With less than a month to go before Israel’s unprecedented second election this year, it’s becoming clear yet again that neither the right nor left will be able to cobble together enough mandates on their own to achieve a majority and form a government.
Polls consistently show approximately 55 mandates among the right-wing and religious parties that have declared their supporting for Benjamin Netanyahu to continue as prime minister. Similarly, polls indicate that same number of seats for the “anti-Netanyahu” camp led by Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz. Neither has enough support for the 61-mandate majority needed to form a government.
Given this impasse, does it mean that Israel could be headed to a third election cycle, or will some other option emerge?
“No chance,” Mitchell Barak, veteran pollster and CEO of KEEVOON Research, Strategy and Communication, Ltd, told JNS, referring to the possibility of a third election.
“And this is Netanyahu’s worst nightmare,” said Barak because his future will be in the hands of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who Netanyahu campaigned against.
Following the elections, the president of Israel calls each party in to discuss which of the 120 newly elected Knesset members should be given the right to try to form the new government. The president then assigns that task to the Knesset member who seems to have the best chance of succeeding in bringing together the 61 mandates needed for government. The president usually gives this duty to the leader of the party that wins the most votes in the election; if that Knesset member fails to establish a government or if the president doesn’t think that person will be successful in doing so, the mandate can be given to other MKs.
“In a deadlocked Knesset, President Rivlin will play an important and unprecedented role, acting as mediator and unifier, helping find the path to a government,” said Barak. While he doesn’t know precisely what steps the president will take, he is convinced that Rivlin will lead the way to a solution.
To Netanyahu, that “solution” will almost certainly involve a rotation for prime minister at the very least and the strong possibility of removing him as prime minister to pave the way for a unity government led by Gantz.
Former Knesset member Dr. Ronen Hoffman, a professor of government and politics at the IDC in Herzliya, agrees that there is virtually no chance of a third election; in fact, he sees Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Liberman as the key player post the Sept. 17 elections.
“Lieberman will be the king maker,” Hoffman told JNS, adding that he is likely going to force a national unity government made up of Blue and White, Likud and his own party, leaving the ultra-Orthodox parties to sit in the opposition.
Hoffman explained that since Lieberman is expected to double his political power in this election, “he will do whatever necessary not to lose this momentum via a third election cycle.”
While Blue and White has declared that it won’t join the Likud if Netanyahu leads the party, and while Netanyahu has said that he will not join a unity government with Blue and White, Hoffman believes that Lieberman will force both to make concessions and work together.
Indeed, this week Yisrael Beiteinu, and Blue and White, signed a vote-sharing agreement that will allow either party to use the extra votes that are not enough to receive a mandate.
Salvation from the left?
There is significant speculation that Netanyahu may find his salvation from Amir Peretz, chairman of the Labor Party. Peretz merged Labor together with the Gesher Party led by Orly Levy-Abukasis, who once served with Yisrael Beiteinu.
Together, they are focusing on social issues, and Netanyahu could entice them to bring their five to six mandates to enable him to form a government in exchange for control of social ministers such as finance, welfare and health.
But Knesset member Itzik Shmuli, No. 3 in Labor-Gesher, told JNS he dismissed this speculation.
“The chairman of our party has made it clear that he has no intention of entering into negotiations with Netanyahu after the election. We will partner with others to replace Netanyahu,” Shmuli explained, adding that the Labor Party “is strongly opposed to Netanyahu’s policies.”
There are some on the right who are still hopeful that Netanyahu will find an easy path to 61 mandates.
Former Knesset candidate for the New Right Party, and conservative author and columnist Caroline Glick, told JNS that she “foresees that Likud under Netanyahu have a stable governing majority of 61-63 seats” following the election.
“In the last elections, two right-wing parties — New Right and Zehut, which didn’t cross the electoral threshold of four seats — won seven seats between them.”
As such, those wasted votes may now be able to give Netanyahu the few seats he needs to cobble together a slim majority.
“Five were distributed among the rightist bloc parties and two were distributed among leftist bloc parties,” Glick explained. “Those two lost mandates were the difference between a majority for Netanyahu and the stalemate that forced us into the current second round. Since the rightist parties unified this time, the probability of that recurring is small.”
Barring the scenario described by Glick, Netanyahu’s future as prime minister is not certain at all. His supporters call him a political “magician.” He now has a few weeks to work that magic in his attempt to secure a fifth term as Israel’s prime minister.