Israel Elections: Parties need to keep coalition options open - analysis

Without parties regaining flexibility, the country could be locked in its current stalemate for years.

Israel's Knesset (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israel's Knesset
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
In another month, Israel will be holding its fourth election in two years, it’s 10th Knesset election in 25 years, and its 24th since the formation of the state.
That’s a lot of elections, and averages out to about one every three years and one month since the beginning of the state; one every two years and three months since 1996; and one every six months over the last two years.
Many, exhausted by the current seemingly endless cycle, are going into this campaign thinking that certainly this must be the last one, that this cycle must end or Israel will risk turning into Italy, long a byword for political instability.
But the idea that somehow this time will be different because it has to be, is wishful thinking.
The nation’s citizens, whose voting choices have placed us in this current predicament, have not overnight changed their political minds. A Meretz voter is not going to all of a sudden cast a ballot this time for Yamina, or vice versa, bringing a vote from the anti-Netanyahu (known in the past as the Left) bloc to the pro-Netanyahu (in the past known as the Right) bloc.
There is no real reason to think, nor are the polls indicating, that people are going to dramatically change their voting patterns in this fourth election. And since the candidates are pretty much the same this time as well – though with some creative party hopping here and there – if the country is to avoid going to a fifth election, the parties need to change their postelection modus operandi.
And the place to start is by leaving options open, not closing them.
A situation where one party won’t joint a coalition with a second, or where this faction will refuse to join a coalition if it is supported by a third party, needs to change. Those types of boycotts will only lead Israel to yet another political dead end.
Which is why some of the political developments of the last few days are so disheartening.
Instead of parties and party leaders saying that they will wait until after the elections to determine whom they will recommend to form the government and with whom they are willing to sit in a coalition, they are already ruling out other parties or hypothetical coalitions led by other candidates.
And that is bad because without parties regaining flexibility, the country could be locked in its current stalemate for years.
On Tuesday, the heads of the haredi parties, Moshe Gafni and Ya’acov Litzman of United Torah Judaism, and Arye Deri of Shas, signed a pledge – as they did during the last elections – saying that they will throw their weight behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form the next government, a Netanyahu tactic aimed at preventing them from negotiating after the elections with New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar or Yamina’s Naftali Bennett about joining a coalition under their respective leadership.
Why is that bad? Because what if Netanyahu can’t form a government, but perhaps Sa’ar or Bennett could? Will the haredim honor their oath to Netanyahu and send the country spiraling to yet another election?
And Bennett, who up until now adroitly positioned himself as the kingmaker – a position in the past held by the haredi parties – started closing off options on Wednesday
“Yamina will not sit in a coalition led by the Left, including [Yesh Atid head Yair] Lapid at its head,” he stated unequivocally on KAN Bet. “We will not sit in a government headed by the Left.” Bennett added, however, that he would not have a problem with Lapid sitting in a Yamina-led government.
But what if Lapid, whose Yesh Atid Party is consistently polling as the second-largest party, after the Likud, can mathematically unseat Netanyahu if only Bennett will join, while if Bennett joins Netanyahu they still will not have the magic 61 seats to form a coalition? Then what will Bennett do – not join Lapid because he unnecessarily handcuffed himself in a radio interview that will then be played over and over if he reneges on his pledge?
Also on Wednesday, Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman called on Bennett, Sa’ar and Lapid to sign an oath with him that none of them would ever join a Netanyahu government, again a move that closes doors and could possibly lead to yet another inconclusive election.
Israel is in a logjam. Since it is impossible to replace the voters – they are who they are and vote how they vote – and no new leader is riding in on a white horse to save the political day, then the only way to get out of the current mess is for the parties not to repeat coalition-making mistakes of the past.
Coalition governments are by their nature governments of compromise. Parties give up some of their goals in order to sit in a government with other parties doing the same, so that all of them can achieve at least some of their aims and so the nation can have political stability.
But a party can’t make those compromises if at the outset it rules out working with others.
Blue and White‘s Benny Gantz should be a cautionary tale for all. Prior to the last election the Blue and White head said he would not join a Netanyahu government, and then was pilloried for doing exactly that.
Gantz’s mistake was not his willingness to sit with Netanyahu last May when the coronavirus was on the rampage and the country desperately needed a government to try to get things under control. His mistake was in not securing a fail-safe agreement that would guarantee that the rotation agreed upon would be honored.
Now, since Gantz said he wouldn’t sit with Netanyahu, and turned around and did so anyhow, he is on the verge of paying a huge political price. As such, it turns out he would have been better off simply not having made that pledge at all.
The leaders of the other parties, watching as Blue and White is wavering on the cusp of the electoral threshold and getting into the next Knesset, will naturally be hesitant to go back on their preelection promises on this particular issue, because it could be tantamount to political suicide. Yet the result of that inflexibility could be another round of elections.
After three inconclusive elections, the parties – all the parties – need to keep their options open, not close off possible pathways to forming a stable coalition needed to pull the country out of its current political morass.