The post-election puzzle

A working coalition will have to emerge as a third vote within a year is inconceivable

August 15, 2019 14:06
The post-election puzzle

A Likud election poster shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Donald Trump under the slogan, ‘Netanyahu. In a league of his own’. (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)

With just weeks to go before the September 17 election and polls showing neither bloc being able to garner a majority, speculation is rife over what kind of government will emerge after Israel goes to the polls for the second time this year.

One thing is for sure: This time a working coalition of some kind will have to emerge, as a third election within the space of a year is inconceivable.

Even though declarations made by politicians during an election campaign must be taken with a grain of salt, all indications are that cobbling together a working coalition, based on the current poll predictions, is going to need at least one party to renege on what they are promising the electorate.

Despite polls showing the right-wing and religious parties – critically without Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu – falling short of a 61-seat Knesset majority, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put on a brave face.

“My commitment is clear: to establish a strong right-wing government after the election, which will continue to lead the State of Israel to unprecedented heights and to guarantee the security of Israeli citizens,” he told Yisrael Hayom in an interview in early August. “This is my commitment to Likud voters. There will be no unity government.”

But his comments were immediately contradicted by other senior Likud politicians, who speculated that some form of a Netanyahu-led unity government was an option.

Likud MK and former coalition whip David Bitan indicated that Netanyahu would agree to bring in Blue and White head Benny Gantz and his Israel Resilience faction into a coalition, on condition that they break away from Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid.

An election poster of Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv (Credit: Steve Linde)

Lapid, No. 2 on the Blue and White list, dismissed the idea as a non-starter.

“Netanyahu may be against unity, but his senior MKs are totally in favor,” said Lapid. “They speak to us every day. If he loses to us by even one seat in the elections, the Likud revolt will begin.”

The idea of such a revolt gained momentum after Liberman said that he would like to see a prime minister from Likud who is not Netanyahu, suggesting instead Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, No. 2 on the Likud list. Liberman says he will recommend to the president that the task of forming the government be given to the leader of the party that either wins the largest number of seats, or who agrees to form a unity government.

In an effort to prevent a Likud revolt, Bitan came up with the controversial idea of a loyalty pledge, signed by the top 40 members on the Likud election slate: “We, the undersigned candidates on the Likud list for the 22nd Knesset, underscore that we will not receive any dictate from any other party. Without regard to the results of the election, Netanyahu is the Likud’s only candidate for prime minister, and there will be no other candidate.”

Netanyahu responded, “Thanks to the Likud members for their unequivocal support. We are always united!”

The loyalty pledge, which is not legally binding, was greeted with derision and scorn from across the political spectrum, and was also criticized by many Likud faithful as a step too far. No. 3 on the Blue and White list, Moshe Ya’alon, compared the Likud petition to the regime in North Korea, where people “take a deep bow, even to statues” of their leader.

Knesset Speaker Edelstein said he believes that Netanyahu will form a right-wing coalition after the election, but would not rule out having other parties join, mentioning as an example Amir Peretz’s Labor Party.

Peretz and Orly Levy-Abecasis, No. 2 on the list, have said they will not join a Netanyahu-led government, but speculation persists that if they are offered ministerial portfolios that would enable them to advance their social agenda – starting with Peretz as finance minister – they may well join such a coalition.

The fact that two small right-wing parties – Otzmah Yehudit led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Moshe Faiglin’s Zehut – are running independently is a major blow to the right-wing camp. Both parties are currently polling around the 2% mark, well below the minimum 3.25% needed to enter the Knesset, representing the loss of tens of thousands of votes for the right-wing camp.
Netanyahu, who reportedly studies polls obsessively, realizes the prognosis is not good.

According to senior Likud Knesset members who participated in a strategy meeting chaired by the prime minister in early August, Netanyahu has set two main goals to rectify the situation: the first is to reduce the number of votes received by Otzma Yehudit and Zehut, in order to prevent right-wing votes from going to waste. The second goal is to take seats from the United Right, headed by Ayelet Shaked, which is polling at around the 10-11 seat mark.

“It’s preferable for the United Right to have seven or eight seats in a right-wing coalition led by the Likud, than for them to win 12 seats – which would make it impossible for the Likud to form the government and would put them in the opposition,” Netanyahu said, according to a source who attended a meeting.

The siphoning off of votes by Likud and Blue and White from the smaller parties in their respective blocs was a feature of the last few weeks of the April campaign, using the argument that the president will naturally task the candidate from the party that wins the most seats to form a coalition.

The smaller parties stress that the deciding factor is the overall strength of the bloc and the number of recommendations for a candidate for prime minister.

New Right leader Ayelet Shaked (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

“Netanyahu is making a big mistake here,” said Shaked. “We’re trying to be responsible and to increase the number of seats so that together we win 61 seats. Instead of trying to win over voters from the center-right, he’s been tapping into a convenient pool of voters for him, and that’s our pool of voters. Quite simply, if we aren’t large enough, the Likud will form a left-wing government.”

Blue and White is also expected to focus on siphoning off votes from Labor and Meretz as the campaign draws to a close – and is also reaching out to the Israeli-Arab voters – arguing that a large Blue and White is the only way to ensure the end of the Netanyahu era.

The party has been beset with problems during the campaign, amid reports of major disagreements between Yair Lapid and the other three leaders. Whereas Lapid believes votes can be won by attacking the Haredi parties, Benny Gantz – with an eye on the post-election coalition negotiations – seeks to keep channels open to the ultra-Orthodox.

Unless there is a dramatic shift in voter intentions in the last few weeks of the campaign, it looks like Israel will be faced with a conundrum on September 18 when we wake up and study the final results. Coalition-building this time may require a higher level of creative thinking in order to restore to Israel the political stability it so desperately seeks. ■

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