netanyahu barely made it to the minimum threshold for Knesset representation (2.5 %). In the new elections, it is probable that many of those who voted for the smaller parties will shift their votes to the Likkud, giving Netanyahu a stronger position during coalition negotiations. On the left, it is possible that some of the Arab citizens of Israel who tend to vote for the Arab parties (some Arab Israelis prefer to vote for the larger parties) will shift their vote to the Kachol V'Laban alignment. This, however, will still leave Benny Gantz in a difficult if not impossible position to form a government.

A third possibility, which could shake the Israeli political landscape, would be that Likkud and Kachol V'Laban form a Unity government. This is not unprecedented... Labor and Likkud formed joint government several times in the past. In the current distribution of power, this will give such a coalition a commanding majority of 70 Knesset seats, thus making unnecessary to accomodate the demands of the religious parties or the smaller parties. This is possible but highly improbable given the ideological gap between the two parties. If this happens, however, it would also bring to the fore the ongoing conflict between the Haredi, the Religious Zionists (Settler's Movement) and the Secular/Traditional majority of Israeli Jewish citizens. It could also lead to a radicalization of the Arab sector. And yet, given the options, this third alternative appears, in my opinion, to offer the best possibility of forming a strong enough Israeli government to navigate the challenges ahead. Such a coalition, might require that the Likkud jettison Netanyahu and replace him with a less controversial leader, as the members of Kachol V'Laban would still insist in Netanyahu's indictment for the crimes he is accused of.

As we navigate the time between now and September, it is likely that the scenario will change. Moves in both of the major parties will give us clues as to what to expect. Obviously, a move to replace Netanyahu as the head of Likkud would be a signal that the rank-and-file of the Likkud is considering a Unity government. Comments by the different religious parties might signal whether they would be agreable to form a coalition with Kachol V'Laban, and last but not least, comments by Israeli Arab political leaders will signal their willingness to support a center-of-left coalition even if they are not included in the coalition.

Stay Tuned - The Israeli political game is never boring...

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