The main significance the election results is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's magic remains intact. The rightwing public prefers a proven leader, even an indicted one, to the unsteady alliance of parties in Blue and White, which range from the right to moderate left. The idea of a national unity government has been dealt a critical blow. Netanyahu has excellent chances of forming a government; the final results are likely to give the rightwing bloc nearly 60 Knesset seats, which will put Netanyahu in an excellent position to recruit part of Blue and White, and perhaps also Yisrael Beitenu. One hint of this came from Yisrael Beitenu MK Oded Forer, who said, "We will respect the election results; there will not be a fourth round of elections."
As of now, the most likely prospect is a close to 61-seat majority for Netanyahu after all of the votes are counted - a rightwing and haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) coalition in which the coalition parties will have great bargaining power, and the Likud will have to hand out senior ministries and assent to hardline rightwing and religious coalition guidelines.
This is the reason that Netanyahu will try hard to recruit more MKs from other parties: Blue and White, Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, and possibly also Gesher Party leader Orly Levi-Abekasis, in order to reduce his dependence on his coalition partners. Netanyahu remembers the beginning of his term in 2015, when MKs Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem (Likud) said that they would not vote with the coalition until their demand for immigration of the Falash Mura group from Ethiopia was met. If the standoff predicted by the exit polls materializes, Netanyahu will need such partners, and the price he will pay for them will be a high one. Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri (Shas), the politician responsible for the rightwing bloc, said that a government would first be formed from the bloc and would pass the state budget, while other parties would be recruited only afterwards.
The Likud has become stronger and regained its hegemony, but this does not eliminate Netanyahu's indictment, which means that the prime minister will be tried when he is in office. This will be a difficult situation, but Netanyahu's standing in the Likud is stronger than ever. The Likud will attempt to recruit MKs from Blue and White and Yisrael Beitenu. If Blue and White does dissolve, the next big political bang is already here. Netanyahu also needs deserters from other parties in order to avoid excessive dependence on the rightwing parties, and to avoid giving in to their coalition demands.
There may be a slight chance that if Netanyahu does not manage to obtain a coalition of 61 MKs, he will propose a unity government with Blue and White, and an equally slight chance that if he does so, his offer may be accepted. Among other things, this involves MKs like haredi Omer Yankelevich, who aroused great anger against her after her criticisms of Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz were reported in the media.
Crisis in Blue and White following the election results
Blue and White has a serious problem. Its leaders are recognizing their mistake in not agreeing to a national unity government in November, as reported by "Globes," and did not accept the advice of Gabi Ashkenazi, who supported the idea. Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid, the main opponent of a unity government, was joined by former Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon and Gantz, although Gantz was initially inclined to agree. Gantz accepted Lapid's view, thereby failing his greatest leadership test. The election results are putting this party in a crisis, with a real risk that it will fall apart. There is a real possibility that part of Blue and White will join Netanyahu's coalition, and even that Blue and White will dissolve completely. This is the biggest reason for the party's leaders to consider joining the government, but their biggest promise during the election campaign was that they would not join a government headed by Netanyahu, so the chances of this are extremely poor. In his speech, Gantz repeated his election campaign statements, showing no signs of changing his declared policy against joining Netanyahu's government. One Blue and White leader told "Globes" yesterday, "Our bargaining position was clearly poorer than it was before. Even if Netanyahu lacks a 61-seat majority, he will be unwilling to accept a rotation as prime minister. We are rethinking our stance."
Liberman has suffered a serious blow. He will do everything that he can, including descending from some tree branches he climbed up onto during the election campaign, in order to avoid a fourth round of elections, in which his party is liable to be left without Knesset representation. His post on Twitter yesterday, however, in which he said that he would not join a government with Netanyahu and the haredim, shows that this will be a difficult task.
Shas, with Deri at the head, occupies a crucial place in the rightwing bloc. Deri would prefer a national unity government, and he was the intermediary in the national unity talks in November. He will now be one of those trying to persuade deserters from other parties to join the government. United Torah Judaism will retain its status and ministries, and Netanyahu will continue his alliance with that party and Shas.
Yamina won fewer Knesset seats than it had hoped, but is still an essential part of the coalition. Bennett is likely to insist on remaining Minister of Defense, and he and his party are likely to pose an obstacle to diplomatic progress along the lines of the Trump's peace plan.
Labor, Gesher, and Meretz did the right thing by running as a united list; had they run separately, at least one of them would not have gotten any Knesset seats at all. The question arises, however, of whether Levi-Abekasis will join Netanyahu. Her father, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Likud Party stalwart David Levy, may take part in the efforts to persuade her, and the promise of a ministerial portfolio may do the trick. Peretz will continue his efforts to rebuild the Labor Party, and a possible dissolution of Blue and White, which took votes away from Labor in all three of the election campaigns in the past year, could help him in this.
The Joint Arab List achieved the best result in its history. The big question is how it can channel it into political benefit for the sector it represents. Its constituent parties are divided on this question, but even Balad chairman MK Mtanes Shehadeh has already told "Globes" that he would meet with any government representative in order to solve current problems and further the civil interests of his voters. What is likely to help in this matter is the possibility of a small or non-existent parliamentary majority, which creates potential for sporadic cooperation and five-year plan for the Arab sector in continuation of the plan passed by Likud four years ago. The best news for democracy is another increase in the proportion of Arabs voting in the elections, a sign of their demand from the country and their leaders to take action on their behalf in civil issues, and to solve everyday problems. This is the real reason for the change in the discourse and direction of the Joint Arab List.
Netanyahu also has an expiry date
In May 1996, during the night following the elections, I was told to go from the Labor Party headquarters to the Likud Party headquarters because of the emerging turnaround in the election results. Last night's atmosphere in the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds was similar to that in the nearby pavilion. The Likud members exulted in their victory over the elites and the media, against all the odds. That is what Netanyahu sounded like in his speech now: "They said I was a goner. They said that the Netanyahu era was over, but we turned things around and pulled a rabbit out of our hats." This feeling of being the underdog persists, despite Netanyahu's being over a decade in office. The elephant in the room, however - the Netanyahu trial - is still there. Even if a stable government is formed, the elephant will still be there, and will move Netanyahu to get everything done before he leaves the stage. It will be a very active term, in which Netanyahu will seek to leave his mark on Israel's history. The man may be a political wizard and the leader of the largest party, but even he has an expiry date. This date will set in motion political processes and alliances and splits in the coming years.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 3, 2020
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