Can Israel avoid a fifth election? - opinion

In 2009 when he returned to power, Netanyahu had Ehud Barak to protect him on the Left; in 2013 it was Tzipi Livni; in 2015 it was Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu; and in 2020 it was Benny Gantz.

A man hangs a Likud election banner, depicting party leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top challenger, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapi (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A man hangs a Likud election banner, depicting party leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top challenger, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapi
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu has a clear modus operandi when forming coalitions – he always tries to place himself in the middle.
In 2009 when he returned to power, Netanyahu had Ehud Barak to protect him on the Left; in 2013 it was Tzipi Livni; in 2015 it was Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu; and in 2020 it was Benny Gantz. Each government had its right flank and left flank, the classic Bibi MO.
The thinking behind this is that with ideologues on both sides, Netanyahu benefits from greater maneuverability. He is never the most right-wing in his government and never the most left-wing in his government. He is always in the middle.
That is until now. If his fantasy comes true and he succeeds in establishing what he called throughout the campaign a “true right-wing government,” this will no longer be the case. A coalition made up of Shas, United Torah Judaism, the Religious Zionist Party and Yamina will not just be a “true” right-wing government; it will categorically be the most right-wing government ever established in Israeli history.
In such a coalition, Netanyahu would be the most left-wing member, constantly being tested not only on matters of religion and state but also on issues with far-reaching diplomatic consequences: West Bank annexation, settlement construction, Jewish terrorism, and more.
With Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Maoz – the homophobic leader of the Noam faction – inside the coalition, Israel will begin to resemble some of the darker regimes that we can think of today.
This is not what Netanyahu wants, and not what any Israeli should want.
I should be more accurate: this is not what the Netanyahu-before-his-bribery-trial-began wanted. The new Netanyahu wants one thing and one thing only: to find a way to stop his trial.
Ironically, establishing such a government might actually pave the way for the government to then change. If Netanyahu was somehow no longer on trial, what reason would someone like Benny Gantz have for not joining the government?
Gantz, who ran a successful campaign aimed at getting the pity vote, will not do well as an opposition backbencher.
He doesn’t know the Knesset, doesn’t know how to legislate, and will have difficulty getting used to being a regular parliamentarian without the constant security entourage and convoy of armored jeeps.
Gantz’s hope right now is that no government is formed and Israel goes to a fifth election, because if that happens, the current interim government stays in power and Gantz would then rotate in as prime minister in November. That is what he has his eye on.
Once a new government is sworn in though, that option disappears. Being offered a seat back in the cabinet after a few months in the Knesset wilderness would be worth a lot, and Gantz might take it.
Together with Netanyahu, he will find the necessary excuses explaining why he is again violating an election promise. Take your pick: There is a) Iran, b) Hezbollah, c) tension with Biden, d) all of the above. It won’t make a difference. If Gantz wants it, it will happen.
Gantz’s showing in the election might also lead him to believe that violating another campaign promise won’t cost him too much. When this election was initially called, Gantz lost most of his party members and was failing to cross the threshold in most polls. His campaign, which promoted no real substance, saw him bring an impressive result of eight seats.
Maybe, he will think, that can happen again.
 
THIS IS all assuming that Netanyahu can somehow get to 61 seats, either with defectors – Yesh Atid members are privately pointing suspicious fingers at their former friends in Blue and White, as well as some New Hope members – or he strikes a deal with Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am Party.
This wouldn’t mean having the Arab Islamists from Ra’am sit with Itamar Ben-Gvir in the same government. It would just be getting Ra’am to vote to approve such a government when it is brought to the Knesset.
Netanyahu will probably not want to pull that card until the very end of coalition negotiations. First he will try to nab defectors. If that fails, he will return the mandate and let someone else try and fail. Then, when the mandate is deposited in the Knesset and with just days left before a new election is called, he will pull out the Arab option. Doing so earlier would give someone else the legitimacy to do so, and that is something Netanyahu wants to prevent.
The groundwork is already being laid to legitimize the swearing-in of a right-wing government based on Arab votes. Shimon Riklin, a Netanyahu mouthpiece who has a show on the pro-Netanyahu Channel 20, has tweeted since the election that the Abbas-support option would be legitimate. Riklin doesn’t make up these ideas; top Likud members are openly talking about it.
There are other options, although they are all unlikely. One is that Ra’am and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina join the anti-Netanyahu camp and form a government with Yesh Atid, Labor, Gantz, Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu. The chance of that happening is extremely unlikely, for the simple reason that as much as Bennett might want to see Netanyahu out of office, he knows that his future in politics is on the Right. Moving to the Left would likely spell the end of his career and likely break up his party in the process.
One more option not yet being spoken about too much that would require impressive political acrobatics would see Bennett, Sa’ar and Gantz merge into a bloc of 21 seats and then join with Lapid, Labor and the Haredim for a government of 61 seats.
There are a few challenges for something like this to happen. The first is who will lead the Bennett-Sa’ar-Gantz merger? Gantz will claim that he is the largest party of the three, but Bennett will be able to hold out and refuse to join unless he is at the top. The haredim might also demand that it be Bennett because, while they might be prepared to betray Netanyahu, they won’t want to betray the Right.
In other words, this is a possible scenario: complex to create but more manageable in the long term than a government that is a mix of Arabs, Bennett and Meretz.
Will any of this happen? That depends on how determined are the party leaders ensuring that Israel avoids a fifth election, versus how much they don’t want to see Netanyahu remain in office. Will all that create enough motivation to finally put an end to this vicious political deadlock? Time will tell.
THERE ARE two additional interesting side stories that came out of this election.
The first has to do with Netanyahu’s relationship with Bennett. If anyone still had doubt, the animosity that Netanyahu feels toward Bennett is really something unique. It goes against all logical thinking, and, as can often be the case when emotions mix with politics, it does more harm to Netanyahu than it does to Bennett.
A quick reminder: Bennett was chief of staff in 2006 when Netanyahu was head of the opposition. At some point he fell out with Sara Netanyahu (reportedly over finances), and was banned forever from the Likud and her husband’s inner circle.
When Bennett ran for the Knesset in 2013, Netanyahu did everything he could to weaken him, but Bennett persevered – he was then the fresh face on the Right – and won 12 seats. Nevertheless, Netanyahu refused to negotiate with him and instead tried to form a coalition with Lapid.
But Lapid did not want to go into a government with Netanyahu alone, and forced what became known as the “brother covenant” between Lapid and Bennett: if Netanyahu wanted one of them, he had to take the other.
In the 2015 election, Netanyahu again ferociously attacked Bennett, and brought him down to eight seats. Afterward he again refused to negotiate with Bennett and only met with him at the very end, giving Bennett the upper hand that he used to win the Justice Ministry for Ayelet Shaked.
Fast forward to the first election of the recent four in April 2019. Ahead of that vote, Bennett and Shaked broke away from Bayit Yehudi and established the New Right. This time Netanyahu smelled blood and went for the jugular, swearing to decimate the Bennett-Shaked duo. Unfortunately for him he did too good a job – Bennett failed to cross the threshold by just a couple of thousand votes, and Netanyahu was left with just 60 seats in his bloc.
Had Netanyahu not killed off the New Right, he would have had a 61-majority coalition already in 2019.
This week again, Netanyahu couldn’t help himself. He did everything he could to weaken Bennett even though Yamina was the one party that could have helped Netanyahu form his bloc. But that didn’t stop the Likud from spending millions on negative ad campaigns against Bennett, from talking against him non-stop in interviews, and doing everything it could to pull votes away from Yamina.
Once again, Netanyahu was too successful. Bennett dropped to seven seats, but maybe had Netanyahu been less aggressive Bennett would have won eight. Who knows?
THE SECOND side story – albeit more positive – is what happened with the Arabs in this election. There is a Talmudic saying that what is not done for the sake of heaven can sometimes turn into something done for the sake of heaven.
That is the case here with what Netanyahu did in his outreach to Israeli Arabs. It was refreshing to see Netanyahu make campaign stops in Arab towns this election, especially considering his past racist remark about Arabs voting in droves on Election Day in 2015.
This time he spoke about the need to work with Israeli-Arabs to better integrate the sector into mainstream society, as well as the need to allocate the necessary budgets to fight crime on the Arab street and improve their education system and general infrastructure.
All of this wasn’t done out of a sudden Netanyahu love for Arabs. He genuinely thought there was potential to obtain some votes out of the Arab sector, and if he could, that would help pull him over the top.
It didn’t exactly work. According to most estimates, maybe one Likud seat came from the Arab vote. But what Netanyahu did end up doing – without intention – was breaking the taboo that prevented Zionist parties like Likud from working with the Arabs. It also broke up the Arab bloc that used to be monolithic in its nationalistic and Palestinian identity.
Netanyahu contributed to the split between the Joint List and Ra’am. It was also Netanyahu who contributed to getting the Arab politicians to understand that they need to focus more on domestic issues that impact their community than issues that impact people who live far away in the Gaza Strip. While the Palestinian issue is still dear to the Joint List and Ra’am, they understood that they couldn’t leave domestic issues up to Netanyahu.
In other words, while it wasn’t Netanyahu’s intention, it was positive. Sometimes, even that can happen.
Chag Sameach.