Will Israel’s Latest Elections Change Anything?

Israel’s second round of national elections in less than one year has ended just like the first: With a stalemate, no way out, and talk of yet another inevitable round of elections.

(To catch up in more detail, you can read a guide to Israeli elections here, what happened in April’s elections here, and about the start of the second round of elections here.)

But some key details have changed the playing field. The reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bibi, Israel’s longest-serving and globally controversial prime minister, may slowly be coming to an end.

“In April, Likud [Bibi’s political party] received about 15,000 more votes than Blue & White [Bibi’s competition],” noted Amy Spiro, the digital editor for Jewish Insider and previously a reporter for The Jerusalem Post, on Twitter.

“This week, Blue and White received about 35,000 more votes than Likud. This is out of more than 4 million votes cast overall in each election.”

Israeli voters seem to have rejected Netanyahu by a large enough margin that Blue & White, the mish-mash political party of center and center-right politicians and retired generals led by former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz, is the next big bet for running Israel.

But elections are just the beginning of the complicated game of coalition chess that ends (hopefully) in an Israeli government.

With 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Likud or Blue & White need a coalition of political parties that equals 61 seats or more to govern the country. Right now, they both fall short.

Here are the election results, not yet official, but nearly complete with only a few thousand votes left to count:

  • Blue & White, the centrist party of Benny Gantz: 33 Knesset seats
  • Likud, the legacy center-right party of Benjamin Netanyahu: 31 seats
  • Joint List, a coalition of Arab-Israeli/Palestinian parties: 13 seats
  • Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party: 9 seats
  • UTJ, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party: 8 seats
  • Israel Beitenu, the secular center-right party of Avigdor Lieberman: 8 seats
  • Yamina, a coalition of religious right-wing parties already splitting apart: 7 seats
  • Labor-Gesher, a coalition of the historic left-wing party and centrist Gesher: 6 seats
  • Democratic Union, a coalition of left-wing parties: 5 seats

Understanding Israel’s potential future means a look at the blocs. The right-wing parties (Likud, Shas, UTJ, Yamina) make a right-wing bloc of 55 Knesset seats. The center and left-wing bloc (Blue & White, Labor-Gesher, Democratic Union) is just 44 seats.

The loose cannons here are Yisrael Beitenu and the Joint List left out of the bloc counting for a reason.

Yisrael Beitenu’s head honcho Avigdor Lieberman has been the real star of this election. Much like after April’s election, if he joins Netanyahu’s Likud coalition, the right-wing bloc can continue governing Israel and Bibi stays on as prime minister.

But Lieberman doesn’t get along with the ultra-Orthodox parties due to a number of religion and state issues.

The ultra-Orthodox in Israel control personal status issues like marriage (only Orthodox rabbis are legally allowed to officiate) and Jewish identity (conversions only by strict Orthodox standards, and going so far as to test Russian-speaking Jews’ DNA to prove they’re Jewish).

They’ve tried to make it illegal for buses to run and for stores to be open on Shabbat. And the exemption from Israel’s military service, mandatory for all other Jewish citizens, for ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivot has long been a sore point in Israeli politics.

In the eyes of many Israelis, the ultra-Orthodox have hijacked Israel and turned it into more of a religious dictatorship than a democracy. According to polling done in August, 64% of Israeli Jews want to see a government without the ultra-Orthodox parties.

So Lieberman has been very serious about rejecting any coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties. His stated goal over the past few months has been to push Likud and Blue & White into forming a national unity coalition, creating a government that represents most Israelis.

Lieberman has gone so far as to say that he doesn’t care if he’s even in the coalition, or in the opposition.

So far, there’s no indication that this bold and self-sacrificial talk is untrue in any way. Lieberman is really playing the game for the big stakes, unfazed by anyone or anything else. And he might well pull it off, considering that without him, Bibi has no future as prime minister.

But Gantz and Blue & White refuse to sit in a coalition with a Likud led by Netanyahu, who is in the middle of three corruption investigations (the pre-indictment hearing is Oct. 2). Netanyahu, for now, refuses to leave his seat of power and is still leveraging every ounce of political weight he has to try and stay prime minister.

While other members of Likud may think about a day after Bibi, the party is in no position to rebel just yet.

As it stands, if Gantz doesn’t fold, and Bibi doesn’t leave Likud, and Lieberman sticks by his guns, third national Israeli elections should happen around February 2020.

Now, to come back to the Joint List, the coalition of Arab-Israeli/Palestinian/communist/far-left parties. Their position as the third-largest party in the Knesset is an opportunity to step directly into Israeli political life, instead of operating on the fringes.

The Joint List, in all previous elections, has abstained from recommending a party/Knesset member to the president for the formation of a coalition. (Israel’s president, while a mostly ceremonial role, gets to choose who goes first to try and form a government and become prime minister — so either Bibi and Likud, or Gantz and Blue & White.)

If the right-wing bloc of four political parties recommends Netanyahu, and the center-left bloc of three political parties recommend Gantz, the balance is in Netanyahu’s favor. Lieberman, however, says he will recommend Gantz, making four vs four. If the Joint List recommends Gantz (which leaders say they will), Gantz gets to try forming a governing coalition first.

The president, Reuven Rivlin, should announce his choice in roughly a week or so.

Motivations are interesting here. Gantz won’t form a coalition with the Joint List, as that would be political suicide. So the JL doesn’t necessarily gain anything by recommending Gantz…except for the potential to topple Netanyahu, who they despise and who has consistently used incendiary rhetoric against Israeli-Arabs to motivate his right-wing voter base.

That potential is beyond enticing. And here’s another that the JL is interested in: if, somehow, a national unity coalition is formed with Blue & White and Likud, as the largest party outside the coalition, the JL would get a first-time chance for Israeli-Arabs to lead Israel’s opposition and take a more front-and-center role in Israeli political life.

But how the pieces come together remains to be seen…and for now, all we really know about the ultimate results of Israel’s September elections is that we live in interesting, if exhausting, times.