Israel’s Fifth Election – Can a Stable Government Emerge?

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Israel’s Fifth Election – Can a Stable Government Emerge?
Polls predict another stalemate, and a sixth election coming soon.
By Joseph Puder

The State of Israel will be going to vote on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. This will be the fifth election in less than four years. The near parity is between the competing political blocs: the Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-of-center on one hand, and the anti-Netanyahu left-of-center bloc led by Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s Likud bloc has nevertheless a noticeable advantage; it has a reliable bloc of 60 mandates in the polls, and it may have an even higher number in the real poll – on Election Day. Netanyahu has only to find a single defector to form a narrow coalition government of 61 mandates in the 120 seat Knesset (Israeli Parliament). Netanyahu can count on the Religious Zionist party led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party led by Aryeh Deri, and the Ashkenazi Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) led by Moshe Gafni.

The problem with the more likely above scenario is that it would be a narrow center-right coalition that will not guarantee the government’s long-term stability. The last/current Bennett/Lapid coalition government has 58 seats plus Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List with 4 mandates. However, the defection of three of Yamina’s (Bennett’s party now defunct) has left Lapid with an even slimmer coalition of 55+4, or 59 votes. Bennett’s duration as prime minister lasted a year. It began on June 13, 2021 and ended on June 30, 2022. Lapid, the alternate prime minister is now caretaker prime minister until November 1, 2022.

Another short lived coalition government was that of Netanyahu’s Likud with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. It lasted from May 17, 2020 to June 13, 2021. Ideological differences, particularly on dealing with the Palestinians and budget issues made such a coalition difficult, and it was only possible out of desperation due to the Covid 19 pandemic and its economic impact on Israel. This was to be an agreement on the rotation of the prime minister’s post. Netanyahu was to serve 18 months followed by Gantz’s 18 month term. Regrettably, the two figures, Netanyahu and Gantz, did not see eye-to-eye and split apart after barely a year.

Netanyahu, being a centrist at heart would find little common ground with Ben-Gvir or Smotrich. These hardliners will ultimately clash with the more moderate Likud on issues such as settlements and security. There is no doubt that Netanyahu would prefer a more moderate, albeit, nationalist partner. Still, this option of a narrow center-right coalition has the highest chances to materialize.

A unity government headed by Netanyahu and Gantz’s new party Ha’Machane Ha’mamlachti (roughly translated to National Unity party) would be ideal, but unlikely to happen. Both Gantz and his new partner, Gideon Saar (head of the previously New Hope party) don’t trust Netanyahu. But given Israel’s mercurial politics, even the impossible is possible. Should another likely stalemate occur, and Netanyahu garner 60 or 61 seats, Gantz might take another chance with Netanyahu, provided of course that he would be first in the rotation as prime minister. He would probably also demand that Saar and Gadi Eizenkot, (former Israel Defense Forces Chief-of-staff) Gantz’s heralded acquisition, receive major portfolios.

Netanyahu would actually prefer a coalition with Gantz over Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. In the previous coalition governments headed by Netanyahu and the Likud, he partnered with Labor’s Ehud Barak, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. In spite of Netanyahu’s declaration that he would only form a right-wing coalition, Gantz would be his preferred choice. That scenario has however, low chances to materialize given the egos involved.

In his recent speeches, Gantz has maintained that he can be the bridge between the ultra orthodox parties and the secular left-of-center parties, hence could form a solid coalition government and serve as prime minister. A combination of Shas and UTJ with Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Labor, and the far left Meretz party would give Gantz, according to the latest poll, 63 seats for a comfortable, albeit, ideologically unlikely coalition. Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party has declared that he will not sit in a coalition with the Orthodox parties. Such a scenario has a slim chance, but if Netanyahu fails to form a government this time around, it becomes a theoretical possibility. The Orthodox parties are eager to be in the government and get allocations to their religious (Yeshivot) institutions.

Lapid’s path to the office of prime minister is the least feasible. According to a poll conducted on October 23, 2022 by the Kantar Institute, presented by Israel TV Kan Channel 11, the best Lapid could master is 51 votes to 60 for Netanyahu. Lapid would have to depend on the Arab parties who together (according to the poll) secure 8 seats. That would give him only 59 votes, being short of a majority. Lapid has declared that the Arab parties will not be part of his coalition government, but that he will seek their support from outside the government. Asked by reporters how he plans to form a coalition government, Lapid responded, “We will know how to form a government when we have the final results of the elections.”

It is clear that polls could be wrong and sometimes misleading, yet the Netanyahu bloc has held steady numbers not going below 58 mandates. Conversely, the leftist parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc, particularly Meretz, and Labor, still have to overcome passing the 3.25% threshold of the total vote to be counted on. If any one of these two parties fail to pass the threshold, Lapid’s chances diminish dramatically. Similarly, the Arab parties are swinging between 4 mandates and not passing the threshold.

Should Netanyahu fail to receive 61 mandates, Lapid would be asked by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog to form a government. Lapid would then seek to recruit Likud defectors along with the haredi or the ultra orthodox parties: Shas and UTJ to form what he called a “unity government.” One of Lapid’s dreams is for the Likudniks to remove Netanyahu as party chairman, which would pave the way for a wide coalition government between Yesh Atid and the Likud. Such a scenario however, has zero chances to materialize. In the meantime, if Netanyahu does not get 61 mandates, Lapid will continue to serve as caretaker prime minister until the next scheduled elections.

In every poll taken currently and in recent years, Netanyahu appears as the most qualified to serve as prime minister, often by a fairly large margin. This is perhaps the reason that few among the Likud leadership would challenge Netanyahu. Saar did it and lost decisively, and others like Edelstein got the same results. Netanyahu and Lapid are working hard to break the deadlock. Lapid is visiting Arab communities to urge them to vote, while Netanyahu is putting pressure on Ayalet Shaked to quit her efforts to run as head of the Jewish Home party, which is unlikely to cross the threshold. Once again, the likely draw between the two competing camps will invariably lead to a sixth election cycle.

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