Israel was thrust into an unprecedented political drama on 29 May after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form his fifth coalition government, despite a resounding victory for the right in April’s elections. The ruling Likud Party won 35 seats in the 120-seat unicameral parliament, the Knesset, but Netanyahu’s attempts to form a government based on his previous coalition partners was thwarted by Avigdor Liberman, one of his former ministers.
The right-wing bloc won a total of 65 seats (out of 120), but Liberman remained steadfast in his refusal to join Netanyahu’s next government unless a bill over the contentious issue of army conscription for ultra-Orthodox Jews would be passed without any changes by the new government. The ultra-Orthodox parties refused, and Netanyahu was left with a coalition of just 60, one shy of a majority. Rather than returning the mandate for forming the government to the president so another candidate could try and form a coalition, Netanyahu persuaded his party to vote in favour of dissolving the Knesset. The Knesset voted to disband just one month after being sworn in, precipitating new elections. A total of 74 Knesset members (MKs) voted in support of the move, including all of the would-be coalition parties, Liberman’s party and the Arab parties. Forty-five opposition MKs voted against it.
Israel is thus set to go to the polls on 17 September for its second general election this year. Netanyahu has been left somewhat bruised by his failure to form a coalition, while Liberman’s political calculations appear to have paid off, with his Yisrael Beiteinu party gaining strength in the polls.
The expectation throughout the six weeks of coalition talks was that Liberman would eventually capitulate and accept some sort of compromise from Netanyahu, at least in part so that he would not be blamed for sabotaging a future right-wing government. Liberman, however, apparently identified a gap in the political market and took the risk of going all in. Having served as both defence and foreign minister, and with a party that has dwindled from an all-time high of 15 seats in 2009 to just five in the April vote – Liberman felt he had little to lose. In making his demand, he also sought to prove his campaign promise of “right wing and secular” and show that he would not be beholden to the national-religious and ultra-Orthodox camps. Over the coming months, Liberman will likely raise the rhetoric and fight the election on a platform of curtailing the influence of the ultra-Orthodox and religious parties over the future government and against “religious coercion”. In recent election cycles, this issue has been a mainstay of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (now part of Blue and White). However, given that they are mostly regarded as centre-left, Liberman is attempting to boost his credentials on this matter to pick up more voters from the secular right.
September’s elections will not necessarily be a straight re-run of April’s – if they actually take place. Following a spluttering start to campaigning, Netanyahu is reportedly considering an initiative to call off the election, proposed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud). This move is widely perceived to be a trial balloon and unlikely to come to fruition; any bill passed to rescind the dissolution of the Knesset would face a legal challenge at the High Court of Justice.
While the elections are a gamble for Netanyahu, they are also an opportunity for the right to recoup some of the votes it lost in April. At least four-to-five seats were lost due to the New Right party’s failure to cross the electoral threshold, along with the far-right libertarian Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party. Likud will focus additional energies on the Russian-speaking communities – Liberman’s traditional voter base – to settle that score. The prime minister’s party however, will likely also call for right-wing voters to “come home” and support Likud to avoid the post-election arm-twisting of smaller parties in the coalition-building process.
Political realignments are inevitable, and they are already happening. Likud and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party have merged. Many of Kahlon’s voters have reacted angrily to the move, having looked for a soft-right alternative to Likud and relied on Kahlon’s oft-stated promise not to sit in government with a prime minister facing indictment (subject to a hearing) for fraud and breach of trust charges in three corruption cases, and on a bribery charge in one of them. Former education minister Naftali Bennett has vowed to run again under his New Right party. His former partner, the popular ex-justice minister Ayelet Shaked, is being courted by a number of parties and has until the end of July to decide where to run. In addition, the extremist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) has announced a split from the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URW), the controversial alliance that brought them together the Jewish Home and National Union ahead of April’s elections
The two main ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, won eight seats each in the April election, slightly up from their 2015 showing and will likely stick with their lists and platforms.
On the centre and left of Israeli politics, the parties will be looking to correct some of their errors in April’s vote. Labour, which won just six seats – its worst-ever showing – will hold primaries for a new leader after Chairman Avi Gabbay announced he was stepping down. The left-wing Meretz party is also set for a leadership contest– and there is renewed talk of a merger between the two. Alternatively, Meretz may attempt to bolster its credentials as a party of true partnership between Jews and Arabs, in particular given the high voter share for the party from the Arab communities in Israel in April’s election, and these communities’ frustration with the parties that have traditionally represented them. Turnout in the Arab sector was low at 56 per cent (compared to 68 per cent nationally) and the Arab parties of Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad received six and four seats respectively, down three seats from 2015 when they ran together as the Joint List. The fact that the Arab parties were the only opposition parties to vote in favour of the dissolution of the Knesset indicates they saw it as a chance to recoup some of their losses from and have already said they will fight the September vote as the Joint List once again.
The wild card in the next election may be the return of former prime minister Ehud Barak who has announced that he is re-entering politics and will run in September at the helm of a new party. Vowing to topple Netanyahu’s regime, with its "corrupt and messianic elements", Barak will seek to bolster the centre-left bloc and mobilise voters who are seeking a forceful, experienced alternative to Netanyahu. His decision could prompt a technical bloc between his party and others such as Labour and Meretz to ensure that no votes are lost on the centre-left. This bloc would then offer a viable alternative for voters who view some members of Blue and White as too right wing but are looking for a change in government.
One of the big questions ahead of the September re-election will be whether the Blue and White party – headed by former Israeli army chief of staff Benny Gantz and Lapid – can pull ahead of Likud. Their haul of 35 seats – equal to Likud and less than 15,000 votes behind them – was remarkable for a party that was launched just months earlier. The party has, however, been beset by reports of infighting at the top. Further, while they were never given the opportunity to form a coalition as the Knesset voted in favour of dissolution, they would have likely been unable to do so given the ultra-Orthodox’s disdain for Lapid.
So far, supporters have been frustrated that the party is not acting like an opposition or doing enough to combat Netanyahu and shore up support in the run-up to September. As many in the party have their roots in the Likud and the centre-right, Blue and White will focus on these voters and those whose frustration with Netanyahu has been piqued further by his forcing another election. The cost to the economy of fresh elections, as well as a prolonged period under a caretaker government unable to take key decisions such as approving the next budget, is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.
The upcoming elections are scheduled for just two weeks before Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing on fraud, breach of trust and bribery. During the abortive attempt to form a government following April’s election, much attention was given to possible legislation that could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution (or prevent the High Court of Justice from striking down his immunity). With a further postponement in his hearing now less likely, should Netanyahu and the right come out on top in September, the next coalition-building process may again be intertwined with efforts to extricate the prime minister from his legal woes.