Israel could be headed for a fourth election later this year, should the current stalemate remain, according to experts in Israeli electoral politics.
For the third time in less than a year, neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor Benny Gantz’s Blue and White won an outright majority in the Israeli legislative elections. Likud won 36 seats, while Blue and White won just 33.
The total right-wing bloc, with Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism, reached 58, three short of the 61 needed for a majority. Blue and White’s center-left coalition with Labor-Gesher-Meretz ended up at just 40.
For the third time, Avigdor Lieberman of the secularist Yisrael Beiteinu, which won seven seats in the most recent election, seems to have no intention of aligning with either of the two major parties.
And for the third time, the traditional Israeli left, once embodied in the Labor Party, couldn’t even crack double digits, a far cry from the glory days of practically unchallenged Labor rule. For the third time in as many tries, Likud voters came out strong for Netanyahu, under investigation a year ago, and now indicted on criminal charges.
And for the third time, there’s little indication that voters in Israel shouldn’t discount the probability of yet another election.
To an Israeli living in the United States, it’s been an immensely frustrating experience to watch.
“The more elections we had, the more people were like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening again, and why can’t we just fix it, grow up and make a government?’” said Bat El Trabelsi, shlicha to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Not everything is the same, however.
The voter turnout was up from around 68% in the first election to around 71%. While that may not seem all that significant, it is an indication that rumored voter fatigue was just that: a rumor.
“The prediction that voters would be so fed up by now by having to vote for a third time in a year obviously didn’t bear out,” said Professor Dov Waxman, The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies at UCLA. The get-out-the-vote drives by the major parties have been incredibly successful, he said, especially that of Likud, which captured the highest vote total of any single party during the past three elections in the most recent bout. Voters clearly perceive that the stakes are high, Waxman added.
It was not just Likud voters, though, who went to the ballot box again. Shayna Weiss, the associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, noted that Arab voters had clearly been motivated by what they perceive as potential negative consequences for them in the peace deal put forth by the U.S. back in January.
“The turnout of Arabs also went up because Arabs are increasingly feeling, and being seen, as a politically potent force in Israeli politics and that is a very satisfying feeling for them,” said Ian Lustick.
Lustick, the Bess W. Heyman Chair in the Political Science Department of the University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t think it’s likely there will be another election. While he wouldn’t discount the possibility entirely, he does point out that the budgets for the institutions valued by the Orthodox parties expire at the end of June, and they all require a new government to renew them. He also sees a possibility that Lieberman will be ready to deal.
It would be “crazy” to discount the possibility of another election, Waxman said. No one wanted a third election, either, he pointed out, and yet, here we are.
Weiss cautioned similar preparedness for another round, and added that there are people thinking about how to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again. The Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank based in Jerusalem, has a long list of electoral reforms that they’ve pushed — term limits, for example. That was one of two proposed new laws supported by Yisrael Beiteinu, along with another new law that would ban any MK under indictment from forming a government.
Netanyahu’s indictment on charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud have not kept voters from coming out to support him, and it remains to be seen if or how the courts will take his apparent popularity into consideration as his trial begins on March 17.
In the meantime, Netanyahu and Likud will, in all likelihood, be given the first chance to complete a coalition. While getting from 58 to 61 seats may not sound like such a tall order, Waxman said, the probability of getting over the finish line is slim. Barring a surprise turn by a party that couches its electoral appeal in its refusal to join a Netanyahu government, the only way for Likud to pick up those last three MKs would be to pick off individual defectors.
It’s not unprecedented, though it would be a direct repudiation of the will of the constituents that elected that defector MK.
“Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not,” Lustick said. “Money and even extortion can be involved. It is not pretty.”
Though the durability of voter support for Netanyahu, especially among Mizrahi communities, underscores the whole election, the continuing success of the Joint List is something to keep an eye on, according to all three experts. The combination of four Arab parties — Hadash, Ta’al, United Arab List and Balad — won 15 seats in the most recent election, a reflection of the growing power of Arab voters in Israel.
With the traditional left hobbled, they could be the new standard bearer, Waxman theorized. If Blue and White was to see the Joint List as a genuine coalition partner, and decided to bring them into a government, “that would be a historic development,” he said.
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Other articles by Jesse Bernstein on the Israeli Election:
Election Surprise in Israel: What’s Next? (June 5, 2019)
Israeli Election a Major Victory for the Right (April 17, 2019)