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Israel Goes to the Polls - For a Third Time

By: Jacob Lewis

Israeli voters went to vote and elect the members of the 23rd Knesset this last Monday. It was the third election within the span of a year after the April and September elections could not produce a 61-member majority government. Although the release of final results has been delayed, 99.9% of the vote has been counted and it is unlikely that the mandates received by each party list will change. Around 71% of the electorate turned out to vote, the highest percentage since the 2015 election. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc received 58 mandates, up from 55 after the September election, they still do not have the 61 needed to form a government outright. Since there are many party lists that made it into the Knesset, I will briefly separate them into five categories based on their end results and expectations, as well as briefly discuss what will happen next as the formation of a government is attempted.

Who were the big winners of the third election? In my opinion, the Joint List. The Joint List is a group of four Arab parties, made up of nationalists, Islamists, and socialists, who have run together on one list in three of the last four elections in order to maximize Arab representation in the Knesset by preventing any of their parties from going under the 3.25% threshold. After the September elections, they became the third largest party in the Knesset with 13 mandates, and now they have retained that position and increased their share to the largest it has ever been with 15 mandates. While the rest of the anti-Netanyahu party lists lost mandates, the Joint List gained two. This increase can be attributed to a number of factors. For one, 87% of Arab Israeli voters voted for the Joint List, up from 80% in September. Arab Israeli turnout was at 64.7%, up from 59.2% in September and 49.2% in April. Additionally, about 20,000 Jewish Israelis voted for the Joint List, which is doubled from September. The significant consolidation of Arab Israeli voters into the Joint List, as well as the increasing Arab Israeli voter participation and Jewish support, has made the party list a formidable faction in the Knesset that cannot be ignored by Blue and White if they wish to form a government without Netanyahu.

In the next category, which I would place somewhere between status-quo and winners, is Likud. Netanyahu’s party increased their mandates from 32 in September to 36 now, replacing Blue and White (33 mandates) as the largest party in the Knesset. Likud increased their vote share by winning over center-right, lower-middle class voters living near cities who previously supported Blue and White as well as more voters in settlements that previously supported the extreme far-right Otzma Yehudit. It also helped Likud that turnout in Tel Aviv, which is the more left-leaning area of Israel, decreased by 0.4%. It seems likely that Netanyahu and Likud will be tapped first by President Reuven Rivlin to try to form a government. However as I mentioned earlier, Likud and its allies only received 58 mandates, which is not the 61 they needed to form a government. While they could try to convince some Knesset members from the opposition to switch sides, it is much more difficult to convince three as opposed to one or two and those who have already been approached have denied they are considering switching. Avigdor Liberman and his right-wing secularist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, have also stated that they will not support a Likud-led government with the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties. These factors make it difficult for Netanyahu and Likud to form a government, just like their position after the September election, despite their better showing from September.

Three party lists fall under my status quo category: Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas is a party that primarily represents Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredim while United Torah Judaism represents Ashkenazic Haredim. They received 9 and 7 mandates respectively, which is the same as in September. Both parties will almost certainly recommend Netanyahu to be Prime Minister and will continue to remain in the right-wing bloc with the same amount of support as before. Liberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, now sits at one less seat than September with 7 mandates. Although they lost a mandate, that does not change Liberman’s status as the political kingmaker in the Knesset. Just as in the September election, the right-wing bloc and the opposition without Liberman could not reach 61 mandates (58 and 55 respectively), so Liberman will continue to hold the balance of power when deciding if a government will be formed and by whom.

My fourth category are the losers of this election, being Blue and White and Yamina. Although Blue and White kept the 33 mandates they received in September, Likud jumped in front of them and Blue and White is now the second-largest party list in the Knesset. Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White, will likely have the chance to form a government due to his party being the largest in the opposition. However, being in a position where his party list has 3 less mandates than Likud gives Rivlin more of a reason to ask Netanyahu to form a government first. The opposition as a whole now has fewer mandates (65 after September, 62 now) to try to cobble together a government, and trying to work out a plan to get Telem (the most right-wing faction of Blue and White), the Joint List, and Yisrael Beiteinu to cooperate with each other will be difficult if not impossible. Gantz has a daunting task ahead of him.

The other loser of this election is Yamina, which is a group of far right-wing, national-religious, and settler movement supporters. They are led by Minister of Defense Naftali Bennett and former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, both of whom are high profile politicians in Israel. Despite the overall increase in mandates for the right-wing bloc in this election, Yamina lost a seat from September, going from 7 to 6 mandates. While they are still an integral part of Netanyahu’s coalition, right-wing voters clearly preferred giving even more support to Likud than Yamina.

The biggest loser of this election was the Labor-Gesher-Meretz party list, or the center-left to left-wing Zionists. Although Labor-Gesher and Meretz (as the Democratic Union) ran on two separate lists in September and got 11 mandates, they were afraid neither list would cross the threshold this time around, so they came together to form one list in this election. It was probably a correct assumption on their part; they received a combined 7 mandates this election. While Labor (as MAPAI until 1968) dominated Israeli politics until 1977, they received the least mandates ever in this election, being 3. Some of their September voters went to the Joint List, but they are clearly no longer viewed by the center and center-left as being the real opposition to Likud and the right. They have been replaced by Blue and White.

So, what happens now? No bloc has an outright majority, and since no one seems to be breaking from the opposition as of right now, it seems unlikely that the right-wing will be able to form a government even if Rivlin asks Netanyahu to try first. However, Gantz will also have a difficult time forming a government with the opposition even if the Joint List supports the government from the outside. The leader of Telem recently said he would support a government where part of the Joint List supports the government in this fashion, but without Balad, the hardline Arab-nationalist faction of the Joint List. Without them, the opposition numbers 59 mandates. Aside from factions in Blue and White not being comfortable working with the Joint List from the outside, Liberman and Yisrael Beiteinu have previously stated that they would not support any of the Joint List holding up a minority government from the outside. Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, has also said that the Joint List will not support Gantz for Prime Minister if he does not walk back his comments on forming a “Zionist majority” coalition and supporting Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley with international coordination, which is a non-starter for the international community. Odeh also said the Joint List will not allow Liberman to be a minister in government and Ahmad Tibi, the leader of Ta’al (a faction of the Joint List), said his party will not support any kind of government with Yisrael Beiteinu in it.

Clearly there is no easy path forward for any faction. Both Netanyahu and Gantz might be given the chance by Rivlin to form a government, and just like after September, there is a decently-high chance both fail to do so. Once the new Knesset is sworn in on March 16th, the opposition plans on filing a bill that would disqualify anyone under criminal indictment from forming a government, which would make it nearly impossible for Netanyahu to continue on as Prime Minister. However, there will be many challenges to this bill. It is unclear whether it will be allowed through at this time and it will need the support of 61 out of 62 of the opposition members of the Knesset in order to pass. If it does pass, many new options may open up, including a unity government between Blue and White and a Netanyahu-less Likud. The other option on the table, if all else fails, is for the country to move on to a fourth election later this year.

Jacob Lewis is a sophomore majoring in Political Science and minoring in Israel Studies and History.

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