Israel elections: No light at end of the political tunnel - analysis

If the last year has taught the country anything, it is that this state cannot be governed by that narrow of a majority.

 Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by Likud members at a preliminary reading at the Knesset of a bill to dissolve the parliament after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid moved to disband their government and hold an election, in Jerusalem, June 22, 2022. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by Likud members at a preliminary reading at the Knesset of a bill to dissolve the parliament after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid moved to disband their government and hold an election, in Jerusalem, June 22, 2022.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Israel’s political forecast remains gloomy.

Sure, many on the Right and in the Likud are smiling at the demise of the Bennett-Lapid government. After all, that is what they worked for, dreamed of, even prayed for; that the government of Naftali Bennett – a man they branded as a liar, scoundrel and even a traitor – would collapse.

Inside the Likud and the Religious Zionist Party there are those eagerly awaiting new elections. Polls over the last week are showing the four Jewish opposition parties – Likud, the Religious Zionist Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism - winning between 59-60 seats were elections held today, knocking on the door of being able to form a 61-seat coalition.

Likud and the Religious Zionist Party are particularly buoyed by polls showing the former going from 30 seats in the present Knesset to 35-36 in the next one, and the latter of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir catapulting from its present six seats to nine, an increase of 50% – not a bad achievement for the party over just one year.

But even if the Likud, Religious Zionist Party and the two haredi parties can eke out a 61-seat coalition – which no poll has shown yet – if the last year has taught the country anything, it is that this state cannot be governed by that narrow of a majority.

 Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives at a cabinet meeting before the first reading of the bill to disperse the Knesset, June 26, 2022. (credit: YOAV DUDKEVITCH) Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives at a cabinet meeting before the first reading of the bill to disperse the Knesset, June 26, 2022. (credit: YOAV DUDKEVITCH)

What torpedoed the current government is that with only a one-seat majority, every Knesset member could hold the government hostage to his or her own demands. That is an unhealthy political situation. It didn’t work this time, and there is no reason to think it can work next time, either.

But, will come the counter-argument, if former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu can reach the magic number of 61 in the next elections with the Likud, the Religious Zionist Party and the two haredi lists, then it will be different. Why? Because, unlike the current government, it will be an ideologically homogeneous government. As such, you won’t have the tension that existed in the current government since everyone will be on the same page.

But everyone won’t be on the same page.

EVEN IN a hard right-wing government like the one in discussion, there are varying shades – from Religious Zionist Party’s Itamar Ben-Gvir on the far Right, to UTJ’s Moshe Gafni, who would represent the Left wing of such a coalition. Not on religious-state issues, certainly, but definitely on issues having to do with the settlements and the Palestinians.

What if Gafni would block something that Ben-Gvir seeks to pass, or what if someone in the Likud – like Yuval Steinitz, for instance, or Tzachi Hanegbi – would think that the Religious Zionist Party is pulling the government too far to the Right even for them? What then would keep Ben-Gvir or others in the party from pulling the kind of stunts that Yamina’s Idit Silman and Nir Orbach, as well as Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Ra’am’s Mazen Ghnaim did this time?

Or what if Gafni and Shas’s Arye Deri want to legislate religious issues that make some in the Likud, such as Amir Ohana or Yoav Gallant, uncomfortable? Then Gafni or Deri would have the government by the neck.

Even if Netanyahu could cobble together a coalition of 61, it would be a tortuous one that would have a difficult time governing. In other words, even if after the elections former prime minister can put together a coalition and the country does not go automatically to a new election as a result of a coalition deadlock – as was the case after the elections in March and September 201 – the country is by no means out of the political logjam it has been in since December 2018.

The kind of coalition Israel needs

That political logjam won’t be broken until a wider coalition is formed, say with 66-72 seats, one in which not a single party or MK inside a party can bring down the government. For that to happen, either the existing center and right-wing parties in the anti-Netanyahu camp are going to need to drop their boycott of sitting with Netanyahu, or he has to step aside or be deposed by the Likud.

The former is more likely than the latter. However, for that to happen, the mantra of not sitting with a prime minister accused of crimes needs to come to an end. 

AS THE country enters another election campaign, and this mantra is already increasingly being heard, none of the parties should limit their options and handcuff themselves by pledging not to sit with one party or the other.

One may argue that Bennett has shown that it really doesn’t matter what pledges a party makes beforehand, because once the coalition talks are underway it is easy for party leaders to go back on their word. He said during the last election campaign, for example, that he would not sit with Yair Lapid in a government or enter a government reliant on an Arab party – and then he did both.

It might be easy for party leaders to go back on their words, but doing so has a price – a price Bennett is now paying because he broke his campaign vows, something that deprived him of legitimacy to govern in the eyes of a large swath of the population.

Empty promises

As it says in Ecclesiastics, “It is better not to vow than to vow and not fulfill it.” The coalition possibilities will be greater if none of the parties disqualify the others from the get-go; if none of the parties vow not to sit with the others.

Another way to break the political logjam would be for Netanyahu to call it quits and let someone else lead the Likud. If the former prime minister would do so, an alternative government could be formed in the current Knesset tomorrow without sending the country spiraling into yet another election – or after elections, a right-wing government could easily be set up without Netanyahu at the helm.

That is not going to happen, as Netanyahu has made it clear he has no intention of stepping aside. If, however, he would be unable to form a coalition following the next elections, or he would form a narrow coalition that would survive just several months before falling, then it is likely that even if he would want to hold on and try again, his party may show him the door – something that would end the political stalemate.

Until that time, however, the country will continue to be deeply mired in the political morass – and new elections in a few months will be unlikely to significantly change that situation.