With more than 90% of the vote counted in Israel, it is clear that the election held on Tuesday produced another inconclusive result, mirroring, more or less, the results of the election earlier this year. The right wing bloc, led by Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu, and the left wing bloc, led by Blue/White and Benny Gantz, reportedly are almost dead even. When all the votes are counted — especially the votes from soldiers — Likud may end up with one or two more seats than Blue/White, and thus Netanyahu may again be offered the first opportunity to form a coalition of at least 61 Knesset (parliament) members.
It is extremely unlikely, however, that Netanyahu will be able to muster the requisite majority, just as happened in the last election held in April of this year.
The one-man wrecking crew in all of this is Avigdor Lieberman, head the Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home) party, largely supported by the Russian community in Israel. Lieberman is Netanyahu’s arch-rival, wants to see Netanyahu out of office, and has said he will not join a narrow coalition led by either party. Rather, he wants to force the two big parties into a national unity government so as to curb the political power of the two large ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. A coalition composed of the big parties would not need the votes of the ultra-Orthodox and would thus break their grip on state-run religious institutions and possibly diminish the large financial subsidies they barter for when asked to join a coalition.
In Israel’s system, Reuven Rivlin, the largely ceremonial president of Israel, has one substantive task, that is, to decide who has the best chance of forming a coalition and giving the leader of the party up to six weeks to form a government. Rivlin, also a long-time foe of Netanyahu, felt burned after the April election when Netanyahu, unable to form a coalition, called another election, rather than allowing Rivlin to make that decision. This time around, Rivlin is likely to press Netanyahu and Gantz to join in a national unity coalition so as to avoid a prolonged political crisis and a possible third election. A significant obstacle to such a coalition could be Blue/White’s insistence on Netanyahu stepping aside as Likud leader. Netanyahu’s rivals in his party — Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, Acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, and Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa’ar — are waiting for a chance to unseat Netanyahu, but none of them has shown Netanyahu’s political deftness.
All of this suggests that the maneuvering and deal-making will continue and intensify. Already the Israeli press is rife with rumors about back-room deals being discussed: Netanyahu seeking defectors from Blue/White in return for ministerial positions; Blue/White seeking to head a minority coalition with support from outside the coalition from the Joint Arab List — the third largest bloc in the Knesset; or even a war with Hamas or Hezbollah that would put politics on the backburner and leave Netanyahu in power. None of these options is likely, but none is also far-fetched. Haaretz reported last week that Netanyahu considered going to war in Gaza just before the election.
Public policy issues, which played almost no role in the election itself, will be impacted by whatever outcome emerges. Desperate to rally his right wing voters, Netanyahu promised to annex the Jordan Valley, an area comprising about a third of the West Bank. Subsequently Netanyahu promised to annex even more territory, including settlements and outposts on private Palestinian land. While neither promise will necessarily be fulfilled, they indicate the direction that policy under Netanyahu would take.
While Gantz’s views are not all that different, the presence of Blue/White in a coalition would moderate Netanyahu’s worst instincts. The peace process, already moribund, would remain so, and the stasis in Israeli policy could afford Donald Trump yet another excuse to further delay unveiling his so-called peace plan.
Netanyahu’s legal woes also figure in the political mix. He has been desperate to hang on to power in order to delay, if not scotch, the possibility of his being indicted for several high profile corruption cases. The hearing preceding his possible indictment could take place within two weeks. Were Netanyahu to head a narrow coalition, chances are high that he would insist that the government legislate some form of immunity for sitting prime ministers. This option would not be available, however, under a unity government or a coalition headed by Blue/White.
The paradox in all of this is that Israel is not suffering any economic or other consequences from its political paralysis. Many countries are eager to trade for Israeli technology and know-how, especially in the military arms area. While there has been high-profile focus on the possibility of the “Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment” (BDS) movement having an impact on Israel’s standing, this has not been the case.
The next six weeks in Israel will be action-packed, filled high-stakes political maneuvering, and rife with rumors. Israel’s rough and tumble town-hall style democracy will be on full view. It will most likely play to very mixed reviews.
Kurtzer is a professor in Middle East policy studies at Princeton University. He is a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt.