Israel awoke yesterday with prospects of yet more political uncertainty and paralysis after an apparently inconclusive result on yesterday’s elections, the fourth held in less than two years. With 89% of the results in, it looks like the final composition of the Knesset would entail weeks and months of exhausting political negotiations to determine if Netanyahu would keep power, a new government takes office or if another election would be needed.
At the beginning of the night, the results appeared to be very favorable to Benjamin Netanyahu and his party Likud as they were poised to become the largest party in Parliament, with the rest of the Netanyahu-aligned right being in a good position to have the 61-seat majority needed to maintain power, which leads “Bibi” to proclaim victory early in the night.
However, as results continued to trickle down it seemed that while Netanyahu’s Likud would be the biggest party (30 seats), the path to obtain the 61 majority needed to form a government looks arduous at best, as many anti-Netanyahu parties seem to be on track to keep Bibi from forming a stable government.
The israeli political process has been stuck at a endless cycle of snap elections, failed negotiations, and interim governments since 2019, when the pro-Netanyahu forces were not able to form a majority coalition in the Knesset. The country only took a brief respite last year when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the fighting parties to reach an agreement to confront the growing crisis.
While Likud would probably count with the support of other religious parties in the country, this would leave them with 52 seats in Parliament. The anti-Netanyahu bloc seems poised to have a bigger number of parliamentarians, though not enough to form a majority, which would put the Arab parties and a bloc lead by former Netanyahu ally, Naftali Bennet, as kingmakers of Israel.
Referendum on Netanyahu
Israeli politics have been centering around the figure of the current Prime Minister, who has been holding office since 2009, and who is facing trial for corruption and bribery charges which is expected to continue after the election. Members of parliaments and cabinet ministers are required by law to resign their position while holding trial, however, the law says nothing about sitting Prime Ministers, which increases the incentives of Netanyahu maintaining his position as leader of the government.
The ruling party Likud, expected that the astounding success of their national vaccination rollout and the peace deals negotiated by the Prime Minister would provide enough political traction for them to win enough seats to keep control of the Knesset and avoid a fifth election. However, the results seem to indicate that the Israeli public remains evenly divided among those who see Netanyahu as a hero and those who see him as an authoritarian.
After yesterday’s results, Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin will assign the formal task to form a government to a member of Parliament, with a timeline of 28 days with an extension of 14 days, days after the Central Elections Committee publishes the final official results. The president can offer another member of the Knesset to form a government if the initial efforts fail.
Both factions have some available options to try and end the lockdown, but if neither side is able to reach a stable deal, then there would be no more choice than to the Knesset to dissolve and call for a fifth election.
The two Arab parties (joint list and a dissident fraction) could play a significant role in the formation of a government. With the party lead by Mahmoud Abbas not ruling out joining forces with Likud in exchange for concessions to the Arab minority in Israel, although this could open Netanyahu to heavy criticism on his right flank.
The opposition, in theory led by Yair Lapid as he is the head of the second largest party, could also try to coalesce and also look for the support of arab parties, but that would also create some dissatisfaction with some anti-netanyahu conservatives who would be necessary to form a government.
The added difficulty to the negotiation process comes from the fact that the Prime Minister has all the incentives to remain in power, as he would have a better chance to withstand any legal challenges as head of the government rather than as a private citizen. This reduces the room for political maneuver as the option of a caretaker government lead by someone who is neither Netanyahu nor a recognized opposition leader would prove to be politically impossible to accept by the current prime minister.
As Israeli election officials finalize to tally the votes and parties start to strategize their next move, both the U.S. and the world would be looking expectantly to find out if Tel Aviv is able to sort itself out of this political standstill. The current situation has had the terrible effect of leaving the country without a permanent budget for over 13 months, which could impede the military to have proper long-term planning to respond to regional challenges.
Although internal gridlock and turmoil is definitely not ideal to develop a coherent and effective foreign policy strategy in the region, some argue that the dynamics on the coordination between U.S. and Israel would probably “remain the same” in key issues like Iran, as the vicepresident of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said to the Jerusalem Post.
After two years and four elections of lengthy and complicated negotiations, Israel remains in the same state as in 2019: with a divided parliament and an apparently insolvable gridlock.