Third election leaves an ominous impasse

Both Likud and Blue and White claim victory after Israel’s third election in a year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara vote at a Jerusalem polling station on March 2  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara vote at a Jerusalem polling station on March 2
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israeli politicians should learn not to celebrate prematurely on election night based on the results of the TV exit polls.
The 1996 election night drama spawned the phrase, “Went to sleep with Peres, woke up with Netanyahu.”
After the April 2019 vote, Blue and White was quick to claim victory amid celebrations at the party’s post-election event. “We won! The Israeli public has had its say!” Blue and White said in a statement. But it was not to be.
This time around, the Likud fell into the same trap. As the confetti fell, Benjamin Netanyahu embraced Sara in front of the party faithful and spoke of a “colossal victory against all the odds.”
According to the TV exit polls the Likud had emerged as the largest party with a gap of three or four over Blue and White. More importantly, the right-wing/religious bloc was projected to win 60 seats, with the possibility of this rising to 61 with the actual count, giving Netanyahu  another term – despite the fact that he was only two weeks away from the start of a serious corruption trial.
And Likud officials also spoke confidently about the possibility of tempting a few Knesset members from outside the bloc to cross the aisle to ensure a coalition majority.
Fast forward a few days after the March 2 election and the euphoria had been replaced by panic.
The “anyone but Bibi” camp ended up with more Knesset seats than the “only Bibi” camp. Not only did the Netanyahu bloc fall to 58 seats when all the votes had been counted – three short of a majority – but Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu won seven seats, making him once again the post-election kingmaker, made clear that he was working to prevent another Netanyahu  government.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz revealed he was conducting negotiations to form a coalition.
“I will form a strong and stable government that would cure Israel of hatred and division,” Gantz said, announcing an end to the “Netanyahu era” in Israeli politics.
“I will do anything to avert the prospect of a fourth election,” he declared.
The aim was to form a minority government comprising Blue and White, Labor-Gesher-Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu, with the outside backing of the Joint List.
Such a coalition could muster the support of 59 Knesset members, based on the support of 12 of the 15 Joint List MKs (the three Balad members on the Joint List will unlikely support a Gantz government), giving a Gantz coalition one more seat than the Netanyahu bloc.
However, at least two members of Blue and White, Knesset members Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, both from Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem faction, were reluctant to commit to a minority government which would be reliant on the backing of the Joint List.
Netanyahu remained defiant.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he told supporters. “Gantz, who failed at the ballot box, is trying together with Liberman to steal the decision of masses of Israeli citizens who gave the Likud, under my leadership, a landslide victory. Erdoğan could learn something from them. Even Iran doesn’t act that way.”
Before President Reuven Rivlin began his consultations with party leaders over the formation of the next government, Liberman said he would recommend Gantz, because he was angry at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for initiating multiple criminal investigations against him and members of his family and his party – a claim denied by the Likud.
Liberman reportedly told his associates: “The most important thing right now is to ensure Gantz gets the mandate [to form a government].” He indicated that after Blue and White gains control of the Knesset committees and the parliamentary process, “things will start happening,” in an apparent reference to possible defections from within the Likud.
Liberman also declared his support for a Blue and White initiative to prevent a politician facing criminal charges from serving as prime minister, recalling that Netanyahu had supported a similar bill in 2008 that was introduced against then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Netanyahu warned ominously that the public will “take revenge” against those who break their campaign promises and trample democracy with retroactive legislation.
In response, Gantz accused Netanyahu of dangerous incitement against him. “Bibi, we saw what happened when the incitement was out of control and no one stopped it in 1995,” Gantz said in a reference to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. “If you think that your threats will stop us, you are making a bad mistake. I won’t allow you to bring about modern Israel’s first civil war in the service of an exit ticket from your trial. If we don’t wake up, the next political assassination is around the corner.”
Two extra bodyguards were assigned to Gantz in addition to his routine security detail.
The position of the Joint List hangs in the balance. With a record 15 seats after receiving more than half a million votes, they have joined Liberman as coalition kingmakers.
“Right now, with Gantz’s attitude [in favor] of a Jewish majority and unilateral annexation, we have no one to recommend to the president,” party leader Ayman Odeh told the Kan public broadcaster. “If there is a change after the elections in the direction of peace and equality, we will weigh our position again.”
Fearing such a scenario, Netanyahu explained to a meeting of his right-wing bloc that the votes of the Israeli Arabs don’t count. “The votes of the Zionist Right 58, the votes of the Zionist Left 47,” he wrote on a stand-up board, dismissing the votes of Israeli Arabs, who comprise 20 percent of the population.
One thing was clear: Israel’s longest period of political deadlock is not over and a fourth election cannot be ruled out.
Dr. Gabi Weimann, professor of Communications at Haifa University, told The Jerusalem Report that following the election a war of narrative and framing emerged.
“It seemed after the election that Netanyahu won, but now things have changed. We have two narratives. We have the Likud narrative and the other narrative. But that’s not the only war – there is also the war of framing. Was it only a political victory, or, as some in the Likud claim, a legal victory? Some Likud ministers say the vote represented the peoples’ will. They voted for Netanyahu, Netanyahu won and that means he should not be brought to trial. Of course, this is in sharp contrast to the democratic view that legal issues should be decided in court. Nevertheless, we have two contrasting narratives.”
Dr. Weimann believes Netanyahu’s best option is to remain as interim prime minister until a 4th election.
“There is no way he can form a government that will not collapse. There are 62 votes against him.”
In December, when Gideon Sa’ar stood against Netanyahu in the Likud leadership primaries, he claimed that the prime minister had already failed to form a government after 2 elections and would fail again because he had alienated all the potential coalition partners outside his right-wing and religious bloc. It’s early days yet, but it appears that Sa’ar’s warning may have been spot on.